The Creation of a Masterpiece

See the Chronology for events leading up the show's opening

Excerpt from Leonard Bernstein, a biography by Humphrey Burton

Candide was virtually complete in August 1956.  It was Bernstein's most substantial achievement as a composer.  The score consists of close to two hours of music and over thirty numbers: solos, duets, trios, quartets, ensembles, choruses and purely orchestral music, frequently interspersed or combined with spoken dialogue.  Thanks to Richard Wilbur, Candide is throughout impeccably versified.  The problem lies in the adaptation of the story.  Voltaire's Candide, first published in 1759, is a picaresque novella, only eighty-seven pages long, in which, as the satirist John Wells puts it, "every page takes us to a different country and every paragraph contains some new adventure." Hellman and Bernstein saw in its satirical attacks on the Catholic Church and the bland optimism of the philosopher Leibnitz a way of hitting back at Eisenhower's complacent America.  But Voltaire's mockery of the philosophy that "all's for the best in the best of all possible worlds" and the novel's cynical acceptance of war, greed, treachery, venery, snobbishness and mendacity as staples of civilization are achieved by short sharp sentences contained in thirty chapters of comic-strip brevity.  Lillian Hellman's expertise, on the other hand, was in the field of the "well-made" three-act play; she had never written a comedy, although she was by many accounts a witty woman.  Yet Bernstein would not have agreed to collaborate with her had he not believed that her sense of theater and play structure, combined with her anger at what was happening in America, could be productively harnessed.

Bernstein and Hellman worked together in New York and Martha's Vineyard, so no written correspondence exists to show how they devised their adaptation.  But it is not surprising to learn that Hellman went through fourteen different versions: she faced a well-nigh impossible job of creating a workable theatrical structure, and it has to be conceded that in the intervening years nobody else has been entirely successful either.  At the time of this death in 1990 Bernstein had collaborated directly on at least seven versions (London 1959, Los Angeles 1966, Chicago 1967, San Francisco 1971, New York City Opera 1982, Scottish Opera 1988 and LSO Concert 1989) and had also allowed Harold Prince and Hugh Wheeler to create a high-spirited pocket-version, first seen in an off-Broadway theater, in 1973.

Candide is "based on" Voltaire.  Many of the best moments in the Hellman adaptation are not even hinted at in Voltaire's original: Voltaire mentions no interrogation during the auto-da-fe, no waltz in Paris, no gambling casino in Venice; in the novel Candide expresses no lament after the butchering of Cunegonde and no bitter sadness at her fall from grace.  Voltaire's Candide receives advice from two philosophers: the genial Dr. Pangloss's sugary conclusions are mirrored by the bitter reflections of old Martin.  Hellman has the same actor play both parts, which is a neat solution.  But her overall scheme for Candide runs into problems caused by the bewildering number of locations.  Voltaire's skepticism is finally subverted on the home stretch when Bernstein's incurable optimism turns "Make Our Garden Grow" into a stirring and positive hymn full of hope for a better world.  Voltaire's moral, "Il faut cultiver son jardin," translated in the operetta as "Make our garden grow," contains an element of hope, to be sure, but it is more passive in spirit than Bernstein's ecstatic music would have the audience believe.

The important question is not whether Bernstein has been true to the spirit of Voltaire, but whether he has created a rounded work of art.  Although a perfect stage production of Candide may never be achieved, the work has proved to be a deeply satisfying piece.  . .  .  

The score of Candide was described by Bernstein as a Valentine card to European music.  European dance forms such as the gavotte, mazurka, polka, schottische and waltz pop up all over the place.  The conventions of European opera are gently mocked; when the lovers are reunited for the surrealistic duet "You Were Dead, You Know", they warble in thirds and sixths in the best bel canto style.  When the chorus repeats the closing couplets of Dr. Pangloss's syphilis song, "Dear Boy", it is as if the ghosts of Gilbert and Sullivan have entered the theater.

It was suggested at the time that Bernstein was deriding opera and operetta.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Cunegonde's comic aria "Glitter and Be Gay" is much more than a parody of the "Jewel Song" from Gounod's Faust; the basic humor is derived from the way the bathos of Cunegonde's slow waltz recitative - "Here I am in Paris, France" - is contrasted with her insouciant coloratura warblings as she bedecks herself with pearls and sapphires - "If I'm not pure, at least my jewels are!" And when Bernstein resorts to a complex feat of counterpoint in the "Venice Gavotte", combining "I've got troubles of my own" with "Lady Frilly, Lady Silly", he does not trumpet his cleverness but rather lets us enjoy his compositional dexterity as a side product of the action.  There never was a Broadway show fashioned with more musical skill.  As it turned out, the cleverness worked against it at the box office.

Excerpt from Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell is This? by Marion Meade

"I had only one lyric in it. . . Thank God I wasn't there while it was going on.  There were too many geniuses involved."  Dorothy was irritated by Leonard Bernstein's presumption that he knew how to write lyrics.  She complained to Hellman that he clearly wanted to handle the whole show himself.  Some years later she was still shaking her head over his mania "to do everything and do it better than anybody, which he does, except for lyrics.  The idea was, I think, to keep Voltaire, but they didn't."

Leonard Bernstein recalled that Dorothy "was very sweet, very drunk, very forthcoming, very cooperative and, in sum, a dream to work with.  I expected it would take weeks of visits and phone calls to get the lyric [to the "Venice Gavotte"], but amazingly we had it the next day."  It is hard to imagine Dorothy writing anything overnight, but perhaps she did compose the lyric fairly quickly.

In the end, Dorothy's contribution to Candide did nothing to enhance her reputation or to alter her penniless state.  The show was, she thought, "so overproduced that you couldn't tell what was going on at all."

Article by Leonard Bernstein in the Sunday New York Times, November 11, 1956

Candide or Omnibus?

(The following is a brief colloquy between the author and his Irrepressible Demon, a friendly enemy of long standing.  Place: the familiar Boston hotel suite, where final revisions are being made on the new musical play Candide, soon to open in New York.  Time: any one of those Boston nights, all of which merge together in the memory as one long Night of Revision.  The Irrepressible Demon (hereinafter referred to as ID) makes his appearance at the very moment when the author has crashed into one of the knottiest problems of the score: namely, does this F-sharp sound as though it belongs in a Broadway musical?)

ID: (sneering) Broadway musical!  I can but smile.  Why do you concern yourself with that pitiful F-sharp?  Your problem began long before this, over a month ago, on television.  Have you forgotten that in front of millions of Americans viewing Omnibus you committed yourself forever to a definition of American musical comedy?  Your only problem is that you have basely betrayed your own definition.  Now lets have that F-sharp.  Goodbye.

LB: Wait.  As always you attack me at my weakest moment.  But let's be fair.  I never actually defined American musical comedy; I was only trying to describe it, and to provoke thought about it by throwing out leading ideas.  Personally, I thought I was being very flexible about the whole subject when at the end I disclaimed any intention of prophesying -- nobody's a wizard, after all.  I think I said only that the future is wide open, anything can happen -- things like that.

ID: Of course you said all that, but only after ninety minutes of examples and discussion designed to show that the whole development of musical comedy in this country is based on its ever-increasing alliance with American elements.  American subject-matter, American themes, the American vernacular (that was a much bandied word), and the American musical vernacular, by which it turned out you meant jazz.  And then you went on with a whole other catalogue of Americanisms: our tempo, our way of moving, our moral attitudes, our timing, our kind of humor, and all the rest.  You certainly don't deny that?

LB: I certainly don't.  It's true.  I believe it.

ID: Well then, poor fellow, how come that you, of all people, are sitting in this hotel room writing an American musical comedy based on Voltaire's Candide, that great American classic?

LB: Voltaire's satire is international.  It throws light on all the dark places, whether European or American.  Of course, it's not an American book, but the matters with which it is concerned are as valid for us as any -- and sometimes I think they are especially valid for us in America.  Puritanical snobbery, phony moralism, inquisitorial attacks on the individual, brave-new-world optimism, essential superiority -- aren't these all charges leveled against American society by our best thinkers?  And they are also the charges made by Voltaire against his own society.

ID: Yes, I can understand that.  But that still won't make your show musical comedy.  Perhaps if you were doing it all in modern dress, bringing it all up to the present . . .

LB: Oh no.  That might work in revue, perhaps: not in a work like this one.  Our modern dress is much better furnished us by Lillian Hellman, who is not only thoroughly American, but one of our greatest playwrights as well.  She has taken Voltaire and done much more than adopt him: she has added, deleted, rewritten, replotted, composed brand new sequences, provided a real ending, and, I feel, made it infinitely more significant for our country and our time.  Candide will be American because Miss Hellman is American.  It's that simple.

ID: Not so simple.  Miss Hellman is only one contributor to the work.  What of the score?  Can your characters sing lyrics in what you call the vernacular?  And how can you possibly have them sing music in the American style?

LB: That's a good question.  But the answer is the same.  Our lyricist is a brilliant young American poet, Richard Wilbur; and no matter how couched in locutions of the past the lyrics may be, they will be American because he is American.  Our other lyricists, Dorothy Parker and John Latouche, also bring their American kind of wit and quality to the score.  And I hope I am doing the same for the music.  Of course, it isn't jazz I am writing; it couldn't possibly be, when we are concerned with periods ranging from 1750 to 1830.  In this show we play hopscotch with periods, jumping around in style just as Oliver Smith does in his scenic design, and as Irene Sharaff does in her costume plan.  But as much as we jump, we never approach any contemporary or near contemporary period.  The work is international as well as intertemporal.  But the American quality is inevitable, given these American collaborators.  Don't you see?

ID: I see.  I also see that what you're heading for isn't musical comedy at all -- at least not in the sense of what you described in the Omnibus program.  As I recall, you labored hard and long to make clear the difference between musical comedy and operetta; and Candide is beginning to look to me like a real fine old-fashioned operetta.  Or a comic-opera, or an opera-comique, or whatever that list of your was.  But not a musical comedy, surely?

LB: My dear ID, who ever said it wasn't an operetta?  If that's all you've been worrying about, then our argument is concluded.  Of course it's a kind of operetta, or some long version of musical theater that is basically European but which Americans have long accepted and come to love.  You remember I said that one of the most obvious attributes of the operetta is the exotic (to Americans) atmosphere in which it exists?  Which is why Victor Herbert operettas are operettas, as well as the works of Johann Strauss and Offenbach.  Which also explains why Show Boat is an operetta, as well as Carousel and The King and I and Fanny.  I guess Candide follows in this tradition, rather than in the pure musical comedy tradition of Guys and Dolls, or Wonderful Town.  As for what it will finally be called -- operetta or comic opera or whatever - we must leave that to be decided by others.  The particular mixture of styles and elements that goes into this work makes it perhaps a new kind of show.  Maybe it will turn out to be some sort of new form; I don't know.  There seems to be no really specific precedent for it in our theater, so time must tell.  Again, I must disclaim any intention of prophesying.  And now, Demon, I hereby exorcise you, and command you to lie down again in peace, and let me make Candide the best work I can, whatever kind of work it may be.  Good night.

ID: (Who always has the last word) Good night.  And now, what are you going to do about that F-sharp?

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Compiled by Michael H. Hutchins