The Problem With Candide

By Mark Thomas Ketterson

When Harold Prince's staging of Leonard Bernstein's Candide opened in New York in 1973 there was an attendant ripple of excitement throughout the theatrical world. It was rumored that for the first time in its performance history Candide was about to become a genuine, authentic hit. Based on Voltaire's satirical novel which had been infamously banned by the Vatican in 1762, the show had already attained something of a mythical status, though few people could hum anything from the score except that little bit of the aria "Glitter And Be Gay" from The Dick Cavett Show. Probably nobody in the audience was as excited as one Tennessee boy about to burst with the anticipation of seeing my first Broadway show. I knew I was part of a new generation now being given the opportunity to see this intriguing work that had opened to a controversial reception upon its first performance almost two decades before.

Voltaire three ways.
Voltaire Voltaire Voltaire
Age 24. Oil painting by Jacob van Largillière



Age 41. Oil painting by Maurice Quentin de la Tour Circa age 70. Oil painting by unknown artist after original
drawing by Chevalier Stanislas-Jean de Boufflers
In fact, this production presented a rather different take on Candide than the 1956 original. The 1973 production, the so-called "Chelsea" edition named for the Chelsea Theater Center of Brooklyn where it opened before its transfer to Broadway, represented an extensive reworking of the original concept. Lillian Hellman's book had been replaced with a new one by Hugh Wheeler and a great deal of the score had been excised and rearranged to accommodate a reduced orchestration utilizing electronic enhancement and a heavy reliance on the keyboards. Stephen Sondheim had joined the team to provide some additional lyrics as appropriate for the new book. Vocally, the sound was closer to a traditional Broadway sound than the operatic warbling of the original production. But whatever compromises had been made, the new Candide was indeed a hit, running for 740 performances and producing a two-LP recording that preserved the entire production.

It was an almost complete triumph. The brilliant staging by Prince could best be described as a romp - an environmental concept that enveloped the audience in the action and carried us along for a two-hour, rollicking ride. Wheeler's book was often quite funny and the youthful cast carried the evening with professional ease. But something about the foam and fizz seemed just a bit contrived, like the forced gaiety of partygoers on New Year's Eve. The comic bits and clever word play didn't quite gel with some of the meandering elements of the work and comments made in the lobby by theatergoers older and wiser than myself convinced me I was not the only one who thought so. Delicious as it all was, many left the theater feeling that something elusive was missing.

It wasn't the first time that Candide had inspired such an ambivalent reaction and it wouldn't be the last. Indeed, since its debut performance the work's status as America's Favorite Troubled Musical Theater Piece has been as strong a part of its identity as its wonderful score.

When Candide premiered in 1956, it represented the work of some of the most creative theatrical minds of its time. Bernstein's score dazzled the ear, and Richard Wilbur, whose translations of Moliere's comedies remain the preferred editions to this day, provided lyrics of searing wit. Additional lyrics were contributed by John La Touche (the librettist of The Ballad of Baby Doe) and Dorothy Parker. Tyrone Guthrie directed and the performers included such accomplished singing actors as Robert Rounseville as Candide and the Metropolitan Opera's Irra Petina as the Old Lady. The ingénue Cunegunde was the young Barbara Cook and Max Adrian was the wily Dr. Pangloss. Much has been written of what went wrong that opening night, but received opinion has generally held that Hellman's book, with its somber allusions to McCarthyism, was somewhat at odds with the rippling score. The score itself was at once too complex to be considered musical comedy, yet it was not quite opera. In The New York Times, Bernstein himself referred to it as a "kind of" operetta. The serious elements of the piece were also generally felt dissonant in a work that seemed to be attempting to go in a comedic direction and not quite getting there. Characterized by critic Walter Kerr as a "really spectacular disaster," the show had a modest run of 73 performances, living on through the original cast recording and attaining a status of flawed masterpiece it continues to enjoy.

There were various attempts to revive the original edition, including a London premiere in 1959, a 1966 production in Los Angeles with Carroll O'Connor as Dr. Pangloss and a 1968 concert performance in New York with a young comedienne by the name of Madeleine Kahn in the role of Cunegonde. Few people remember that before Kahn achieved stardom as the leading lady of Mel Brooks comedies she had done a great deal of singing, warbling the coloratura riffs of "Glitter and be Gay" before those strains of "Ah Sweet Mystery" in Young Frankenstein. Another revival played Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the Kennedy Center, but hopes that it would make it to New York were frustrated. Despite the talent involved, none of these or other attempts resulted in the work really taking hold until the Chelsea version dazzled Broadway in the '70s. In any case, the original book later was withdrawn and became unavailable for performance by the wishes of Hellman and later by her estate.

In 1982 Candide underwent another major reworking. This time the venue would be an operatic one, the New York City Opera. As general manager of the house, Beverly Sills had strongly supported the concept of NYCO as an aggressively American company that would stage American operas and classic musicals as well as standard operatic fare. Candide's score seemed an ideal vehicle for the youthful voices at her disposal and Sills approached Prince with the idea of adapting his Chelsea concept to the needs of an operatic staging. With John Mauceri in to restore much of the score that had been excised in '73, the work emerged in a setting that many felt it had belonged in to begin with - the legitimate opera house. The lush orchestrations were back and the vocal performance was carried by cast of young, fresh, operatic voices. The book, though performed with one intermission, remained essentially the Chelsea version. The production enjoyed much success, was televised nationally and resulted in a two-CD recording that allowed the listener to hear more of Bernstein's music than ever before.

In 1994 this "Opera House" edition was performed by the Lyric Opera of Chicago again featuring Prince as director and a cast of young singers including a scintillating Elizabeth Futral as Cunegonde. The Chelsea/Opera House amalgam also provided the inspiration for a staging in 1988 at the Scottish Opera. The Wheeler revision remained the basic book for this production, though it was tweaked a bit by John Wells. Some of the musical numbers also reverted to something closer to the original production in arrangement and chronological appearance within the piece. Many thought this the best edition yet.

A rush of Candide fever emerged again in 1989 when it was announced that Leonard Bernstein was going to perform a full concert version of his score in London and record the event for television and compact disc. At last we could hear the final thoughts of the composer himself on this troubled piece, and perhaps a definitive edition would emerge. Book problems were addressed by adding connecting narrative material spoken by the singers. A glance at the cast list immediately told one in what direction the performance would be skewed: Jerry Hadley sang title role, dramatic coloratura June Anderson was Cunegonde and rest of the cast included such operatic heavy hitters as Nicolai Gedda and Christa Ludwig. Not that there weren't some magnificent riches to be had here. Bernstein's work with the orchestration paid off tenfold and the score itself never sounded so gorgeous, winning the recording a Grammy for best classical album. Dramatically however, the piece emerges as somewhat humorless and overblown. This production gained some regrettable notoriety due to an influenza virus that affected much of the cast for the concert performances, but at the end of the day a vague feeling of slogging through mud here really cannot be blamed on the flu.

One might have thought that after Bernstein's final take on the piece, Candide would be left alone as it was. Ah, 'twas not to be, to quote Mademoiselle Cunegonde. In 1997 another Broadway production was mounted, again directed by Prince in what was essentially a rewarming of his previous stagings. The reception was mixed; there were kudos from Clive Barnes of The New York Post, but grumbling elsewhere that the production had more or less been pulled from its box and lazily dusted off. The Times commented, "what once felt like an act of resuscitation is now beginning to feel closer to suffocation." Some bridge of the genre-gap that always has existed in this score was evident in a cast that included a mixture of "show voice" performers like Jim Dale with operatic performers such as soprano Harolyn Blackwell. The role of the Old Lady, the most straightforwardly comic character throughout the piece's various incarnations, was given more focus. Sondheim again provided new lyrics for this bit of role padding, and Andrea Martin of Second City fame was tapped for the remounting. At one point a bit of unconscious anxiety may appear when in a new lyric the Old Lady sings that she is here "to invigorate the story." Perhaps Howard Kissel of The Daily News dared to say what many had long thought when he commented that one just "cannot get laughs out of the unfunny material." The production closed after 103 performances.

In examining Candide's performance history, the obvious question is - why do we bother? The answer may be more complicated than imagined. There is something about the title character's journey from childlike optimism to reluctant reality that strikes a primitive chord in us all; indeed a sort of developmental truth is touched upon. All human beings in the course of their maturation must consolidate the diverse facets of their being, the Candide/Innocence with the Cunegonde/Hedonism, the Old Lady/Outrageousness with the Pangloss/Cynicism. Freud himself when asked the secret of happy life once gave a very simple answer: "To love, and to work." This philosophy is much in keeping with the final message of Candide, that each of us must simply "do the best we know - and make our garden grow."

There is also something peculiarly, quintessentially American about that message. We put a lot of energy in our conviction that regardless of the country's problems, we still live in the "best of all possible worlds." And despite the worldly influences in the piece's roots and musical structure, Candide's unrelenting optimism in the face of challenging reality is reflective of that American spirit. Certainly the work has received attention elsewhere, but it is in America that the work has enjoyed its most success, and it is in the U.S. that Candide continues to evolve. We just can't let it go.

Ultimately however, the endurance of the piece is undoubtedly due to the extraordinary quality of the music itself. This score rocks. The overture has become a hit and for a good reason - it's terrific. From the first bars we know we are in for one hell of a musical ride. The solo writing for the title character provides the tenor with opportunity for lyricism of ineffable sweetness, and the soprano writing stands as a litmus test for the skills of a lyric coloratura virtuoso. The choral writing is often quite astonishing, assuming a mass-like aura in the prayers before the holocaust, and rising to a level of stunning musical complexity in the auto-da-fe' episode. There is also plenty of opportunity for character shtick with numbers like the Old Lady's "I Am Easily Assimilated"; and "Oh, Happy We," and "You Were Dead, You Know" present us with comic duets worthy of anything in the operetta tradition. At the end of the day, Candide's imperfections exist as flaws in diamond cut to an incomparable brilliance and with superlative creativity.

Leonard Bernstein's Candide had its debut performance almost fifty years ago and after half a century's worth of revision the questions associated with that original production still hover about the piece. Was Walter Kerr correct in calling the work a "spectacular disaster?" Maybe, or maybe not. Perhaps in some paradoxical way the imperfections in this flawed masterpiece become elements of its strength, because they inspire its continued reincarnation and challenge us to polish this jewel until it shines as it should. Who knows? Candide may never entirely gel. But evidence suggests it also may never die. Candide endures - the best and most challenging of all possible scores.

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