Time capsule: Duddy, Mordecai Richler’s theatrical dud

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

Mordecai Richler had never written for the stage before but really wanted to see his adaptation of his beloved novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz make it to Broadway as a musical.  Arts columnist Brian Brennan reports in his new time capsule piece that the musical had a very rough ride. An excerpt of Brennan’s Brief Encounters column: The Musical Travails of Duddy Kravitz: Mordecai Richler (paywall):

In 1974, Mordecai Richler’s great comic novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, about a young Jewish hustler from Montreal who connives, cheats and pushes his way to the top, had been turned into a movie that was a hit in Canada and the United States. And 10 years after that, it was being turned into a stage musical that the backers hoped would be a hit on Broadway. Montreal impresario Sam Gesser had so much faith in the musical, titled simply Duddy, that he was putting up $500,000 of his own money to finance the $1.4 million production. With a libretto adapted by Richler from his novel, and songs by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller of 1950s’ rock ’n’ roll fame (Hound Dog, Kansas City, Jailhouse Rock), how could it miss?

The schedule called for the musical to premiere at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre in April 1984, run for four weeks, and then play nine other Canadian cities before heading to New York. Richler, who had been criticized by Jewish groups for his unflattering portrayals of Montreal’s Jewish community in his novels, told me jokingly that he always wanted to open Duddy in Alberta because “it’s the most anti-Semitic province in Canada.” But he was quick to add, before anyone could get the wrong impression, that he didn’t consider Duddy an anti-Semitic work.

“I find these charges of anti-Semitism highly objectionable,” said the 53-year-old novelist. “For the most part, they come from people who never read the novel. Duddy Kravitz is not a metaphor for the Jewish people. It’s the story of a working-class boy with his eye on the main chance. The kind of Jewish people who accuse me of anti-Semitism are rather ashamed of their own background. They call their children Byron, Nelson and so on. They contemplate the world through a wrong-ended telescope.”

Richler had written the screenplay adaptation for Duddy Kravitz and earned an Oscar nomination for it … log in* to read The Musical Travails of Duddy Kravitz: Mordecai Richler (subscription*).

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