At Chicago's Goodman Theatre, Mary Zimmerman is getting together with Voltaire's classic 18th-century novel Candide and the renowned musical based on it — and the combination may well lead to the best of all possible worlds.
"Everything about it appeals to me," says Zimmerman, who won a Tony Award in 2002 for directing her stage adaptation of Ovid's Metamorphoses. "The musical is based on a novel that is epic and old, and I've often done adaptations of old and epic works. There's the love, cynicism and hardness of the novel. And Leonard Bernstein's music is so beautiful."
Her Candide, she says, will be different from other Candides: "I went to Bernstein's estate and got permission to do a new version, a new adaptation." Geoff Packard, of Rock of Ages on Broadway, is Candide; Lauren Molina, also of Rock of Ages, is Cunegonde, his love.
Theatre aficionados know that the original 1956 musical has metamorphosed into many versions in the quest for perfection. The 1956 attempt was trashed by critics and lasted only 73 performances. A hit 1974 Broadway production, directed by Harold Prince, lasted nearly two years. The 1980s saw revised adaptations at New York City Opera and Scottish Opera, the 1990s at London's Royal National Theatre.
The musical's long list of credits hint at the show's complicated history: music by Bernstein, book adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler, lyrics by Richard Wilbur, additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Bernstein. But the show about, in Zimmerman's words, "a young man, Candide, who is raised in the philosophy and belief that everything in the world is for the best, that everything is the best it can possibly be," has survived its complex saga and become popular.
"I know how many people have done it," Zimmerman says, "but there's a bit of room for invention and creation." For example, she says, there's a scene in the novel that does not appear in most major adaptations (though it is in the Royal National Theatre's).
"It's more than midway through, when Candide runs across a slave who works in the sugar mills in Suriname who has had a hand and leg cut off. Candide asks how he lost the hand and leg, and the slave says that when someone catches a hand in the machinery it's much faster to cut it off. When a slave tries to run away a leg is cut off so he is slower. This is how the price of sugar is kept lower in Europe. And Candide says he is no longer an optimist. He says that clearly everything is not for the best. It's a turning point in the novel."
Zimmerman has spent much of her recent time directing at the Metropolitan Opera, including, last season, Rossini's Armida, starring Renée Fleming. Candide, of course, has been performed at opera houses, and is subtitled a comic operetta. And, Zimmerman says, directing Candide, like directing opera, presents special challenges.
"The difficulty intrigues me," she explains. "On its own terms, in any version, it's really absorbing. It holds you. The music is gorgeous. Everyone enjoys it. It's still in the repertoire 54 years later."
Following the Goodman run, to Oct. 31, the production will play The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC.