The sign on the stage of the New York State Theater says “Dr. Voltaire’s Freaks and Wonders” and it serves and an invitation to the best of all possible worlds—the world of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. Upon entering the New York City Opera repertory in October 1982, this carnival of cynicism and joy firmly narrowed the gap between musical theatre and opera, and immediately became one of the company’s most popular and successful productions.
This is the third incarnation of Candide, which kicks off NYCO’s 20-week season July 1 with eight consecutive performances, and returns the final week of the season for an additional eight performances (one of which will be televised by PBS). And were it not for director Hal Prince—with the considerable assistance of writer Hugh Wheeler and conductor John Mauceri—it is likely that the work would still be relegated to the status of cult classic.
Candide concerns the travels and travails of a callow youth who remains eternally optimistic under the worst circumstances, thanks to the teachings of a not-so-sage philosopher, Dr. Pangloss. The show first opened on Broadway on December 1, 1956, directed by Tyrone Guthrie, designed by Oliver Smith, with a cast headed by Robert Rounseville as Candide, Barbara Cook as Cuengonde and Max Adrian as Dr. Pangloss. The book was written by Lillian Hellman, the lyrics by poet Richard Wilbur, with help from John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, Hellman and Bernstein. Despite such distinguished talent, only someone as naïve as Candide would have dared predict that this comic operetta—as it was dubbed—would be going strong almost 30 years later. Although it featured a stunning and witty score, there was, by most accounts, an enormous clash of styles between the music and the rest of the production. As a result, the show opened to mixed reviews and lasted just 73 performances.
“It was a mixture of disparate artistic points-of-view,” recalls Price, who was not involved with the original Candide. “The book was deadly serious and meaning to be funny. But Hellman wasn’t a funny writer. She was an acid writer and, although it’s difficult for me to find, she was apparently trying to make some point about McCarthyism in the book. Meanwhile, Lenny’s score was light and delicious and cerebral and emotional.
“This is essentially a serious subject,” he continues, “but Voltaire’s novella was written with prankishness. It’s somebody saying, ‘It’s the best of all possible worlds’ with vast cynicism, but it’s said by someone who really loved life. And that indomitable spirit came through everything. Well, Lenny feels that. So the score was making all these nasty observations about the culpability of people, but it was still joyful. The book wasn’t. The scenery was beautiful, but heavy and austere, and I can still remember it moving rather ponderously and slowly and importantly. The whole show was too bloody important.”
Prince was determined to avoid that mistake in 1973 when Robert Kalfin, artistic director of the Chelsea Theatre in Brooklyn persuaded him to stage a new production. “There’s a story that when someone asked Voltaire if he wrote Candide he said, ‘No. It’s a schoolboy’s prank,’” explains Prince. “That tells me about Voltaire’s attitude toward it, and I had the in mind when I went to work on it. I thought, ‘It’s a boy’s stunt, and Lenny’s score is prankish and life-giving. How do we breathe life and get that prankishness back in it?’
“And I realized that the world that he observes is a kind of freak show. So my idea was to do it as a sideshow, the kind you used to see in the old days at the circus, with Voltaire/Pangloss serving as the barker that takes you through the story.”
Hugh Wheeler wrote the book with that idea in mind, and Price went to work with Eugene Lee on the set. “We wanted to make it possible for the audience to be able to see ten or a dozen stages all night long. We finally decided to put those stages all over the theatre, in some instances surrounding the audience. So I think we got our sideshow.”
That production, a one-act version, was first done in Brooklyn, then moved to Broadway where it played 740 performances. Musical cuts were made, but John Mauceri also restored some songs that did not find their way into the first production and Stephen Sondheim provided additional lyrics. Hershy Kay reworked the original orchestrations (which he had done with Bernstein) to suit a 13-piece ensemble, half the size of the first production.
“Lenny sacrificed a lot musically in our version,” admits Prince. “So he was quite happy when Beverly [Sills] decided she wanted it in the opera house. And we made it up to him. We gave him a 52-piece orchestra, twice the size he had originally.”
Mauceri again unearthed music which had never before been heard, and the “opera house version” of Candide—which has been recorded by NYCO for New World Records, with David Eisler as Candide, Erie Mills as Cunegonde and John Lankston as Pangloss—contains more music than either of the two previous productions. He also reorchestrated the score to give it consistency, basing his work on the 1956 version. In addition, Wheeler expanded his book to two acts. “The problem became, ‘How do you put that version on a regular stage,’” Prince says. “We went back to a freak show and managed to do it. There are a few instances in which you could really do without. It’s a sort of stubbornness that makes me bring the cast onto the stage from the house, and have Candide sing one ballad walking through the house. I’m aware that the style isn’t particularly consistent, but opera houses are potentially stuffy places and I love anything which destroys the sort of reverential atmosphere. And I think Beverly does too.”
There is no doubt in Prince’s mind that Candide is right where it belongs. “We still have not properly identified modern operas for audiences,” he maintains. “I think Candide comes closest. If you accept Offenbach in the opera house, you damn well better accept Bernstein.”