The Cult of Candide

Although Candide was a commercial flop in its initial Broadway production in 1956, few modern musicals have enjoyed such a continuing history of reinvestigation and reimagination. Due in large part to its classic Leonard Bernstein score, it has become a staple of the American musical repertoire, revived and reinterpreted by everyone from college theater departments to major opera companies, proving as resilient as its fabled central characters.

The idea for musicalizing Voltaire's satiric novella came to Bernstein and playwright Lillian Hellman in the midst of the anti-Communist Congressional purges of the early 1950s. Both outspoken critics of the movement, the two had recently collaborated on an adaptation of Jean Anouilh's The Lark, and agreed that the political excesses of 18th century France perfectly mirrored the assault on individual rights that they were experiencing. It was a daunting challenge: the endless series of cataclysmic events that befall the title character and the uniquely spare, witty style of the author were both difficult to translate effectively to the stage. Collaborating with lyricist John La Touche (who left the project within a few months), Hellman and Bernstein began work in early 1954. They were still at work on the project two years later, now with the young poet Richard Wilbur (fresh from his much-admired adaptation of Moliére's The Misanthrope) as lyricist. Typically, Bernstein was involved with other projects at the same time: the score for the film On the Waterfront, a variety of orchestral compositions, and the first phase of a musical adaptation of Romeo & Juliet that would eventually become West Side Story. Despite these interruptions, Bernstein was slowly fashioning a score for Candide that reflected an astonishing variety of disparate classical sources, from Verdi to Gilbert and Sullivan to Franz Lehar (the "Mazurka," replete with such musical jokes as an extravagant main theme, intentionally wrong notes and musical bleats) to the "Jewel Song" from Faust ("Glitter and Be Gay," which would become one of the show's most celebrated songs). The composer also contributed one of his most heartfelt ballads to the score: "Make Our Garden Grow," an eloquent plea for tolerance and understanding. Hellman's book evolved through a seemingly endless number of versions, eventually incorporating contributions from such collaborators as Dorothy Parker and James Agee. Finally, rehearsals began in the late summer of 1956. After a brief tryout in Boston, Candide premiered on Broadway, under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie and featuring Max Adrian as Dr. Pangloss, Robert Rounseville as Candide and Barbara Cook as Cunegonde. Although reviews were generally good (especially for Bernstein's score), the production's blend of opera, musical comedy and social commentary proved challenging for audiences and the show ran for only 73 performances.

Although the show's cast recording attracted a cult following among musical theater aficionados, few new productions of Candide were attempted until 1974, when Robert Kalfin, director of Brooklyn's Chelsea Theater Center and an impassioned fan of the Broadway production, persuaded director Harold Prince to create a new version of the show for the Chelsea's in-the-round performance space. Prince approached Hellman, who was herself no longer interested in working on the project but agreed to let another adapter have a try at the book. Prince then went to Hugh Wheeler, his collaborator on the recent A Little Night Music, who created a new book that was short on political commentary but emphasized the loopy humor that infused Voltaire's satire. Bernstein was called upon to contribute additional music, new lyrics for some sequences were composed by Stephen Sondheim and Prince hired a cast notable for its youth and energy to bring new life to the play. Played on an ingenious Eugene Lee-designed set which threw the audience into the middle of the action, this new Candide was, in the words of Bernstein biographer Meryl Sechrest, "a cross between a circus and a funhouse." Its Chelsea run sold out completely, and the show eventually moved to the Broadway Theatre, where it would run for a healthy 741 performances.

Despite the unexpected success of Prince's revival, Bernstein missed some of the material that had been cut from the show, as well as the necessarily reduced orchestra for the Chelsea version. He lobbied for a new production which would essentially retain Wheeler's more farcical approach (now expanded with additional scenes) while including musical numbers composed for but not heard in the original production. In 1982, again under Prince's direction, the New York City Opera presented this expanded Candide, which drew renewed respect from critics for Bernstein's work. Peter G. Davis wrote, "This is probably Bernstein's grandest, wittiest, most sophisticated theater score, showing the full range of his talents . . . all of it crafted with a virtuosity far beyond the capacities of most Broadway composers." This "opera house version" was embraced by opera companies around the world, and would remain in the repertory of the New York City Opera for more than two decades. In 1988, Bernstein and John Mauceri created a "final revised version" of the show for the Scottish Opera, which included additional and reconfigured music and changes to Wheeler's book by Jonathan Miller. Later that year, Bernstein himself conducted a recording of this version, featuring singers Jerry Hadley, June Anderson, Christa Ludwig and longtime Bernstein collaborator Adolph Green as Pangloss. Meanwhile, Hal Prince brought Candide back to Broadway in an opulent 1997 production featuring performers from opera (Harolyn Blackwell) and musical comedy (Jim Dale, Andrea Martin, Jason Danieley and Brent Barrett).

A year later, British director/playwright John Caird created yet another new iteration of the show for a production at London's Royal National Theatre (RNT), featuring noted British actor Simon Russell Beale as Pangloss, and a new book by Caird himself which was more faithful to Voltaire's original than any previous version. Although Bernstein's score remained intact, both Sondheim and Wilbur provided slightly revised lyrics for some songs. British critics applauded the play's political observations (The Daily Mail observed that "with Europe making a mockery of itself once more, this stunning revival of one of the great lost musicals could not be more timely"), its unique comic style, and, once again, Bernstein's classic score: "You laugh, you weep, you cry," wrote one reviewer. "The music is fantastic — graceful, just perfect" gushed another. The "RNT version" of Candide remained in the repertory for a year, and has been produced repeatedly since.

Now a staple of the musical theater repertoire, Candide has continued to inspire new interpretations. A 2004 semi-staged New York Philharmonic concert version, conducted by Marin Alsop and starring Kristin Chenoweth as Cunegonde, updated some of the play's references by substituting contemporary icons for Voltaire's characters (for example, the judge at Candide's Inquisition became Donald Trump). In 2006, in a production at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris and at La Scala in Milan in honor of the show's 50th anniversary, director Robert Carsen turned Candide into an indictment of American moral deterioration, lampooning rampant consumerism, imperialism, mass-market entertainment (the play's setting was a giant TV set, whose channels were changed periodically by Voltaire as the narrator) and perhaps inevitably, the Bush administration. Dozens of other productions in theaters and opera houses around the world now attest to the ascendancy of Candide to its status as one of the classics of the contemporary musical stage; once viewed as an uneasy hybrid of classical music and "legitimate" theater, its combination of irresistible theatricality, trenchant social commentary, wit and glorious music has brought it renewed and vigorous life — and forever justified the passions of its creators, whose faith in the piece was summed up by composer Bernstein: "There's more of me in that piece than anything else I have ever done."

Steve Scott
Courtesy of the Goodman Theatre


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