Some theaters revive Broadway hits. Others take chances on new plays that may or may not be successful. In 1973, an adventurous theater in New York did what no theater had ever done: the Chelsea Theater Center of Brooklyn revived a 1957 Broadway flop.
Candide, for all its problems, featured music by Leonard Bernstein that rivals what he accomplished in West Side Story and his best concert works. After bringing in new people to revise the book and lyrics and finding a radical new way to stage the work, the Chelsea brought Candide back to Broadway; there, it drew huge audiences, earned rave reviews, and took five Tony Awards. Since then, Candide has been a staple of theater and opera companies — it lives on the line between musical theater and operetta — and has been revised by other companies along the way.
Now, on what would have been Bernstein’s 100th birthday, the University Opera Theatre, in collaboration with Michigan’s departments of Theatre & Drama and Musical Theatre, will present the 1988 Scottish Opera version. Matthew Ozawa will stage Bernstein’s favorite and final revision; Kenneth Kiesler will conduct the University Symphony Orchestra. “The Scottish version has much more music,” Ozawa reports.
Adapted from the 1759 novella by Voltaire, Candide follows an optimistic and naïve young man who believes the tutor who insists that we live in the “best of all possible worlds.” Candide travels the world, experiencing war, natural disasters, and other sufferings, all the while continuing to believe what he has been taught; in the end, he decides to cultivate his own garden, his way of creating a better future.
Bernstein hardly made a secret of the fact that one of the impulses for his operetta was provided by the McCarthyite witch hunts in the 1950s. The work was created in 1953 as a result of discussions between the composer and playwright Lillian Hellman. Both had been affected by the Red Scare. Bernstein was forced to sign a humiliating affidavit attesting to his anti-communism. Hellman, a onetime member and continuing supporter of the Communist Party, was blacklisted in the film industry, and her partner, author Dashiell Hammett, another party supporter, went to jail for refusing to provide the names of those who had contributed to a bail fund for Communist Party leaders prosecuted under the reactionary Smith Act.
Hellman adapted Voltaire’s work with lyricist John La Touche and Bernstein. LaTouche was later replaced by poet Richard Wilbur. In 1956, the year that Bernstein was simultaneously composing West Side Story, Candide was ready for performances in Boston, where Dorothy Parker contributed lyrics to “The Venice Gavotte” in Act 2. La Touche also belonged to the Stalinist milieu, as did Parker, and Wilbur was generally left-wing.
Candide’s complicated performance history involves numerous revisions in the 30 years since its premiere in 1956. Versions appeared in 1973, 1982 and 1989, and further posthumous revisions in 1993 and 1999—Bernstein died in 1990. UM presented the 1989 Scottish Opera Edition of the Opera-House Version.
Over the course of their wanderings throughout Europe and South America, Candide and his love interest and partner Cunegonde are subjected to every sort of painful adversity: wars, shipwrecks, earthquakes, rapes, beatings and swindles. Their life lessons knock the stuffing out of Pangloss’s “optimism.”
Bernstein’s Candide itself wanders through an array of musical styles: jazz, Broadway, Igor Stravinsky, neo-Baroque, operetta, tango, Gustav Mahler, and, in some versions, a Schoenbergian twelve-tone row.
Many of the lyrics are striking, such as when Pangloss sings: “Though war may seem a bloody curse, it is a blessing in reverse. When cannon roar, both rich and poor by danger are united.”
Pangloss is also responsible for such gems as these: “Since every part of the body is made for the best of all possible reasons, it follows that every part of the State—which is merely a body in macrocosm—is made of the best of all possible reasons.”
Narrator Voltaire derides the Catholic Church for torturing and killing its victims in an “Auto-da-Fé” (act of faith, or the burning of heretics and apostates), while a chorus sings:
What a day, what a day,
For an Auto da Fé!…
It’s a lovely day for drinking
And for watching people die!
What a perfect day to be a money lender!
Or a tradesman, or a merchant or a vendor!
At a good exciting lynching…
It’s a bonnie day for business,
Better raise the prices high!
For an Inquisition day this is a wonder!
“One final word in praise of the universal laws of Science,” says Pangloss. “God in his wisdom made it possible to invent the rope and what is the rope for but to create a noose?”
The operetta is highlighted by the famous satirical showpiece, Cunegonde’s coloratura aria, “Glitter and Be Gay.”
Bernstein always pointed to the anti-communist purges of the 1940s and 1950s as one of the impulses for his operetta. According to the official Leonard Bernstein website, the operetta’s creators saw a “parallel between the Inquisition’s church-sponsored purges and the ‘Washington Witch Trials,’ fueled by anti-Communist hysteria and waged by the House Un-American Activities Committee.”
In 1989, between the acts of a concert performance of the work in London, Bernstein remarked: “Why Candide ? Whither and whence Candide ?… The particular evil which impelled Lillian Hellman to choose Candide and present it to me as the basis for a musical stage work was what we now quaintly and, alas, faintly recall as McCarthyism—an ‘ism’ so akin to that Spanish inquisition we just revisited in the first act as to curdle the blood. This was a period in the early ‘50s of our own century, exactly 200 years after the Lisbon affair [massive earthquake], when everything that America stood for seemed to be on the verge of being ground under the heel of that Junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, and his inquisitorial henchmen. That was the time of the Hollywood Blacklist—television censorship, lost jobs, suicides, expatriation and the denial of passports to anyone even suspected of having once known a suspected Communist.
“I can vouch for this. I was denied a passport by my own government. By the way, so was Voltaire denied a passport by his.”
With Candide, Bernstein was attempting to create a popular American musical satire. Undoubtedly, one of his inspirations or models, in the general sense, was The Threepenny Opera (1928) by Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill. Bernstein had conducted a concert performance of the “play with music”—also a bitter satire and based on an 18th century work—in 1952 at a music festival before an audience of nearly 5,000 people. That performance, featuring Lotte Lenya (Weill’s wife), is considered the “warm-up” for The Threepenny Opera’s enormously successful run off-Broadway in 1954 and then from 1955-1961. Lenya once asserted, “I think surely Leonard Bernstein knows every note of Kurt Weill … and he is the one who took up after Weill’s death … I think [he] is the closest to Kurt Weill.”
The current production is fully staged, but you can get a sense of the premise and the music from a video clip from an earlier concert of the Scottish version:
“It is a really wild journey, filled with raucous entertainment,” Ozawa says, “Each of the scenes uses satire and irony to criticize some abuse or folly. Voltaire was a French Enlightenment writer, known to be an advocate of freedom of religion, freedom of speech and the separation of church and state, and a critic of religious hypocrisy. This enables us to investigate these topics in a sensitive manner and opens the conversation to all viewpoints.” (The play was Voltaire’s answer to the philosopher Leibniz. How often do you see a musical or an opera that grapples with deep philosophical issues?)
Although this is the perfect work to revive at a time when some Americans think we have the best of all possible worlds, Ozawa is highlighting another aspect of the operetta. “Candide and Cunegonde [who Candide loves madly] are forced to leave the house and venture into the real world and grapple with the unpredictable,” Ozawa says, explaining that students performing Candide will eventually leave the university nest and go out into the world. “The piece speaks to that and celebrates diversity, humanity and our collective ability to grow a garden. There may be an idealistic state in a more protective environment, but there is a way to cultivate the world we would like to see, with both the good and the bad that exist in it.”
To that end, Ozawa has set the show in a 1950s classroom. Costume designer Christianne Myers dressed the characters in 18th-century attire until they are booted out into a 1950’s world. Ozawa says he wanted to create a parallel to today’s world without pinpointing specific things that are happening now.
Kiesler notes that Bernstein was 38 when he wrote Candide. “We can see the depth and breadth of his musical knowledge. It’s challenging to write light music,” he says, noting that because of the libretto, Bernstein had to write in earlier and different styles: baroque dance for some scenes, a Parisian waltz for one, and Latin music for another, for instance.
Conducting his work is also a challenge. When the composer conducted his own work, he often made changes in it. “With Bernstein and other composers who conduct, there’s always a choice. Do you do what he did as a conductor or as a composer, when he was in the white heat of inspiration or when he revisited it or possibly didn’t study it after decades?” Kiesler is opting primarily to honor the score Bernstein wrote. “Every evening of theater is wonderfully and thankfully unique,” he adds, “and somewhat fluid depending on many factors, such as which singers are in that particular cast.”
The production brings together 43 undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty from opera, theater, musical theater, and dance. For Ozawa, that is a way of “uniting our artistic communities.”
And performing a work of art in these times is one of the best ways to begin to grow a rich garden.
Davi Napoleon’s book, Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theater, describes the onstage triumphs and offstage turbulence at a theater whose compounded disasters rivaled Candide’s; it takes readers behind the scenes of what has come to be called the “Chelsea Candide.”
“Candide” runs from Thursday, November 8 to Sunday, November 11 at the Power Center, 121 Fletcher St., Ann Arbor. For tickets and further information visit events.umich.edu.