MASTERCLASS: From Dark to Somewhat Lighter or: “Why Do They Have to Change the Ending?” (Part IV) – By David Spencer

[This is the final in the four-part series on adapting THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ. Click to read Part I, Part II and Part III]

Under much better and nicer circumstances, a half decade into the new millennium, Duddy was resurrected for a while. This time our compatriot was director Sheryl Kaller (with whom I had worked very happily in the interim on two other projects). She fully understood what the show needed to be; and as far as she was concerned, returning to Max as narrator and restoring Uncle Benjy were mandatory, not even worth a debate for the exercise of it—and she proved a terrific sounding board, asking such keenly observed questions that, at a point where I wasn’t even sure I had another draft in me, I was energized to investigate more deeply, make it even better, and encounter new discoveries along the way.

For reasons having to do with personal lives and timing, Sheryl’s association with the show would not be a permanent one, but it was the period in and around which the show regained its mojo—and in which that mojo bulked up to its healthiest, heartiest profile.

And in which I named the show’s spine.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is about a boy fighting to claim his manhood, and ultimately deciding what path he’s going to follow. Thematically it’s about how boys must go through the process of growing up, sifting through all the complex material that informs who they are—culture, upbringing, incident, influences, relationships, triumph, tragedy, all of that and more—to choose their quality of manhood.

The opening number for Max (and sinuously the ensemble, in backup mode) became “The Man You’re Gonna Be.”

Weirdly, I have no memory of the moment of epiphany, when or how the penny finally dropped for me. It seems to have been one of those very quiet revelations in which you open your eyes a bit wider, calmly say, “Oh, yes, right, of course,” and just get to work on it.

Sometimes, now, I look at the song title and wonder how the hell I missed something so obvious, that seems to have been just sitting there waiting for me to discover it. But oftentimes (maybe most times?) the challenge of art meant for mainstream audiences is to locate the obvious universal touchpoint lurking behind all the colorful and idiosyncratic stuff that’s both attracting and distracting you.

Anyway, once that happened, there came another alchemical shift. Max didn’t have to actually narrate as much. In the strict sense of the word. But he didn’t significantly lose stage time as our guide through the story either. I’ll make sense of that.

Here are two of the three basic principles about the use narration in drama, on stage or on film:

(1) If you need it to tell the audience the plot, you’re telling your story wrong. In other words, if you employ a character simply to help the audience follow the action beats of the story, you haven’t solved the storytelling and you’re relying on a crutch. You’re in trouble if the story doesn’t make sense without the narrator.

(2) If you employ the narrator to provide context, tone and perspective, you’re using narration correctly. What the narrator ideally provides is a filter. He doesn’t tell you what’s happening or what’s happened—he tells you how to perceive what’s about to happen. He gives you point of view. (My favorite ever “voice over” narration in all of film is that of main character Micheal Westen in the TV series Burn Notice. Spending most of the series as a disenfranchised secret agent dumped and stranded in Miami, he survives as a white knight for hire, using his espionage tradecraft skills to help get innocent people out of trouble. His off-camera narration would say, for example, “When you work as a spy, it’s easy to think of people as assets. Resources to accomplish a goal. Because you don’t have a personal relationship with an asset. You don’t care about an asset. You don’t miss the scent of an asset when she leaves the room.” It tells you what’s at stake, it reinforces the rooting interest, in the end it’s even a bit poetic; but it doesn’t describe the action. I mentioned Burn Notice to Sheryl at one point, she said “Good!” and proceeded to target several places where I was telling action rather than creating environment. Needless to say, all those passages were quickly reworked.)

Here’s the third principle; I separate it out because it was always consciously intended as a factor of Max narrating:

(3) Like any other character, the narrator has an objective; he’s telling his story for a reason and he’s hoping to gain something for his trouble. This makes the narration active and validates its existence; it also gives the actor something to play, and the director a line to pursue. It’s rarely specifically articulated, yet it implicitly answers the question, Why is this character breaking the “fourth wall” and talking to us? In Amadeus, Salieri tells us his story because he wants absolution for his complicity in the death of Mozart; in The Glass Menagerie, Tom tells his story because he needs forgiveness for having had to leave home and thus abandon his emotionally fragile sister Laura; in Promises, Promises, Chuck Baxter talks to us concurrently with the action, because he needs a sounding board as he works out his problems. (A reason why so many one-actor plays—especially biography plays—either don’t work or vanish after a while is because they never answer this question. Meanwhile, the ones that become legendary and have return engagements, often for the remaining life of the originating performer—such as Mark Twain Tonight [Hal Holbrook], Will Rogers’ USA [James Whitmore, written by Paul Shyre], and Billy Bishop Goes to War [Eric Peterson with John Grey], all of which have been commercially preserved in audio and video iterations—do so in part because the motivation to address an audience is a cleanly built-in factor; we’re never given reason to question the premise.)

I won’t tell you why Max absolutely has to tell Duddy’s story…I hope that’ll speak for itself…but he sure has his reasons.

I alluded to “other discoveries” I made; they’re not particularized in the above progress path because they happened pre-consciously, subconsciously and gradually. Even a little randomly. For the most part, I never knowingly intended them; but I nurtured them once I knew they were there. And they describe a kind of “developmental subplot.” But they’re crucial to completing the picture of why and how the ending changed.

Richler’s novel is highly unusual in the realm of contemporary classics written in the third person, because with the exception of a detailed rumination for Duddy—when he considers what business he might get into, to raise the money he needs—Richler never significantly nor for any length projects into his characters’ minds. He doesn’t “see through a character’s eyes” and describe a scene from the character’s point of view; he indulges in only rare, quick, flashing beats of subjectivity. The narrative has energy and style, but it’s almost detached and close to reportorial. You experience the story emotionally because the dialogue is so abundant and vibrant, its subtext subsequently so vivid that the author need not explain it. Yet—in part because of this and in part because of the late-1950s era in which Richler wrote—two principal characters are given very short shrift.

The first one is Yvette, Duddy’s girlfriend and eventual compatriot. She just gets swept up in his schemes and overwhelmed by him; but we are never made to understand why. She’s just “the girl,” a functionary of the plot. She has the illusion of personality because her dialogue has rhythm, cadence, consistency of texture, and represents the contrasting French Canadian culture—the only such character in the book—but no actual inner life.

The second one is Duddy’s older brother Lenny: the medical student; the “favored” son with the advantages of regard and resource no one at first thinks to bestow upon the “less deserving” Duddy. We see that Lenny acts out the pressure of living up to the expectations imposed upon him, but mostly he’s generically neurotic and a little annoying; he’s there as a point of irony and contrast (and perhaps satire); but if he’s more than a stock character, he’s likewise less than a fully fleshed out human being. Yet—at a critical point in the story, Duddy stops everything he’s doing, throws all business responsibility to Yvette, and leaves town to bail Lenny out of serious trouble.

In general, in a post-feminism world, you can’t really get away with writing a lead female who’s only a story mechanism anymore; and I’m not sure you could ever get away with it in a musical. In my very first draft of the new approach I gave Yvette a moment of repose and a song, “How Could I Not?”, to accord her dimension and an empathy-worthy rationale for her to stand by Duddy. (It turned out to be one of the most striking songs of the score; I’ve literally lost track of the number of actresses who’ve asked me for a copy to use for cabarets, auditions or recordings.) But once you give a character like that dimension in one key spot, she attains a growing insistence that demands she be similarly dimensional elsewhere; and that had an unavoidable impact in the dynamic between her and Duddy as it evolves within the show. He couldn’t treat her as just “the girl” anymore; he has to deal with her as a nuanced human being who had a palpable existence before he met her.

As for Lenny…especially in a musical, he needed to be interesting and at length worthy enough for Duddy to have gone off and rescued him—a side trip which is not necessarily crucial to the plot, but crucial to Duddy’s rite-of-passage journey, especially as regards the family. It’s not enough that Duddy loves Lenny by dint of blood-relation imperative, or Lenny’s a waste of stage time. So I started to fill Lenny out too. Not with an individual set-piece song (though as he attained dimension he also attained more to sing); but as a guy trying to nurture the façade of being worthier—and failing. Which meant he would thereafter somehow have to acknowledge the worth of his younger brother for essentially giving him the chance to clean the slate and start fresh. And that changed the dynamic of the evolving relationship between him and Duddy.

And given more to respond to, Duddy has to adjust accordingly. He can only remain as emotionally myopic as he ends up in the novel if those two characters remain unexplored. Doesn’t mean he’s not basically the same Duddy; I think he is. But he’s the same Duddy with more information. Two of the most critical people in his life are more layered and multi-faceted. And whatever else “the same Duddy” is, he’s not stupid. He takes it all in.

Which leads me to the final point.

One could posit that Duddy has two family relationships he’s trying to balance: the first with the family he was born into, the second with the one he acquires, consisting of Yvette and Virgil. In the novel, pretty much all the characters (with the ironic exception of Uncle Benjy) end up as more intense versions of what they were to begin with. If Richler’s book professes an overriding view of humanity, one could argue convincingly that it’s this: People are inherently incapable of fundamental change. They are who they are, which only intensifies, and are destined to play out the consequence of that. (A conviction borne out of what Austin Pendleton calls Richler’s “curmudgeonist determinism.”)

But in granting extra dimension to Max, and primary dimension to Yvette and Lenny, a subtle but crucial ripple effect took place. Every family character wound up going through a sea change, not just Uncle Benjy. The changes weren’t huge, nor did they alter the remaining character profiles in essence (if they had, I believe I would have been more consciously aware of this development happening; as I say, I didn’t intend it). But those changes are characteristic of what happens to all through-line characters in musicals about rites of passage. The very act of singing about their feelings and/or desires and/or aspirations is motivated by a hunger to move forward. And this subtle, seismic shift provided the final, inevitable and unavoidable ingredient of the gestalt that made the novel’s original ending impossible to retain. In the end, a musical that’s developing properly will have asserted its independent identity, apart from its source. And as a writer, you have to pay attention to what it tells you.

And that was the “package” with which we approached Austin Pendleton to once again direct—which he agreed to do with alacrity, already familiar with most of it—thus reuniting the original triumvirate of him, Alan and me, which has been a source of joy for us all.

That followed by another joy, at least as exhilarating, rooted in truly remarkable, almost surreal, serendipity: two fantastic chains of events, associations and uncanny timing—intersecting—and leading to Montreal, where Duddy’s story takes place—to our intrepid, resourceful and flat-out wonderful producer Lisa Rubin and her exemplary staff, who enthusiastically give us the kind of understanding and support you usually only dream about, if you let yourself…and at last, the show’s full-production world premiere at the Segal Centre. Where I hope all we’ve learned proves itself out.

And in conclusion, I don’t think I have anything meaningful left to add. Except maybe: Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?

Which is another story.

But not entirely…


For more information about THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ at the Segal Centre in Montreal, please click here.

About David Spencer

David Spencer-headshot 2Composer-lyricist-librettist: The Golden Calf (an adventure of Ostap Bender), in progress. Composer-lyricist: The Fabulist (book: Stephen Witkin); Theatreworks/USA’s The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables (book & direction: Rob Barron). Lyricist-librettist: Weird Romance(co-librettist: Alan Brennert), The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (music for both: Alan Menken); Public Theatre La Bohème (music: Giacomo Puccini). Books: The Musical Theatre Writer’s Survival GuideWeird RomanceAlien Nation: Passing Fancy. Awards: Kleban, Rodgers, Gilman & Gonzalez-Falla. Faculty: BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop.


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