The Best of All Possible Candides

I've made it no small secret that I think Candide is one of the greatest musicals ever written. Just last week, I included Kristin Chenoweth's "Glitter and Be Gay" performance in a post to try and hook someone else on the score. The book (which one?) and score (which version?) is excellent. The problem comes in trying to sell an over the top piece of period satire as something palatable for a wide modern audience. Candide is Leonard Bernstein's adaptation of Voltaire's master-work of satire. Voltaire was lampooning the various philosophies that were quickly gaining popularity based on variations of optimism. People were really getting behind movements that said things like good things come to good people and everything that happens is good because everything is meant to happen. So, Voltaire created a grotesquely absurd tale of a young man, Candide, whose life is systematically torn apart by forces beyond his control. He is exiled from his kingdom, separated from his betrothed, witnesses the repeated murder of his mentor, and faces horrid luck at every turn. Still, in spite of all of this, he keeps claiming everything that happens is good because his mentor taught him everything that happens is the best thing that can happen.

It's a strange choice to turn into a musical for numerous reasons. One, it's bizarre. I'm not exaggerating when I say the novel features Candide's mentor Pangloss murdered again and again. Because only the best things can happen in the world, even being drawn and quartered is not enough to kill the man. Two, it's episodic. Each chapter is like a miniature story on its own accord. Three, there are a ton of settings. These people travel all over the world to experience more and more absurd variations of misery. Four, by the time Berstein began working on Candide, most of these philosophies had fallen away or transformed to unrecognizable forms. That means it's a satire that requires a historical context that is near impossible to present onstage. This requires a massive transformation of the original intent of the story to sell to a wide audience.

There have been five major mountings of this musical in NYC, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. The original version of the show is probably the one that gets closest to Voltaire's vision. Running only two months, the lengthy musical featured only 14 full songs, each one the central thrust of 14 very different scenes. Lillian Hellman's book was filled with acerbic wordplay and a bitter, pessimistic attitude toward the characters that matched the tone--if not the exact narrative--of Voltaire's work.

This staging received mixed to negative reviews, with each critic noting that perhaps Bernstein and Hellman crammed far too much action into the show for no good theatrical reason. Just because it is in the novel does not mean it belongs on the stage. It was an ambitious production. However, in staying so true to what Voltaire did some 200 years before, they lost sight of the accessibility that Voltaire lived on. The score itself is absolutely beautiful and worth owning. This video is a compilation of highlights of the major songs in the production*. It's a good introduction to this production.

The next major mounting occurred in 1974. It was a circus. No, literally: they reset Candide in a circus atmosphere. Director Harold Prince tried to use this conceit on Broadway a few times in the 1970s. It was designed to make the audience more comfortable with the material and bring them right into the action. The multi-platformed set allowed the show to jump from scene to scene with minimal waiting time. The new book by Hugo Wheeling cut out half of the musical numbers and streamlined the show to a one act, 105 minute musical. Prince, Wheeling, and set designers Eugene Lee and Fran Lee all won Tony awards for their work on the revival. It played for just under two years, making it the longest running of the NYC Candides.

The success of this version led to opera companies requesting Prince and Wheeling expand the show back into two acts. All fourteen songs were restored and the show ran closer to the original expansive length with a tighter book and easier set changes. The New York City Opera production was broadcast on television in 1986.

Once more, in 1988, Leonard Bernstein revised his Candide to create his ultimate version of the show. He worked with the Scottish Opera and new book writer John Wells (Hugo Wheeling passed away before work began) to create a new two act version of the show. It has been successfully mounted by opera companies all over the world. Ten years after that, the Royal National Opera thought the show needed additional revisions and brought on book writer John Caird. He, even more than Lillian Hellman 43 years earlier, stuck to Voltaire's text in his adaptation. The music was mostly left as Bernstein wanted it from the Scottish Opera production, but the book was radically transformed. Neither of these editions has made it to NYC yet for major productions, though they were both widely praised.

1997 saw Harold Prince reviving the musical for another Broadway run. This version also ran for just under two months. Instead of a circus, Prince took his inspiration from a traveling freakshow. The critics were not kind. He was accused of "suffocating" the music by the New York Times and preventing his singing actors from actually showing off the show's great asset: the score. The new theatrical conventions were considered too busy and the old theatrical conventions were considered tired. It's just so strange that the man who got so much right twenty three years before got so much wrong on his third try at the show.

The latest production was a staged concert at the New York Philharmonic in 2004 directed by Lonny Price. This version is perhaps the most widely seen because it was broadcast numerous times on television and is readily available on DVD. I think this version is rather charming. The lead characters play their scenes in front of the orchestra while the ensemble fill in for various sets and props on risers behind the orchestra. This places the focus on the music of the show and adds cohesion to the various settings. Still others really don't like this production for those very reasons. Some want their Candide to be musical spectacle and that is a very valid viewpoint. It is a farce and sometimes a farce needs to be big. For me, Price nails it by making it a big theatrical experience centered around the music. If you have to watch the orchestra, you have to focus on the music and realize this show hinges on theatrical conventions.

So what is the best of all possible Candide's? That depends on what you are trying to do. I think Harold Prince had the right idea in speeding up the show with the multi-layered set, but I don't think productions have to rely on the platforms to get that speed. I like Price's decision to use suggestive sets and light costuming while not letting the audience forget they are seeing a theatrical performance. I like hearing the full score, as well. This is a musical that needs the full orchestrations and all of the music to soar. Paring it back or cutting out numbers speeds up the show but makes an expansive and breathtaking score something quick and disposable.

Will there ever be a production of Candide that can run for years and years to packed houses? I doubt it. It is a strange story that is probably best told in Voltaire's novel. Still, if you're going to go for a production of Candide, you have to go for it. Bust out the flashy stagecraft, encourage broad (but not hammy) performances, cast singers who can actually handle the material, and stay out of the way of the songs. A light touch for the music and a heavy hand for everything else. That, to me, would be the best of all possible Candides.

*Seriously, who disables embedding nowadays? I was tempted to rip this video and rehost it somewhere else to embed in this post.