Candide

1973 Chelsea Theater Production
Selected Writings

Excerpt from Harold Prince and the American Musical Theatre by Foster Hirsch

In 1973 Robert Kalfin of the Chelsea Theater Center approached [Harold Prince to direct a new production of Candide]. . .  Prince was reluctant to accept because he had thought the original was "awfully heavy-going and cold," a melange of disparate elements; as Sondheim said, "Lenny's score was pastiche, Lillian wrote a black comedy, Guthrie directed a wedding cake."  When he re-read Voltaire's Candide Prince was impressed by its "irreverent, prankish spirit," a quality altogether absent from Guthrie's production, but felt that he could proceed only with a new libretto.  Hellman refused to rewrite, and Prince lured Hugh Wheeler, who turned Voltaire's odyssey into a knockabout farce brimming with narrative improbabilities and sexual high-jinks.  Never pausing to philosophize or to point a moral, Wheeler's lean libretto with its cynical pokes at mindless optimism is true to the general spirit of its source.

Hugh Wheeler on writing a new libretto for Candide
Quoted in Harold Prince and the American Musical Theatre by Foster Hirsch

I had to re-read Voltaire and pick out what I thought were the most effective scenes.  I did my own architecture.  I had a technical problem superimposed because the songs were already written, and I had to service the music and lyrics.  The original production had been too long and so I tried to be concise.  I treated the characters affectionately, which was easy because that's what Voltaire did.  Hal and I felt that the picaresque structure needed a frame, an anchor that was missing from the first production, and so we decided to introduce the characters and to step into the action from time to time as other characters — our Voltaire became Dr. Pangloss, the wicked governor, a businessman. . . .

Excerpt from Harold Prince and the American Musical Theatre by Foster Hirsch

"Guthrie's opening number, "The Best of All Possible Worlds", was about an idea," Prince says.  Having learned how crucial a show's first number is Prince asked Stephen Sondheim to write lyrics for a new opening number, "Life is Happiness Indeed", which could provide a comic introduction to the characters.  Sondheim's lyrics freed the show by setting up the figures as comic dupes unrealistically rosy and fatally lacking in self-awareness.

Excerpt from Sondheim & Company by Craig Zadan

"One of the most extraordinary things about Steve [Sondheim]," says Leonard Bernstein, "was that he swore that he would never write lyrics for anybody else's music again as long as he lived.  Then he went and worked so terribly hard on the new production of Candide, and along with Hal Prince and Hugh Wheeler made the show work after so many attempts that ended in failure.  But that's an example of Steve's friendship and generosity." 

"Actually," Sondheim admits, "Lenny had asked me to do the lyrics for Candide originally.  He had been working on lyrics with John Latouche and then Latouche died.  About that time we went to work on West Side Story, and Lenny asked me if I'd work with him on Candide, but I turned him down because it seemed at the time that Hal was going to produce a new musical called The Last Resorts...but the show was never done." 

[Webmaster's note: Actually, Latouche's death in 1956 was well after Bernstein's and Hellman's decision (late 1954) to find a new lyricist, eventually choosing Richard Wilbur in December 1955.]

The Chelsea Theater Center's production of Candide, staged in the environmental setting of Eugene and Franne Lee's drawbridges, catwalks, platforms, and ramps, created a sensation when it opened in Brooklyn for a limited engagement.  Hugh Wheeler's new book, based on Voltaire rather than Lillian Hellman's libretto from the original 1956 production, changed the characters from madcap adults to wide-eyed teenagers (although, as some critics pointed out, the musical still suffered from being a one-joke episodic show with the problem of diminishing comic returns inherent in the story.) 

"This version of Candide was exactly what I wanted it to be," says Bernstein.  "It's exciting, swift, pungent, funny, and touching and it works just like sideshows at a fair.  We lost five songs that were on the original cast album, although what's on the record is not the full score by means.  "Eldorado", "Gavotte", "Quiet", "Mazurka", and "What's the Use?" are not in the new production.  But there were other things that had been written for the show and never used.  They found this music in old trunks and boxes and Steve wrote new lyrics to them." 

Review by Clive Barnes in the New York Times, December 21, 1973

There are musicals that are smash hits, musicals that are successes, musicals that are all manner of failure right down to abject and beyond, and musicals that are legends.  Leonard Bernstein's Candide was a legend.  Now the Chelsea Theater Center of Brooklyn — it lives most vigorously in a handsome attic at the Brooklyn Academy of Music — has made the legend a reality.

It was no secret that Mr. Bernstein's comic operetta Candide was not only the most brilliant work Mr. Bernstein has ever composed, but also that in its original staging it had been an unhappy, unlucky failure.  It was a kind of musical where you cherished the record and conveniently forgot the scenic circumstances.  It was the classic did-not-work-on-the-stage musical.

This is now a new musical, a fun musical, and, so far at least, the best musical of the Broadway season.  (It happens to be in Brooklyn, but that is all the same territory to someone with a subway token.)

Everyone who loves the American musical knew about Candide, and everyone sympathized with its comparative failure both on Broadway and in London's West End.  In its original version it had everything going for it except success.

Harold Prince, in deciding to stage Candide for the Chelsea, took one brave and very intelligent decision.  He decided that the old book, by Lillian Hellman, simply did not work.  He was very right.  He brought in Hugh Wheeler to provide a new book still tenuously based on Voltaire, and while most sensibly keeping most of the original lyrics by the poet Richard Wilbur, also enlisted the occasional and dazzling assistance of Stephen Sondheim.

Then Mr. Prince decided — and this was the real creative leap — that this was not a conventional musical fit for the occasionally fallen arches of a proscenium.  He knew the music, understood the show's rapid changes of circumstance and scene, and devised a way to express the work's particular style.

The work is episodic.  Basically that is why it originally failed.  Mr. Prince has staged it episodically and that is why it is now one of the few luminous delights of the New York theater.  It is simply a lovely, heartwarming piece.

Mr. Wheeler's new book exults in Voltaire and his sardonic world picture of Panglossian philosophy that we all live in the best of all possible worlds.  Undoubtedly the new book is a great help to this musical's finally attaining the theatrical acceptance its music demanded.  But there is more to it than this.

The idea of the story remains the same.  Candide — Voltaire's perfect innocent — finds love and happiness throughout a series of cumulatively insupportable disasters.  He is idiotically sustained by his faith (Voltaire's cynicism knew refreshingly few limits) and his love for Cunegonde, a lady much raped but pure at heart.

This was originally a musical of swiftly changing vignettes, quite unsuitable to a proscenium theater.  Mr. prince, making a virtue out of difficulty, has taken a leaf out of Richard Schechner's Performing Garage theatrical presentation and devised, with the help of Eugene and Franne Lee, a new environmental theater.

It is a theater of ramps, drawbridges and surprises.  It is also a theater of instant actuality.  Scenes take place all over the auditorium, even the orchestra — and a word here for the splendid quadritonal orchestrations of Hershey Kay — is split into four segments around the house.  In this way the disadvantage of the musical's rapid-fire exchange of scene becomes a positive advantage.

The acting of the protean cast was absolutely fine.  Maureen Brennan, for example, is a dizzy mixture of coloratura and sex, and Mark Baker, open-hearted and fresh-eyed, charmed as Candide.  But the two hits of the show were June Gable as the monstrously put upon Old Lady, and, best of all, the brilliant Lewis J. Stadlen in a multiple role, from Voltaire to Pangloss to a villainous South American governor, who dominated the show with commanding expertise.

I loved this new Candide.  I always knew that the Bernstein music was a great score but somehow had been lost on the way to the theater.  Here it has at last been found.  Mr. Bernstein, Mr. Wheeler, Mr. Prince and, of course, Mr. Voltaire, have given us a new and effervescent musical.

Review by Walter Kerr in the New York Times, December 30, 1973

Candide may at last have stumbled into the best of all possible productions.  I take back "stumbled", instantly.  For there is nothing at all inadvertent about the magician's pass director Harold Prince has made at the song-and-dance celebration of Voltaire's calculated insult to "the best of all possible worlds."  Mr. Prince has looked at the materials, long, hard, and lovingly, decided what kind and degree of theatrical impudence is called for, got himself a new and free-floating libretto by Hugh Wheeler, and then simply rebuilt a theater to suit Leonard Bernstein's sweetly irreverent score.

Ever since Candide was first attempted, unsuccessfully, on Broadway in 1956 — there was book trouble, production trouble, tone trouble — everybody and his brother has come up with ideas about salvaging the glittering, grinning Bernstein melodies and the muted ironies of certain of Richard Wilbur's lyrics.  But on one — until now — had thought of making the entire event spin just as Voltaire's novel spins, dizzily from rape to earthquake, restlessly from Lisbon to Constantinople, feverishly and foolishly from luscious dreams of "breast of pheasant, apple pie" to syphilis and pus and the poisoned darts of aborigines.  The original is short, breathless, cantakerous, and cavalier.  Mr. Prince has thrown words, notes, and players at us with the same windswept effrontery.

As we find our seats on the staggered benches at the Chelsea Theater Center in Brooklyn — Academy of Music, fourth floor — we look down on what is normally the acting area and wonder where on earth the acting can ever be done.  Almost everything we see is audience, facing this way and that, a jigsaw puzzle eddying outward from a space just large enought to contain a postage-stamp size fourposter on which Voltaire lies, paper and quill tossed aside, asleep.  No room for roundelays, let alone heel-kicking romps, there.

Then, in a flash, we get the picture.  The orchestra that launches into an exhilarating overture is split: a gold-braided conductor, a bass viol, some trumpeters in guards helmets command a perch at one far wall, a matching complement send back rich sonorities from the other.  Living stereo, we are encased in the music.  Simultaneously with the last note of the overture, the first drawbridge slaps down to connect one rim of the house with the center.

The place, it turns out, is — like Voltaire's world — booby-trapped.  What seems no more than shower-curtains fly upward to reveal perfectly workable nooks for whole families, ramps flop forward to help the shipwrecked to shore, a tiny stage opens its drapes to display the likes of a dozen Carmen Mirandas singing sassy tribute to the New World, and when there's no other way for an actor to get from the Inquisition to Eldorado he simply reaches for a pulley and glides gleefully over our heads.

The show is now a carousel and we are on it; quite safely.  Though the actors are working in and about us — a rifleman shot a brigand dead within inches of my nose — the design of the unending chase is so firm, the performers are so secure in their climbing and tumbling and round-the-earth footwork, that we are able to join the journey and still see it with the detachment that Voltaire prescribes.  Which only proves, once again, that detachment is more nearly a psychological than a physical matter.

Now all of this is most important for a couple of fairly transparent reasons.  The philosophical premises of Candide are pretty readily grasped: Dr. Pangloss teaches his pupils — the happy bastard Candide, the adoring and cunning Cunegonde, the vain Maximillian, and the extremely available Paquette — that everything that happens in God's universe must necessarily happen for the best.  (The lunacy of the proposition is delectably, and exhaustively, established in the first three of Mr. Bernstein's tunes, "Life is Happiness Indeed", "The Best of All Possible Worlds", and "Oh, Happy We".)

Thereafter the perverse universe can only contradict the premise steadily, visiting holocaust upon holocaust on victims who are determined to see virtue in snakes, wars, lost buttocks, and being hanged.  The pattern is necessarily repetitive and, when it is forced into a proscenium frame with that frame's implications of cause-and-effect logic, its point can become labored.

Labor goes out the window here.  Hugh Wheeler doesn't have to explain anything, certainly never at length: if towers are going to topple in Lisbon or the captive Cunegonde is going to have to share her favors with a rich Jew and a Grand Inquisitor, Mr. Wheeler simply has to toss out a dialogue line to say that the universe is behaving capriciously again and Mr. Prince can swiftly take it from there.  On into songs sung by stained-glass windows, on into a whirling worklight that miraculously takes care of a volcanic eruption, on into ships' rigging flung in a trice over the auditorium, on into green streamers unsnarling from the ceiling to provide a jungle.  The glee isn't in what happens — that's all forseen, anyway — but in how swiftly and inventively it can be made to happen, almost before we have noticed.

The sheer expedition of it all helps in two other ways.  Though there is obviously no great open space for dancing, choreographer Patricia Birch has discovered that by distributing her cavorting figures over bridge and ramp, hill and dale, she can give us the effect of being buoyantly borne aloft on steps that are, taken by themselves, quite simple.  And the speed cuts the dross away so that we can arrive at another melody all the sooner (the present version runs for an hour and 43 minutes without intermission, and seems very close to Bernstein uninterrupted).  It does more than save time for music, it sets tone for music.

There is a perfect passage, for instance, in which Maureen Brennan, as a ringed and ringleted Cunegonde, plucks jewels to her heart while mourning the shabbiness of it all.  The mock-aria is itself enchanting, always has been.  But Mr. Prince has seen fit to provide Cunegonde with a kind of catatonic alter ego, a lass buried in the floor wearing a vast white wig laced with diamonds and steadfastly playing what may be a piano-forte.  Cunegonde not only purloins the necklaces as she pursues coloratura figures, she doesn't mind whacking the lass in the head, with her foot, to be supplied with a last delicacy, blue garters.  We are ready for the outrageousness of the song because we have been, are being, so happily outraged all along.

Not everything is quite perfect.  Lewis J. Stadlen plays Voltaire, Pangloss, and an assortment of other masterminds; he is particularly funny as an ancient sage peeling answers to philosophical questions from a desk-spindle.  I do wish, however, he had been permitted to do one or another role in natural voice; too much of his energy goes into assumed quavers.  And one large-scale production number, "What a Day (for an Auto-da-fe)", goes mysteriously sober, and soberingly flat, after a cruelly jolly beginning.  We are ready to make the most of combining a fiesta with public torture, but ironic balance is lost and the celebration turns merely moody; perhaps poor Candide's flogging isn't sufficiently stylized to keep us on keel.

But these are very minor quibbles about a most satisfying resurrection.  Mark Baker's Candide, guileless in lederhosen and seraphic even when tied up in a sack, is splendid, he and Miss Brennan do blissful justice to the open-throated surges and delicate retreats of "You Were Dead, You Know", and June Gable is very funny as a kind of Polish-Yiddish Mother Courage who is, as she sings, "Easily Assimilated".  Eugene and Franne Lee have designed the functional and revealing snakepit Mr. Prince has demanded of them, and done it ingeniously.  It is to be hoped that if the revival moves anywhere else once it has had its will of Brooklyn, it will somehow find the courage to take its spectacularly intimate shape along.

I wouldn't wait, if I were you.  It's an evening of enormous charm.

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Compiled by Michael H. Hutchins