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Duddy Kravitz Returns to the Stage, and to Montreal

Duddy Kravitz is back.

Mordecai Richler’s iconic Montreal shvitzer will return to life this month in a hometown musical with all-star bona fides: Score by showbiz giant Alan Menken, book by dramatist/author David Spencer, and theater mainstay Austin Pendleton in the director’s chair.

But “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” which premiered June 7 at Montreal’s Segal Centre for the Performing Arts, isn’t exactly new.

In fact, Menken and Spencer wrote a version of the musical for a 1987 production that tanked after an ill-fated Philadelphia tryout. And a disastrous 1984 musical written by rock legends Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller died in Edmonton after a short run.

The new “Duddy” discards about 75% of Menken and Spencer’s original work, making it a near-total reboot. “I am so very proud of the score to Duddy Kravitz,” Menken told the Forward in an email. “It ranks among my most nuanced and sophisticated book-musical theater scores. And, still, it contains some of my most emotionally powerful contemporary ballads.”

For the Segal Centre, a Jewish community institution with a $5 million annual budget and a 300-seat theater, Duddy’s world premiere represents a major coup. “It’s huge for us,” said Lisa Rubin, the Segal’s executive director. The Segal scored the production through a Richler-worthy story of coincidences, chance encounters, and old-fashioned schmoozing in the Canadian show-business universe. One of the threads involved Rubin’s husband, actor Elan Kunin, who starred in a 1987 Yiddish “Duddy Kravitz” musical at Montreal’s Saidye Bronfman Centre, the Segal’s predecessor.

The musical’s return to the place of Duddy’s birth has huge symbolic weight, Rubin said. “When Duddy sings ‘I’m leaving St. Urbain Street,’ a chunk of the audience will have a piece of their history revealed on the stage every night,” she said. “It’s personal. That area and time period is where everybody in the Jewish community got their start. And everyone has a personal connection to the success of Mordecai Richler as a writer. When your city gets put on the cultural map, you feel tremendous pride — even if the main character’s flawed, and can be despicable and ruthless.”

“The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” was published in 1959, when Richler was just 28. A kind of Yiddish-inflected, Technicolor picaresque, the novel brought to life tensions and dreams of a generation of Jewish immigrants in what was then Montreal’s downtown ghetto. It also gave rare voice to newcomers who struggled to navigate hostilities from the era’s non-Jewish Anglophone establishment on one side, and its repressed Francophone minority on the other. Ted Kotcheff’s beloved 1974 film starred a baby-faced Richard Dreyfuss as Duddy.

“I revisited the film to refresh my palate,” librettist Spencer told the Forward by email from Montreal, where he was overseeing final rehearsals. “I was immediately grabbed by the main title sequence — a brilliant montage, but too cinematic to consider approximating. It left me with the notion that I needed the theatrical equivalent of a camera for quick cuts, perspective and speed. That’s how Max, Duddy’s father, became our narrator. Max is my camera.” The all-Canadian, 14-member cast features Stratford Shakespeare Festival regular Ken James Stewart in the title role.

Adapting his own book also meant surgical streamlining, said Spencer, who admitted he hadn’t read the novel when he wrote his 1987 “Duddy.” “It’s a play about the kind of choices you make on the way to becoming a man. So anything that was a detour away from that went away — sidebars, backstory, subplots that veer from the direct line of Duddy’s arc.”

Neither Richler’s family nor their advisers had any input into the book or music, though Florence Richler, his widow, has given the production her blessing, and plans to attend the opening. “The family did not interfere in any way, shape or form,” said Michael Levine, a Toronto lawyer and producer who’s a close adviser “and consigliere” to the late author’s wife and five children. “It’s the expertise of Mr. Menken to make Broadway shows.”

Levine insists the new show will break the “Duddy” musical curse, and its run in Montreal — a relatively tiny market for English-language theater — will have a long life on the road. “Most great productions that open on Broadway don’t start on Broadway,” he said.

“Canada has a terrible habit of allowing its writers to die when they die,” Levine said. “Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald are very much alive and well, with everyone running around trying to make expensive movies. Fitzgerald was penniless when he died, but a millionaire a year later. I use the Fitzgerald model to carry on Mordecai’s memory.”

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