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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the October 17,
of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
For Esther, a Makeover
It wasn’t until `The Book of Candy’ that anything I
had written screamed back at me to be something else and more,"
says Susan Dworkin, who has adapted her own novel for the musical
theater. In light of what is going on in the world, it is now
"something more." In "The Book of Candy," the new
musical that opens Friday, October 19, at the Mill Hill Playhouse
in Trenton, a Long Island housewife questions her world and decides
to do something to change it.
Inspired by the Old Testament Book of Esther, author and lyricist
Dworkin, in collaboration with composer Mel Marvin, and director Ahvi
Spindell, have given the ancient story a contemporary, topical spin.
Now the story’s female hero goes by the name of Candy Shapiro. The
plot focuses on Candy’s inner journey while also dealing with a
of familiar cultural stereotypes. Candy’s journey, which brings her
into contact with a wise, pontificating mother, a philandering
husband, an Israeli moving-man lover, friends in politics, and
in the mob, affords her the courage to put aside her personal dreams
in order to save her community.
"The Book of Candy," a co-production with Passage Theater
and Playwrights Theater of New Jersey in Madison (where it opens on
November 2), had its first staged reading at McCarter Theater. The
show’s score is performed on stage by a four-piece Klezmer band
by Vadim Feichtner. The cast features Lauren Mufson in the title role,
plus Connie Day, Jonathan Brody, Ted Grayson, Adam Heller, Martin
Vidnovic, Jill Abramovitz, and Beth Glover. The novel, greeted by
widespread acclaim when it was published in 1996, is the first of
Dworkin’s many books that she has chosen to adapt. "Esther,"
she reminds me during our phone conversation, "was a kind of
concubine who saved the nation of Israel from certain
This, by making the king fall in love with her, and telling him that
if he was going to kill everyone else, he would also have to kill
Unlike most children who are introduced to the biblical tale, Dworkin
says she always wondered what happened to Esther after Israel was
saved. She says that as she grew older, she came to realize that
was still stuck in that harem with that miserable king.
"It is Esther’s sacrifice, her bravery, and selflessness that
is a gift in perpetuity to the community," says Dworkin. While
the feminist angle may be an inherent part of Dworkin’s literary
she says that her modern Candy is lucky to have been born a liberated
woman, but she is nevertheless born into a culture that does not value
the contributions of women as citizens. Dworkin says she sees "The
Book of Candy" as a strongly political play, because it is about
Candy’s personal growth and the courage it takes for her to take her
place as a community leader.
Although our conversation changes paths to bemoan the dreadful plight
of the women of Afghanistan under Taliban rule, Dworkin says that
what happens to Candy is a uniquely American phenomenon.
"In America, people have the right to do what they want as
she says. "They can sit it out on the sidelines or jump into the
middle and take a pro-active role. There is no choice in countries
that have very draconian laws about women and human rights. So the
great challenge here is to make a choice — to be part of
the fate of the collective."
One of the major issues addressed in this musical is
the sale and use of guns. Dworkin views the unregulated selling of
guns as evil. "The people with the most awful intentions get all
the guns they need, while the defenders can’t get them," she says.
"There is stolen military hardware in warehouses and storehouses
that is available to every terrorist group, mercenary soldier, and
drug merchant." Towards the end of "The Book of Candy,"
its protagonist says to the arms merchant, "People like me know
there is a difference between using guns to defend the world and using
guns to plunder it." Dworkin sees that as a vital distinction,
because "the person who is selling usually doesn’t care."
If one can see a feminist issue in the play it is, according to
the appalling and continuing slander of the "Jewish-American
stereotype. Yet Candy, like Queen Esther grows as a citizen when she
realizes that the only way to save a situation is to offer herself
as a sacrifice. Dworkin stresses how all the old stereotypes are
aside in the musical in the wake of Candy’s heroism and leadership.
But, first and foremost it is courage that Dworkin sees as the
human quality that propels Candy.
"It is courage," she says, "that guided those people on
that plane that went down in Pennsylvania. When I ask myself who has
courage, it is not the suicide hijackers. It is the people who were
convinced that the only way to prevent a calamity was to keep the
plane from continuing on its course. No one sold them bill of goods.
They were just ready to defend their countrymen."
How Dworkin’s novel became a musical is not as surprising as it may
first appear. "I actually started out to write a novel with
she says. "There are lyrics to songs in the book that move the
story." Dworkin explains how the basic element of Jewish theater
for the past 125 years has been the politicized musical called a
She feels she is continuing the tradition ("now the national
she adds laughing) with this play with music about a familiar
I suggest to Dworkin that finding or creating a modern suburban
to a Bible story may be one of the more practical uses of the Bible
that we have. "I hope so." Dworkin replies. "In the
we had, women responded enthusiastically, especially those that see
themselves like Candy. As we know with the tragedy of the World Trade
Center, anybody could be in that spot. There is such a short distance
between the little life of the ordinary citizen and huge
Dworkin hopes that people who see her play will think about how
it is for every single citizen to get involved. "There has to
be personal engagement in the process of justice," she says.
are all victims of the unpunished crime," she adds, quoting a
line spoken by Candy’s mother in the play.
Dworkin describes the message of "The Book of
this way: "No matter how lucky you are or how blessed you are,
the real significance of life comes with political courage." The
thought she would like audiences to take with them when they leave
the theater is another line by Candy’s mother: "Success, money.
None of it means anything without a victory over evil."
"The character of Candy is a composite of a dozen women, including
myself," says Dworkin. She has collaborated on several popular
books, often novelizations of films, with celebrities that include
Francis Ford Coppola ("Dracula"), Bess Myerson ("Miss
America 1945"), Brian DePalma and Melanie Griffith ("Double")
and Dustin Hoffman and Sydney Pollack ("Making Tootsie").
Now she’s pleased by her collaboration with composer Marvin and the
show’s director Ahvi Spindel, both of whom have been with the project
since the beginning. Marvin is well known for scores for shows that
include "The 1940’s Radio Hour," "Tintypes,"
and "A History of American Film."
Named "A Woman of the Year" by the New Jersey legislature
in 1998, Dworkin was born and raised in Long Island. She graduated
from Wellesley in 1962 with a BA in Political Science. Enjoying her
job as a contributing arts editor at Ms. Magazine from 1976 to 1986,
she interviewed and wrote about such celebrities as Whoopi Goldberg,
Roseanne Barr, Meryl Streep, and Carol Burnett. A series of articles
for the magazines Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Vogue, Redbook,
and Ladies Home Journal spurred Dworkin to write her first book,
Ms. Guide to a Woman’s Health," co-authors with Dr. Cynthia Cook.
Now Dworkin is primarily concerned with the process of "getting
`The Book of Candy’ on its feet." With so many concerned about
"getting back on our feet," Dworkin brings the conversation
to an appropriate close with words taken from The Book of Esther:
"How shall I endure to see the evil that has come upon my
— Simon Saltzman
Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton, 609-392-0766. Opening night
for the new musical that continues to October 28. $25.
October 19, 8 p.m.
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