Corrections or additions?

This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the October 17,

2001 edition

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

definitely

"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

plethora

of familiar cultural stereotypes. Candy’s journey, which brings her

into contact with a wise, pontificating mother, a philandering

gynecologist

husband, an Israeli moving-man lover, friends in politics, and

admirers

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

directed

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

sacrificial

concubine who saved the nation of Israel from certain

annihilation."

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

her.

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

Esther

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

mission,

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

citizens,"

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

determining

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

Dworkin,

the appalling and continuing slander of the "Jewish-American

princess"

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

thrown

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

extraordinary

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

music,"

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

"Purimspiel."

She feels she is continuing the tradition ("now the national

passion,"

she adds laughing) with this play with music about a familiar

political

situation.

I suggest to Dworkin that finding or creating a modern suburban

parallel

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

workshops

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

political

events."

Dworkin hopes that people who see her play will think about how

important

it is for every single citizen to get involved. "There has to

be personal engagement in the process of justice," she says.

"We

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

Candy"

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,"

"Yentl,"

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,

"The

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

city?"

— Simon Saltzman

The Book of Candy , Passage Theater, Mill Hill

Playhouse,

Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton, 609-392-0766. Opening night

for the new musical that continues to October 28. $25. Friday,

October 19, 8 p.m.


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