Candide

1982 New York City Opera Production
Selected Writings

Article by John Rockwell in the New York Times, on October 10, 1982

What might be called the second resurrection of Candide, Leonard Bernstein's frothy, ambitious musical setting of Voltaire, is scheduled to take place Wednesday night at the New York State Theater.  If the New York City Opera's resurrection takes place as planned — in other words, if this new version is applauded by the critics and the public — then we may come a little closer to answering the question that has haunted Candide since its birth: Is it an opera, a musical, an operetta or some as yet unidentified mutation?

Mr. Bernstein's musical, based on Voltaire's wittily cynical novel of an innocent youth's optimism through the most appalling tribulations, and of his undying love for his progressively more sullied Cunegonde, was conceived as an operetta, revived as a musical and now, just maybe, will come to life again as an opera, with more of the original music than has ever been heard before.

Candide was born on Broadway on December 1, 1956.  All shows are collaborations, but this was a collaboration at an unusually exalted level.  Not only was the music by Mr. Bernstein, then one of the young stars of both American conducting and compostion, with symphonic scores as well as On the Town, Wonderful Town and Fancy Free to his credit.  But the book was by Lillian Hellman in her first venture onto the musical stage, with lyrics by the poet Richard Wilbur and additional lyrics by John Latouche and Dorothy Parker.  The director was Tyrone Guthrie and the decor was by Oliver Smith.

But all this produced, in the eyes of some, a musical so burdened with grandeur that it collapsed of its own weight.  The critics, most of them, were admiring.  But the public had its doubts, suspicious of the show's heaviness and cultural pretensions, and the show closed after only 73 performances.

Gone, perhaps, but hardly forgotten.  The cast album, with Max Adrian, Robert Rounseville and Barbara Cook, became a collectors' favorite.  "The recording caught on as a kind of cult thing," Mr. Bernstein said the other day.  "They couldn't print enough records, and it's still that way, everywhere I go — Budapest, Helsinki . . ."

Inspired by the cast album, a doughty band of devotees maintained their optimism that Candide might one day be vindicated.  "There were many, many tries to revive it over the years — half-staged versions, oratorio performances," Mr. Bernstein recalled.  "But there was not really a successful staged version until Hal Prince came along, with his idea of a brief, racy, stripped-down version."

That version proved the long-awaited vindication — the first resurrection, so to speak.  Mr. Prince's one-act, chamber orchestra edition, with additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, was produced by the Chelsea Theater Center in Brooklyn and ran for seven weeks in 1973.  Early the nest year it came to Broadway, where it was greeted enthusiastically by both critics and the public.  This new Candide ran for 741 performances.

Mr. Prince made two basic decisions.  He decided that Miss Hellman's book was a chief cause of the original version's unbecoming earnestness, and so he commissioned an entirely new book from Hugh Wheeler, still based loosely on Voltaire but altogether livelier.  Second, he moved the work out of the confines of a proscenium theater and into an environmental space that recalled the theatrical experiments of the 60's.

Since then, however, anyone wanting to mount a production of Candide could only be confused. "This new version came about after lots of requests by opera companies to do Candide, and they couldn't," explained John Mauceri the other day.  Mr. Mauceri was the music director of the Chelsea version and conducted the 1974 Broadway production during the first month.  He is now responsible for the musical reconstruction and conducting the City Opera's revival.

"Lillian Hellman had withdrawn her version, and the 1973 production was a chamber version, with a new orchestration entirely by Hershy Kay," Mr. Mauceri said.  Mr. Kay had collaborated with Mr. Bernstein on the 1956 chamber-orchestra version; his 1973 orchestration was for only 13 musicians, including three keyboards.

"The only problem with the 1973 version was that there was a lot of music that had to go," Mr. Bernstein recalled.  "Various people wanted to try to combine the best aspects of both versions.  So many people had that idea, really, that I can't say it was my idea at all."

Beverly Sills, general director of the City Opera, remembers precisely when the plan for the City Opera's version was born.  "It happened in Chicago, when Hal Prince sat next to Bill Fisher at an opera performance," she said.  Mr. Fisher is an Iowa opera patron whose Gramma Fisher Foundation specializes in productions that are shared by several companies.  "They had a conversation, and after it was over, Bill went back to his hotel and wrote me a letter.  He said if I would stage Candide at the City Opera with Hal, he and his wife would be delighted to fund it."

The City Opera's production, which is being billed as "the world premiere of the operatic version" and which will be published as such, has involved two kinds of reworking: the musical score and the production.

"Hal cut about seven numbers in 1973, including the Act I finale," Mr. Mauceri said.  "What we have now is basically the 1956 version, with several numbers added that had been cut or were never orchestrated.  The new Wheeler book fits exactly, even with the new music, but Wilbur has written some additional lyrics."

"I've composed no new music," Mr. Bernstein added.  "Everything in this version is due to the incredible efforts of Mauceri.  I was busy conducting in Europe, but I had several long telephone calls with him.  He asked my advice, and I was very forthcoming with permissions!"

"I spent the summer with piles and cartons of manuscripts," Mr. Mauceri said.  "It was wonderful, like you'd do with Beethoven, except that I could call up the composer whenever I had a question."

According to Mr. Mauceri, his main attempt was to restore the breadth of emotion and the seriousness that had been deliberately slighted in the 1973 revival.  "There is real, deep emotion in this score, which we almost never reached in 1973."

The choice of songs, scenes and versions sometimes got a bit complicated.  Mr. Mauceri said he has assembled the auto-da-fé scene from four different drafts. and Miss Stills added that the final decision about precisely what to include would not be made "until we see it on stage."  Mr. Mauceri's other tasks included responsibility for the orchestrations and the "underscoring" — the selection and arrangement of music that plays behind the spoken dialogue and visual effects.  The orchestrations of 1956 will be used, with string parts expanded to make an orchestra of about 55.

Miss Sills describes the production as "an entirely different concept" from 1973; Mr. Mauceri calls it "similar, but not quite as silly; it never makes fun of the material."

What is clear is that Mr. Prince has tried to retain the spirit and the look of his 1973 version, but has adapted it to the large stage and proscenium configuration of the New York State Theater.  "You lose things like gags in which green streamers come down on top of the audience's heads for the jungle scene," Mr. Mauceri said, "but you gain in the stature of the whole piece."

There are big, if still tentative plans for this Candide production.  The City Opera will take it to Los Angeles and Miss Stills hopes to revive it for a run in the summer of 1994 and perhaps also to televise it in the manner of Sweeney Todd.  Through the Gramma Fisher Foundation, the same production will be used by the opera companies of Houston, Chicago and, possibly, Washington.  Beyond that, there is a possibility of a commercial run in New York.

Ultimately, this production may determine just how Candide is regarded by posterity.  It has been Mr. Bernstein's explicit intention from the outset of his composing career to create a new form of musical theater from the Broadway musical, at once entertaining and serious, on the model of Mozart's transformation of the German vaudeville Singspiel in Die Zauberflote.

"We called it an operetta in 1956," Mr. Bernstein recalled.  "It seemed the closest terminology we cound find.  I guess one should stick to it now.  It would be pretentious to call it an opera, but I still think and hope it belongs in an opera house."

If the 1956 version was an operetta, the 1973 version was most definitely a musical, and Miss Stills, at least, thinks the 1982 version is an actual opera.  "Since Lenny has called this the operatic version of Candide, I would say it's an opera," she said.  "With only a couple of exceptions, we have cast it entirely from our own company."

Mr. Mauceri took a more considered view.  "The National Endowment for the Arts has an 'opera / musical theater' program; I call it the 'slash' program.  The National Opera Institute has a musical-theater component, I myself am presenting a revival of On Your Toes this season at Kennedy Center.  For that we're working with Hans Spialek, who orchestrated Richard Rodgers and who sang as a chorus boy under Mahler in Vienna.  After a while, you begin to realize that the Broadway sound was created by a Viennese who heard Maria Jeritza in Vienna.  You see this continuum.

"Candide is serious, on the highest level of any opera, and it's also entertaining, just as funny as any show," Mr. Mauceri continued.  "So what does that make it, a musical, an operetta or an opera?  Our aim with this revival is to make the best version we could — for Candide finally to rest from his journeys.  We want the best Candide — you see I've been very careful not to say 'the best of all possible Candides'"

Liner note by John Mauceri for the New York City Opera recording (released in 1986)

The selection of music for Hugh Wheeler's new book for Candide was about half completed when Leonard Bernstein asked me to be musical director of the 1973 [Chelsea Theatre] production, directed by Harold Prince.  My task was to arrange a preexisting score into an entirely new book.  This included finding an opening number, music for the stained-glass windows to sing, a coherent version of "Auto-da-fé", and a new song for "Eldorado".  These were ultimately found not only in the published 1956 score but also in the two volumes of other Candide songs, ensembles, and transitions Leonard Bernstein had written from the early 1950s through 1971.  Although the Wheeler/Prince Candide was the shortest and smallest version (being in one act and using a 13-piece orchestra), it did include music not heard on Broadway in 1956, principally "Candide's Lament" — which is the structural center of the score — the "Sheep Song" and about half the "Auto-da-fé". 

When the opportunity arose ten years later to perform the same task for a two-act version, I was delighted because it was unacceptable that so much of the score to Candide was still in the trunk.  While it would be impossible to include all the music written for Candide (because there are multiple versions of the same musical material and in one case [Pangloss's syphilis song] two songs on the same subject), I nonetheless believed that the Wheeler book could accept over 90 percent of the various versions of the score and that restoration and reconstruction of a full orchestration would be closer to the composer's intentions. 

The summer of 1982 was devoted to fitting this great score into the new two-act script.  The major structural problems were creating a finale to Act I and an opening to Act II.  The former is basically the 1956 Act I finale, and the latter is taken from the 1956 "Voyage to Venice" linked to "The Ballad of Eldorado".  The Eldorado song is one of the composer's favorites, but it had no place in the Wheeler script.  When I suggested it as a sung entr'acte, Richard Wilbur supplied a new set of lyrics to what is now "The Ballad of the New World" (as well as all the new lyrics needed for this version).  Whenever there was need for underscoring I tried to use music that was otherwise left out; thus the 1956 "Pilgrims' Procession" underscores Pangloss's first speech. 

What is missing ("We Are Women", "Get Ye Gone", "Nothing More Than This" and "Words, Words, Words") amounts to very little compared to what is here — some of it for the first time ever.  The orchestrations have been made consistent throughout, using 1956 as both source and model.  In the case of the overture the percussion parts have been expanded to agree with Bernstein's concert overture (in 1956 one player was available; in this version there are three), and as a result we had more flexibility in using percussion throughout. 

Excerpt from the liner note by Theodore S. Chapin for the New York City Opera recording (released in 1986)

Prince and his collaborators had proved [in 1973] that Candide could work in the theater, and it seemed inevitable that somehow, somewhere, Candide would find its way into a production where the musical values would once again be stressed.  This production might even end up where some of those Boston critics in 1956 had suggested the piece belonged — in an opera house. . . .

After 26 years and almost as many versions, some of the basic questions about Candide remain.  Voltaire's satire was aimed at a particular philosophy of his day that he found inadequate as a justification for the suffering in the world around him.  His style was light and breezy, as if to enchant the reader while making his astute observations.  It wasn't tragic in tone; that Voltaire reserved for his dramas.  How, then, does one musicalize satire?  There is a saying in the theater, attributed to George S. Kaufman, that "satire is what closes on Saturday night" — perhaps because it is difficult to find universal dramatic themes in pointed and timely subjects.  Were Bernstein, Wilbur, and Hellman successful in finding their themes?  Surely the 1980s are less optimistic than the 1950s, yet in neither time has there been a philosophical movement to match that of Leibnitz and Pope.  Stylistic satires abound within the show, but are they enough to justify a whole evening's entertainment?  . . .

One can only wonder, when the glorious moment of "Make Our Garden Grow" arrives, if we are to take it on face value or satirically.  (And one needs little more than to listen to it on [the New York City Opera] recording to realize the operatic proportions of some of the musical writing.) 

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

Prince's opera-house version added a heroic dimension that deepened the material without forsaking its humor.  At the end of the Broadway Candide, a cow died of the pox, confounding yet again the hero's desire to believe the lesson of Dr. Pangloss that this is the best of all possible worlds.  At the end of the opera-house production there was no pox; instead the backdrop lifted to reveal a sun-dappled landscape which transmuted Voltairean irony into a redemptive vision of harmony and growth; after castastrophic experience out in the world, the wiser characters retreat to a high-minded isolationism as they set about cultivating an Edenic garden.

The challenge of rethinking the play's physical shape for the cavernous New York State Theatre led Prince to replace the journey with a performance framework in which Candide is staged by Dr. Voltaire's Traveling Freak Show for an on-stage audience.  To accomodate the fluid movement and frequent changes of scene Prince used multiple playing areas — boxes with two levels on either side of the stage, pageant wagons pushed on and off center stage in view of both the on-stage and theatre audiences.  As if Candide was too kinetic to be contained within the proscenium, action occasionally spilled out into the audience, with Candide traveling along the second row of the orchestra as he sang "It Must Be So", and Dr. Pangloss delivering his final homilies from the front box theatre left.

Despite the upscale ambience, Prince retained much of the free-wheeling spirit of his original environmental staging.  Pratfalls and sight gags abounded; Dr. Pangloss got entangled in reams of paper as he tried to locate his ultimate words of wisdom; toy ships on a painted sea, plastic rocks to suggest Eldorado, and toy buildings that crumbled during the Lisbon earthquake demonstrated Prince's delight in theatrical sleight of hand.  The production was filled with a director's pleasure in demonstrating how theatrical illusion is created, while the gleeful applause of the on-stage spectators at each of the tricks was Prince's comment on the eagerness of audiences to be taken in, to suspend disbelief and give themselves over to the magic of theatrical make-believe.

Review by Donal Henahan in the New York Times, on October 14, 1982

In the best of all possible worlds, Leonard Bernstein's Candide would have made it to the opera stage last night as an undiluted triumph.  If Dr. Pangloss had written the scenario for the evening, he would have had the 26-year-old musical making a joyous transition from Broadway to the New York City Opera's repertory, registering the kind of success that sends audiences home whistling the tunes and repeating the wittiest lyrics to their friends.

Well, at the risk of adopting a Panglossian view, I must report that something very close to that state of affairs prevailed at the State Theater.  The new "opera house version" of Candide was performed so brilliantly that one would have thought it had been running for months rather than being mounted as part of the company's usual hectic schedule.  In fact, the audience gave the composer a standing ovation when he arrived, fashionably late, before the first act, and again before the start of the last act.

Those who know the Bernstein score from recordings or from one of the show's previous productions do not need to be told that the night was full of wonderful music.  But who could have predicted that the City Opera would be able to cast the show so unerringly and in such depth.  Making debuts were two handsome and remarkably funny young ladies, Erie Mills as Cunegonde and Deborah Darr as Paquette.  Miss Mills, who carried off the night's vocal honors with the dazzling "Glitter and Be Gay" is a real rarity: an intentionally humorous coloratura soprano.  Miss Darr needed only to stand there to make a big impression, but she did far more than that, and did it hilariously.

Harold Prince's staging was not without its clichés — it brought singers down into the audience at times for no pressing reason, for instance.  But on the whole he contained the action within a proscenium framework and kept an essentially segmented work flowing nicely.  Among dozens of memorable touches was a ballroom scene in which silhouetted male dancers flung their partners around with marvelous abandon, like stuffed dummies.  (That is what they were, of course.)  Everything clicked so neatly that one could ignore the fact that most of the effects were fairly standard Broadway musical stuff, gussied up for a night at the opera.

The principals could hardly have been better.  John Lankston shuttled about expertly among four roles, including Voltaire and Dr. Pangloss, who carried the narrative in clear, understandable tones.  In fact, the words were so well projected by almost everyone that there was intermission speculation about whether amplification was being used.  If so, it was subtle.  David Eisler, as Candide himself, gave a most persuasive portrayal of a sweet-natured, innocent ninny.  Scott Reeve, as the preening Maximilian, was a model of statuesque idiocy.  Muriel Costa-Greenspon's lush accent as the Old Lady made a mush of the text at times, but such sins were rare during the night.

This is, in effect, a new Candide in all but its music, and even that has been touched up a great deal.  Mr. Bernstein and his musical elves have gone back to his original score to restore some deleted pages and reorchestrate others.  The orchestration, a communal project, is now attributed to the composer himself, Hershy Kay and John Mauceri, the conductor of last night's revival.

The failure of the original Candide has always seemed puzzling to those who have cherished the original cast album for a quarter of a century.  Still, until a couple of revivals in recent years caught public fancy, Candide remained hardly more than a legend, a theatrical Eldorado whose rediscovery was increasingly difficult to believe in, even for diehards.

In 1973, with some of the earlier difficulties cleared away, a "chamber version" of Candide opened in Brooklyn, conducted by John Mauceri, with a new book by Hugh Wheeler and direction by Mr. Prince.  That production, which subsequently moved to Broadway, played 741 performances.  Its success led Beverly Sills, Mr. Mauceri and other Candide enthusiasts to believe that a rethought, restaged and restored "opera house version" could be put together and that it might take its place as a genuine opera, although a decidedly comic one.

What happened at the State Theater strongly suggests that they were right.  If this were really the best of all possible operatic worlds, the new Candide would become a repertory staple of companies all over the world.  Right now, Mr. Bernstein will probably settle for the success he enjoyed last night.

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

Directed with swaggering theatricality, Prince's opera-house production substantiated his claim that serious musical theatre and opera share common ground and can have a similar impact on audiences.  Like Bernstein's score, by turns passionate and sly, Prince's showmanship filled the huge opera stage, demonstrating finally that Candide is a total theatre work which dismantles the boundaries between Broadway and Lincoln Center.

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