Off-Broadway may have just seen the demise of Fuddy Meers, but next season, Broadway may see the rise of Duddy Kravitz.
[Editor's Note: There's been no further news on this show, as of Dec. 2001]
April 27-28, two backers’ readings of David Spencer’s musical adaptation of the Mordecai Richler novel, “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” took place in Manhattan, under the stewardship of producer Randall L. Wreghitt. The piece, with book and lyrics by Spencer and music by Alan Menken, tells of a young, cocky, Jewish-Canadian fellow who’s a little too ambitious for his own good. The novel was also the basis for Ted Kotcheff’s 1974 film, which launched the career of star Richard Dreyfuss.
At the readings, which followed earlier, workshop readings in December 1999, Duddy (with the “u” pronounced as in “pudding”) was played by Kirk McDonald, whose credits include Parade, Saturday Night and Violet. Other featured players included Kevin Cahoon (from MTC’s The Wild Party) as Virgil, Jenny Giering as Yvette, and Ron McLarty as Duddy’s father. Also in the reading cast are Howard Ross, Gerry Vicchi, Josh Alexander (who’s currently understudying Matthew Broderick in Taller Than A Dwarf), Tom Ford, Robin Baxter, Elizabeth Cherry, John Horton, Jody Ashworth, Ed Romanoff, William Wise and Joe Machota.
According to author Spencer, the story, which takes place in Montreal circa 1950, tells of a young man, “underrated by his father, disdained by his uncle, motherless, and competing with (but unwilling to live in) the shadow of a med-student older brother. His only solace is with his grandfather who tells him `A man without land is nobody.’" [Editor's note: Author Mordecai Richler died of cancer at age 70, July 3, 2001.]
Christopher Ashley, who staged Lucky in the Rain at Goodspeed and Communicating Doors Off-Broadway, directs the readings.
Songs in the show include, “Duddy Runs,” “A Man Without Land,” “Leaving St. Urbain Street,” “I'm Gonna Buy This Lake,” “How Could I Not?”, “What a Liar!”, “Art and Commerce,” “Unfinished Business,” “I Like Trains,” “Mad Keen,” “Turn it Around,” “Softie,” “Come to Think of It,” and “Welcome Home.”
Previously, Spencer and Menken collaborated on Weird Romance. Spencer was named winner of a Special Commendation from the Gilman & Gonzalez-Falla Theatre Foundation in 1996 for his work in musical theatre. This year, he tied for the Kleban Foundation Award for excellence in lyric writing, partly owing to his work on Duddy.
Asked how Duddy originally came about, author Spencer emailed Playbill On-Line to note, “Alan and I were first approached with the project in 1984 (right around the time that my English adaptation of La Bohème was playing at the Public and Alan's Little Shop [of Horrors] was still going strong at the Orpheum). There had already been a musical adaptation of "Duddy Kravitz" done in Canada, with a score by Lieber and Stoller and -- no reflection on those noble gentlemen, whose score I never heard -- the show itself, for whatever reason, was one of Canada's most notorious flops. We opted not to look at the previous version (which had been privately taped), and started our version from scratch in 1985, with Austin Pendleton as librettist and director (I was only lyricist at the time).
“After a workshop and with concurrent turbulence in the producer end, we opened that version at the American Music Theatre Festival in 1987, where it played for several weeks and got the kind of wildly mixed notices that tell you (if you're paying attention) that what you've got has merit but hasn't been solved.” For various reasons not involving the creative team, Pendleton soon left the picture and Spencer took on the libretto as well as the lyrics. Continued Spencer: “I spent a tortuous six weeks attempting a revisionist version of what Austin had started, and the show kept resisting me. Eventually, one thought led to another and I had a creative epiphany: the frightening realization that the show was about something other than we'd originally thought, theme-wise, and that in order to realize that thesis, I'd have to blast the thing to its foundations and start again. But it was as liberating as frightening, because with the thought came the notion of how to do it, and I wrote the first draft in a white heat, two weeks for the book, maybe another two for the new lyrics. (We retained about a third of the old score, and that would be revised.) Everybody expressed enthusiasm and it was decided to forge ahead.”
The toughest part for Spencer and Menken was balancing the novel’s dark ending with the rest of the show’s tone -- and reaching a compromise that forced them to ditch a show-stopping, late-evening ballad for the sake of continuity. The new version had three readings in 1990, directed by Des McAnuff and featuring Evan Pappas (Duddy), Lannyl Stephens (Yvette), James Judy (repeating his Philadelphia role as Duddy’s friend Virgil), Ron McLarty (Max, Duddy's dad), Gerry Vichi and later Fyvush Finkel (Simcha, Duddy's grandfather), Howard Ross and later Larry Keith (Uncle Benjy), John Horton (as film director Friar), Ronn Carroll (Cohen) and Val Avery (Dingleman the gangster).
Though audience response was strong, it still wasn’t a knock-out -- especially the morally uncertain ending -- so the project was put on the shelf for fear of it getting a “shopped-around” reputation. It was only in 1997 that Spencer and Menken began looking again at the material, at which point they discovered, “What had changed the most was us; we and our values had matured, and we were more willing to experiment with possible solutions. I still thought Mordecai's ending had a point to make, about the kind of man a boy chooses to be, but I also had made peace with the fact that musical theatre needs the catharsis of an ending -- being happy or tragic -- that restores balance to the universe and points toward hope. (Mordecai's ending is morally ambivalent, which allows for a very compromised sense of closure in a musical.) And it wasn't, I found, crucial to the show's thesis.” It also meant that he and Spencer could restore the killer ballad, “Welcome Home.” The bad news was that by this time, the rights to adapt Duddy Kravitz at reverted back to Richler, who granted them, temporarily, to a Yiddish theatre in Montreal. “I was actually approached to work on this Montreal version on the very day I returned from Alan's house and our first serious meeting about rejuvenating our version,” Spencer told Playbill On-Line. “Obviously, I turned that one down.”
The rights eventually came back to him and Menken, at which point they did more script polishing and recorded a full-cast demo of the score in Menken’s home studio, with James Judy and John Horton, of the Philadelphia staging and 1990 readings, reprising their roles, alongside several castmembers from the readings and newcomer Jenny Giering, a lyric soprano. It was she who brought the project to producer Randall Wreghitt, who put together readings of the piece in December 1999.
And the show’s theme? “There's a line, late in the show (and in the novel),’ notes Spencer, “from a letter Duddy's Uncle Benjy writes him: `A boy can be two, three, four potential people. But a man is only one. He murders the others.’” -- By David Lefkowitz