Voltaire narrates the story of “Candide, or Optimism.”
Act I - We meet the four happiest young people in Westphalia: Maximilian (son of the Baron Thunder-ten-Tronck), Cunegonde (daughter of the Baron), Paquette (serving maid to the Baroness), and Candide (illegitimate cousin to the Baron’s family) (“Life is Happiness Indeed”). All four are students of the enigmatic tutor, Dr. Pangloss, who teaches them that they live in the best of all possible worlds (“The Best of All Possible Worlds”). Candide and Cunegonde discover love (“Oh, Happy We”), but Candide, being illegitimate and having no quarterings, is banished by the Baron when he asks for Cunegonde’s hand in marriage. Despondent, he takes comfort in Panglossian doctrine, and remains convinced that some good must come of his tragedy - in this, the best of all possible worlds (“It Must Be So”).
As he starts his journey, Candide meets two army officers, who trick him into joining the Bulgar army. He lives through a horrific battle, only to find Cunegonde’s body among the dead (“Candide’s Lament”). Bereft, he leaves Westphalia, and meets up again with Dr. Pangloss, the sole survivor of the Baron’s household. They are befriended by a kindly Anabaptist, who takes them on board his ship bound for Lisbon. When the ship sinks in a storm, they float on a plank to Lisbon. As they make landfall, a volcano erupts, causing an earthquake. Before the day is out, Candide is flogged, and Dr. Pangloss is hanged for his heretical views concerning Free Will (“Auto-de Fe”). Candide still believes that all must somehow be for the best (“It Must Be So”).
Candide travels to Paris, where he is shocked to find Cunegonde alive (“Glitter and Be Gay” “You Were Dead, You Know”). She tells him of her difficult life, for she is now a kept woman - lover to both, the wealthy Jew Don Issachar, and the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris. Candide inadvertently kills both men. With the help of Cunegonde’s companion, the Old Lady, they escape to Cadiz (“I Am Easily Assimilated”). There, Candide meets a half-caste South American named Cacambo, who tells him of opportunities to be found in the New World. With Cacambo on board, Candide, Cunegonde, and the Old Lady set sail for South America (“Quartet Finale”).
Act II - The Governor of Buenos Aires is pleased to inspect a shipment of new slaves, among them, Maximilian and Paquette (reports of their deaths having been greatly exaggerated). As Candide and Cunegonde arrive in the New World, the Governor is smitten with Cunegonde (“My Love”). And no sooner have the lovers arrived, that they must be separated again. Candide must flee to avoid execution for the murders committed in Paris, while Cunegonde is left to suffer a life of luxury and boredom as the Governor’s mistress (“Quiet”).
Candide and Cacambo flee Buenos Aires and wander for many days, eventually discovering the secret city of El Dorado. The friendly natives there give Candide several sheep laden with gold (“The Ballad of Eldorado”). Unfortunately, as Candide and trusty Cacambo make their way back to civilization, they lose all but two of the sheep. They arrive in the Dutch colony of Surinam, where they meet a merchant named Vanderdendur, and a bitter street cleaner named Martin (“Words, Words, Words”). Vanderdendur reminds Candide that he cannot return to Buenos Aires because of the price on his head. Candide sends Cacambo with one sheep’s worth of gold to ransom Cunegonde away from the Governor. They plan to meet again in Venice, a free state where their various troubles cannot follow.
The greedy Vanderdendur realizes what Candide’s sheep is carrying and keeps the animal on his ship, while selling Candide a leaky old wreck, which cannot stay afloat (“Bon Voyage”). Candide and Martin set sail. After a terrible storm at sea, Martin drowns, but Candide is rescued by a passing ship. He is amazed to discover that one of the galley slaves rowing the ship is his old tutor, Dr. Pangloss, who miraculously survived his hanging in Lisbon. Candide pays for Pangloss’ freedom, and they travel to Venice to find Cunegonde.
Once in Venice, Candide encounters Paquette (now a prostitute) and Maximilian (now Prefect of Police). Cacambo appears, explaining that he ransomed and rescued Cunegonde and the Old Lady, but they were attacked at sea by pirates, and now the ladies are owned by Prince Ragotski, head of the most notorious casino in Venice.
Candide rushes to the casino, where he finds a luxurious crowd of hoodlums and thieves, all in masks (“What’s The Use?”). A masked woman attempts to swindle him out of his remaining gold. As her mask falls, Candide is stunned to see Cunegonde. He finally breaks (“Nothing More Than This”).
Utterly disillusioned, Candide has had enough of the foolish Panglossian ideal. With what little is left of his gold, he buys a small farm outside Venice, where he hopes to make some sense of life (“Make Our Garden Grow”).
Too Many Geniuses: The Making of Bernstein’s Candide
“I had only one lyric in it … Thank God I wasn’t there while it was going on. There were too many geniuses at work.” --Dorothy Parker, contributing lyricist, 1956
“If you catch Lenny re-writing my lyrics, clip his piano wires!” --Richard Wilbur, contributing lyricist, 1956
“It seems to me I’ve been working on Candide all of my life…” --Lillian Hellman, Candide’s original librettist, 1956
“My direction skipped along with the effortless grace of a freight train heavy-laden on a steep gradient. As a result even the score was thrown out of key. Rossini and Cole Porter seemed to have been rearranging Götterdämmerung.” --Tyrone Guthrie, director on the 1956 opening
“Keep up your peckers!” --Tyrone Guthrie, exhorting the audience to be patient with the production, opening night, 1956
“I was almost knocked down by people trying to get out of the theater! --Lester Osterman, associate producer, 1956
Based upon Voltaire’s scathing satire of the same title, Bernstein’s Candide has wandered through the American theater almost as aimlessly as Voltaire’s hapless hero. Originally billed as a “comic operetta,” Candide opened on October 29, 1956 at Boston’s Colonial Theatre to mixed reviews. Already a darling of the American musical scene, Leonard Bernstein had collaborated with some of the most brilliant theatrical and literary figures of the time. The lyrics were by John La Touche and Richard Wilbur, with contributions from Dorothy Parker. The original libretto was adapted from Voltaire by Lillian Hellman. The libretto was Hellman’s first attempt for the musical stage and, fairly or unfairly, criticisms of this initial version of the show center largely around Hellman’s book, which, just as Voltaire’s had, used Candide’s blind faith in Dr. Pangloss’ philosophy of optimism to satirize current events: in mid-century America, for Hellman, this meant the blind paranoia of Senator McCarthy’s reign of terror.
Candide seems an unlikely candidate for the musical theater. Voltaire’s novel is a tight, episodic, globe-trotting 87 pages, seemingly impossible to adapt or produce. But it spoke uniquely to Hellman and Bernstein in the 1950s. Both artists had had run-ins with the McCarthy witch-hunts, and as Bernstein put it in 1989 during the recording of the “final revised version”:
“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 … as to curdle the blood. This was a period in the early ‘50s of our own century… 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
So, there was a compelling “why,” but the “how” was still a question. It was not for lack of talent or effort that Candide has had such a troubled theatrical journey to the final, triumphant “opera house” version arrived at in 1989. There have been seven official versions of Candide attempted over the years, with three distinct chapters in its development, the most interesting of which was the first. How could it be that such a powerhouse team as that assembled to put Candide on the stage should have failed so miserably with the public on its first run?
Most critics have laid the blame squarely on Hellman’s shoulders and what has been called her “ponderous book.” Those actually participating in the creation of the piece, according to Bernstein biographer Humphrey Burton, “blamed themselves as well as others.” Director Tyrone Guthrie had a uniquely sympathetic view of Hellman’s tireless work on this quixotic project:
“Hellman fought this battle with one hand tied behind her back. We had all agreed that when necessity demanded,we would choose singers to do justice to the score, rather than actors who could handle the text but for whom the score must be reduced. Consequently, line after line situation after situation fell flat on its face because—no blame to them—singers were asked to do something for which they had no gift nor experience nor understanding. Miss. Hellman stooped fatally to conquer. None of her good qualities as a writer showed to advantage. This was no medium for hard-hitting argument, shrewd, humorous characterization, the slow revelation of true values and the exposure of false ones.”
Hellman had had huge success in the theater. Author of The Children’s Hour and The Little Foxes (which was later adapted into the opera Regina by Marc Blitzstein), to name but two, Hellman had no experience with the Broadway musical and, according to lyricist Richard Wilbur, “didn’t really like musicians.” But Bernstein had faith in her genius. Or, perhaps, in his own. Guthrie felt that perhaps, the “diamond quality brilliance” of Bernstein seemed to quench “whatever share of lightness and gaiety and dash we might possibly have been able to contribute.” Wilbur bitterly recalled that Bernstein thought he could write lyrics better than the lyricists, and had to talk himself out of quitting after one encounter. But it is actually Bernstein’s score that has stood the test of time, and indeed, rescued the show from obscurity.
When the show opened, the critics’ reviews were mixed, but generally, if guardedly, favorable, with one memorable exception: a complete pan by Walter Kerr. But the public did not like it. The score was universally praised, but the libretto was characterized as “clumsy and plodding,” not to mention, “pretentious and freighted with allegory and symbol.” Although the show made it to New York in December of the same year as its cataclysmic Boston opening, it closed after only 73 performances. With typical show-biz flair, the Entertainment Newsletter for February 16, 1957 summed up the show’s failure thus: “What happened was that they put in too much longhair for Joe Schmoe, and too much crap for the longhair crew.”
Critic John Chapman, who himself liked the show, put it more bluntly, “It was O.P.E.R.A. [Also], it does not have a romantic plot according to Broadway standards and it does not have any songs in it which can be delivered by the disc jockeys or hung on the appalling dispiriting record racks of juke boxes in saloons and dining-car hash-houses.” In other words, no one could figure out what genre Candide belonged to. It was written for Broadway, but even Bernstein admitted in an article in The New York Times that it was an operetta, and that led to its billing being changed to “comic operetta,” potentially confusing the Broadway ticket buyers.
It was the release of the original-cast album that saved Candide from the “where-is-it-now?” file. This recording created a kind of cult following still in evidence today. Because of this, and the popularity of the overture in concert halls, interest in producing the show never really died. Instead, a string of versions and attempts to clean up the score and clarify the story proliferated, culminating in the highly successful 1973 Harold Prince version, which ran on Broadway for a happy and successful two years. But the music was gutted. In paring down the show to 103 minutes, Prince had thrown out the libretto and hired Hugh Wheeler to return to Voltaire and re-adapt the story. Stephen Sondheim was recruited to re-work some of the lyrics and John Mauceri came on board as the musical director. Music was moved around, taken out of order, given to different characters. Much of the music was lost, but a framework was gained. Positive reviews followed. But Bernstein, who was not involved in this version, was disappointed that so much was lost. As were opera houses, which began clamoring for an “opera house” version, to be based upon Wheeler’s book, and to include the music lost from the 1956 version. In 1982, for Scottish Opera, Mauceri obliged, and this time, Bernstein was included in the process.
This version kept some of the better features of the slick Broadway version, but also returned to Hellman’s scenario, which allowed much of the music to be reinstated. Nevertheless, the libretto is now credited to Hugh Wheeler, with lyrics by Richard Wilbur, and additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman and Leonard Bernstein. Quite a gaggle of geniuses, still! It is this version that has found favor with the opera house and the version that Portland Opera will present.
Many of the questions that set Candide upon its meandering road in 1956 are unanswered today. Is it a musical comedy? Is it an opera? Operetta? The musical scope suggests an opera; certainly the demands placed on the singer would indicate this, but the treatment of the subject and the spoken dialogue evoke musical comedy or operetta. How does one make music theater out of satire? With Candide one can see how and why, even if one does not know what to call it. Ultimately, Candide is a delightful entertainment, and, perhaps, “in the best of all possible worlds,” that will be enough.