Hal Prince Strives for the Best of All Possible Candides

Hal Prince Strives for the Best of All Possible Candides Since its problematic premiere more than 40 years ago, Leonard Bernstein's Candide has demonstrated the same resiliency as the much-put-upon hero of Voltaire's 1759 novel.

Director Hal Prince at a press preview for Candide
Director Hal Prince at a press preview for Candide (Photo by Photo by Starla Smith)

Since its problematic premiere more than 40 years ago, Leonard Bernstein's Candide has demonstrated the same resiliency as the much-put-upon hero of Voltaire's 1759 novel.

The show, which seemed destined to become, at best, a cult classic following its short-lived original Broadway production, was given new life in 1973 by director Hal Prince, who staged a one-act environmental version at the 180-seat Chelsea Theatre in Brooklyn. That production was so joyously received that it was transferred to Broadway. In 1982 Prince mounted a new proscenium production for New York City Opera, and three years ago he staged Candide for Chicago Lyric Opera.

This month, the much-traveled Candide alights at the Gershwin Theatre in yet another revamped production. The cast is headed by Jim Dale as Voltaire/Dr. Pangloss, opera singer Harolyn Blackwell as Cunegonde, Broadway newcomer Jason Danieley as Candide and Andrea Martin as the Old Lady. "I'm willing to keep going back to the show because it's fun, and it's never exactly the same each time I do it," says Prince.

Candide follows the adventures of a genial, artless youth who believes that this is "the best of all possible worlds," even though he repeatedly confronts unspeakable cruelty and corruption as he travels the globe. He comes by his credo courtesy of his teacher, the eminently naive, cheerfully deluded philosopher Dr. Pangloss. Candide's irrepressible enthusiasm was Voltaire's satire of a philosophical optimism that was popular at the time.

"Every production of this show that I've done is informed by the story that Voltaire denied authorship of Candide, saying that it was a schoolboy's prank," says Prince. "I spent some time with Paul LeClerc, who's the foremost Voltaire scholar in the world. I said to him, 'Paul, don't expect this show to be in any way important or reverential.' And he said, 'But that's not what the material is.' I looked at all his Voltaire manuscripts, and he showed me illustrations of various international versions of Candide. They are the antithesis of reverential. Some of them are filthy. So the spirit of the show seems appropriate to him."

According to most accounts, the major problem with the original production of Candide was Lillian Hellman's very dark book, which clashed sharply with Bernstein's delicious music and the witty lyrics by poet Richard Wilbur (with additional contributions by John LaTouche, Dorothy Parker, Hellman and Bernstein). The show opened on Broadway on December 1, 1956, and ran for just 73 performances. But its glorious original cast album kept the score alive.

When Prince undertook Candide in 1973, he had Hugh Wheeler rewrite the book. Cuts and additions were made to the score, and Stephen Sondheim provided some additional lyrics. But the show could only accommodate 13 musicians, which compromised Bernstein's music. For New York City Opera, Wheeler expanded the book to two acts, the orchestra grew to 52 musicians, and the show contained more music than ever before. The NYCO production evolved into the Chicago Lyric Opera production and is undergoing further transformations, which include a few cuts and some new Sondheim lyrics for Andrea Martin's character. "I've always approached Candide as a circus freak show," says Prince. "So I added six acrobat scene-changers in Chicago, and they are back for this production. We're also selling 40 onstage bleacher seats, and we'll have some fun with the public."

Prince was never completely satisfied with the color palette at NYCO, and the look of the Broadway show has been dramatically changed by set designer Clarke Dunham and costume designer Judith Dolan, who also worked on the two opera house productions.

The earth tones of Dunham's NYCO sets have been replaced by a bolder, more vivid palette dominated by red. "The set now looks like a world in miniature, rather than just a circus tent," says Dunham. "To me the set represents society and the general decline in morality and decency. There's a lot of Lautrec in this production; it's very French cirque." Says Dolan, "I reconceptualized the characters. They went from a down-and-out traveling troupe to a pseudo nineteenth-century, mummer circus show. The mummers are based on aerialists from nineteenth-century circus posters. Everything is brighter and more theatrical in a tawdry kind of way."

Dolan has redone every costume and was very much inspired by the performers who will inhabit them. "For instance, Jim Dale is very inventive and has a strong kinetic presence," she says. "So I gave him a framework. I discovered that Voltaire always wore a red coat with ratty brown fur around the outside, which works perfectly for him. As soon as you see him, his eccentricity is immediately set. One of the charms of Candide is that it brings back all these wonderful nineteenth-century stage conventions and makes people laugh. It doesn't ask the audience to dream."

Prince agrees. "Candide is picaresque, and it doesn't have the built-in tension you find in most shows," he says. "It's simply a wonderful, jolly show that has a buoyant effect on audiences."