in: Reviews

September 24, 2011

Best of All Possible Candides

by

Lauren Molina and Cheryl Stern (T. Charles Erickson photo)

Leonard Bernstein’s Candide is pre-eminently the phoenix among Broadway shows, having risen from the ashes of an unsuccessful first production (opened December 1, 1955, ran only 73 performances) to be frequently performed in venues ranging from high school auditoriums to opera houses. Yet in each of these locations, audiences see and hear a different Candide, because Bernstein and numerous collaborators did not stop revising the show, trying again and again for more than thirty years, eventually reaching what he called the “final revised version” in 1989, the year before his death.

Now a new production by director Mary Zimmerman, with a revised book more closely linked to Voltaire’s original story and brilliantly performed at the Huntington Theater, provides what is, all in all, the most satisfying version of Candide that I know. What kept the show alive from the very beginning was the astonishingly wide-ranging score, with sophisticated and joyous parodies of everything from the double aria of bel canto opera (complete with cabaletta) to Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. Happily, Columbia Records, under the musically knowledgeable and enterprising Goddard Lieberson, recorded an original cast album with Barbara Cook, Robert Rounseville, and Max Adrian. For me and many other Broadway enthusiasts, that recording was the only way to experience Bernstein’s brilliant score, which apparently was regarded as “caviar to the general,” while Lillian Hellman’s book was excoriated all around. Three brilliant lyricists took part, too — notably Richard Wilbur (who was no doubt chosen because of his adeptness at witty rhyme in his superb translations of Molière), the Algonquin wit Dorothy Parker, and John LaTouche, best known for writing the lyrics for A Ballad for Americans and the libretto for Douglas Moore’s opera The Ballad of Baby Doe, and who died just before Candide went into production.

Cheryl Stern and Lauren Molina (T. Charles Erickson photo)

Over the next two decades, revivals in various parts of the US attempted to fiddle with the perceived problems of the script, while re-ordering some of the music and working still more lyrics into the mix. Though some of these aimed at an eventual New York revival, none of them actually got that far.

It was only in 1973 that New York saw Candide again, in a very different version, conceived almost as a theatrical circus with the score cut almost in half, at the Chelsea Theater in Brooklyn; its success motivated a move to Broadway, where, in Harold Prince’s production, it ran over a year. It sported a new book by Hugh Wheeler, a new orchestration for small orchestra by Hershy Kay (who had worked with Bernstein on the original version), and some new lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. This version was later enlarged (especially in the orchestration), with many of the songs re-ordered and serving different purposes in the show, to create an “opera house version,” performed at the New York City Opera in 1982. In this reworking, the principal force was John Mauceri, who had also conducted the Chelsea version.

Both the Chelsea and operatic versions of Candide were recorded, but in spirit they departed far from the original story and the satiric aims of the 1956 production (which, it should be remembered, was created by a group of artists, Hellman and Parker, who had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee — HUAC — during the frantic hunt for Communists hidden in government, universities, Hollywood and elsewhere in the early ’50s). The newer versions had lost the political edge to become simply jokey — with, essentially, a single joke.

Finally, in the years before Bernstein’s death, Mauceri worked with him to create the “final revised version,” which the composer recorded in 1989. In terms of musical organization, this returns largely to the order of songs in the 1956 production, though with a greater richness in the operatic orchestration and with parts designed for truly operatic singers (some of the most starry ones — June Anderson, Jerry Hadley, Kurt Ollmann, Nicolai Gedda, and Christa Ludwig — appeared on Bernstein’s own recording of the full score in this version).

With all this embarrassment of riches available, what do we have before us in the Huntington production? First of all, the sequence of musical numbers closely (though not exactly) follows that of the final revised version, which is as it should be, I think, representing Leonard Bernstein’s final take on the work. The new orchestrations for this production, by Bruce Coughlin, move back from the plummy opera-house sound but make effective use of an orchestra of fifteen players (essentially one for each instrument, though with the usual kinds of Broadway doublings in the woodwinds), and it was superbly performed by an orchestra made up of leading Boston freelancers under the direction of Doug Peck.

The sharpness of Voltaire’s wit has largely been captured in the new book, happily including some updating, such as a reference to “intelligent design.” The one respect in which I would have like a still closer emphasis on Voltaire is in the scene of the Lisbon earthquake and the ensuing auto-da-fe. Voltaire’s original impetus to write Candide was an actual 1755 earthquake that devastated Lisbon on a Sunday morning, just as pious citizens were worshipping in the cathedral, which collapsed, killing hundreds of people. This natural occurrence seemed to many a specific negation of views such as Alexander Pope’s line “Whatever is, is right,” an expression of the philosophy of optimism that Voltaire shreds in his brilliant satire. In the Huntington production, the earthquake seemed less catastrophic than one might have hoped (the actors wobbled on their feet to suggest the earth shaking and a few rubber cornices and other building parts fell onto the stage). But there was not, in my view, a clear enough link with this event to motivate the Inquisition’s auto-da-fe that followed, or not sufficient explanation for the link.

Larry Yando as Pangloss and Geoff Packard as Candide (Photo by Liz Lauren.

This is perhaps a niggling point in a production that has so much on the ball.

The opening scene plays “realistically” (with due allowance for its parodist character) in an enclosed space representing a room on the palace of the Baron Thunder-ten-Tronck, where the philosopher Pangloss (a splendid Larry Yando) is engaged in unfolding the philosophy that “All is for  the best in this best of all possible worlds” to his pupils, the daughter and son of the Baron, Cunegonde (Lauren Molina) and Maximilian (Erik Lochtefeld), and their poor distant relation Candide (Geoff Packard). Packard is an engagingly gawky, sweet-tempered young man whose affections for Cunegonde never waver. Molina is at first a fluty soprano and an endlessly flirty charmer for whom life seems planned to be nothing but perfect. Lochtefeld is superb as the self-impressed, snobbish son who is more worried about whether his physical beauty has been marred by a pimple than in any of the realms of philosophy. McCaela Donovan was also a delightful, seductive Paquette, who offered Pangloss some of the more earthly pleasures to be celebrated in his philosophy; one wishes that her part was a larger one.

After the first scene, the backdrop lifts to reveal the full depth of the stage, a large, mostly empty cube, in which the rest of the play takes place, with minimal sets (furniture moved on and off as necessary by members of the company), generating a fast-moving, flexible transition between scenes in the far-flung story. Most of these worked extremely well, with each new transition explained in a brief narrative from one of the actors.

During the course of their (mis)adventures, Candide loses and then finds all of the people who have been close to him and also encounters some new important characters, notably an Old Lady (Cheryl Stern), whose many disastrous experiences of the real world have left her ready to roll with the punches (at least to roll on the one buttock that remains to her), and whose tango, “I am easily assimilated” is one of the high points of the evening. Stern’s spoken dialogue, though, was so heavily accented (in what was presumably the native “High-Middle Polish” spoken in the Old Lady’s paternal home) that it was often more difficult to make out her lines in dialogue than when she was singing. Jesse J. Perez, the energetic Cacambo, was a lively companion to Candide, especially in the search for El Dorado. Timothy John Smith sang the Governor’s song, “My Love” — his attempt to lure Cunegonde to be his mistress by pointing out that love is a brief illness (“Just a week in bed, and we’ll be convalescing”) — with ringing tones.

(An aside: One of the oddest musical features of Bernstein’s final version of the music to Candide — carried into the Huntington production — is that we first hear the music of this song in the finale of Act I, when Candide and company are setting off to the New World, long before we meet the Governor. Heard by itself the music soars thrillingly in the Act I finale — but then reappears confusingly in its “real” position early in Act II. I assume this must be a consequence of the many reworkings of the score over the decades.)

As most literate people surely know, the experiences of Candide, Cunegonde, Pangloss, the Old Lady, Maximilian, and Paquette consist of a endless series of battles, beatings, robberies, being cheated and lied to, raped, seduced, and mistreated in just about every possible way. This would scarcely be subject matter for humor, except for the innocence with which Candide maintains his belief in the philosophy of Dr. Pangloss for most of the course of the play. The idea of optimism as the basis of a genuine philosophy is put into sharper focus in Act II with the appearance of Martin, whose view of the world is the precise opposite of the Panglossian credo: This is the worst of all possible worlds. In earlier productions, Martin and Pangloss were played by the same actor, which meant that the two rival philosophies see-sawed back and forth before Candide.  Here a separate actor (Tom Aulino) confronts Pangloss on several occasions directly.

The cast of Candide (T. Charles Erickson photo)

As Candide loses all the wealth he gained in El Dorado and follows his once-again-lost Cunegonde to a casino in Constantinople (it was Venice in 1956), the responses of the characters grow progressively darker. Candide and Cunegonde, in particular, have traced a lengthy, painful, downward arc in the course of their experiences. No longer the innocent young lad and the flirty ingénue, they now have had enough experience of the world to defy Pangloss’s philosophy and to make their own choice. It could be one that is exceptionally dark and somber — and, indeed, the entire company seems to grow very earnest indeed quite quickly after the casino scene.

But it is here that Leonard Bernstein’s music raises their spirits — and those of  the audience — in one of his most effective musical inspirations, a soaring hymn celebrating the simplest things of life, in words drawn directly from the end of Voltaire’s brilliant satire, “Make our garden grow.”

Mary Zimmerman’s direction not only controls the overall pace and shape of  the show but is filled with many delicious bits. The most laugh-out-loud brilliant of these is the passage of  coloratura on a string of “ha-ha-ha-ha” in Cunegonde’s “Glitter and be gay.” She sings this part of the song while being dressed by a chambermaid, who is tightening a corset, and each new high C is accompanied by a mighty tug.

The Huntington Theatre Company production — Mary Zimmerman’s new adaptation of Voltaire’s script as well as her vivid and imaginative staging of this picaresque story, Daniel Ostling’s simple but ever-varying and imaginative scene designs, Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes, the orchestra and the superb cast — offers a bubbling, lively, and finally moving show that sends each of us out of the theater in a soaring and hopeful mood, ready to attack our own gardens.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

 

 

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