Words by Phil Lambert (ANAM Library)
“Satire is what closes on Saturday night”, said playwright George S. Kaufman. It was something he knew all too well from bitter experience after his own satire on war, Strike up the Band, failed to make it past previews. Not even the songs of George and Ira Gershwin could save it. So perhaps a musical adaptation of Candide, Voltaire’s satirical novella, was never a good idea. But it didn’t stop Lillian Hellman and Leonard Bernstein from trying.
Hellman first floated the idea with Bernstein in late 1953. She was looking for a vehicle to critique the complacency of Eisenhower’s America and the House Un-American Activities Committee, and thought Candide might be the way in. It was an angle that appealed to Bernstein, but he was even more attracted by the scenic and musical possibilities, seeing “a big three-act opera with chorus and ballet.”
And therein lay the problem. Voltaire’s novel, subtitled Optimism, is fast on its feet, one event colliding into the next at breakneck speed, and a quick reader will easily knock it over in an afternoon. We follow the adventures of young Candide through war, shipwreck, earthquake and the Inquisition in locations that seem to change with each page: Westphalia, most of Europe, Portugal, Paraguay, Buenos Aries and even the mythical El Dorado. Through all his sufferings and setbacks, Candide valiantly holds true to the optimistic credo of his tutor, Dr Pangloss, that no matter how great our suffering, all will ultimately be for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds. Turning such a swift-footed, action-packed scenario into a “three-act opera with chorus and ballet” was never going to be easy.
And it wasn’t. Adapting Candide for the stage nearly killed Lillian Hellman, who was certainly no novice. By 1953 she was already a highly distinguished stage and screen-writer, with at least three major successes to her name, The Children’s Hour, Watch on the Rhine and The Little Foxes. But putting Voltaire’s cavalcade of events on stage proved elusive, and Hellman went through at least fourteen rewrites during the writing and rehearsal process. She – and Bernstein – also discovered that writing song lyrics is a skill all its own, and so a third collaborator, the gifted poet Richard Wilbur, was enlisted to cover that task. But collaboration came hard to this brilliant woman who had previously been a lone operator, and the cruel deadlines of a big Broadway show tested her. "I went to pieces when something had to be done quickly, because someone didn't like something, and there was no proper time to think it out.”
As for the music, Bernstein was in his element. His score (he called it an operetta) became, in his own words, “a Valentine card to European music”. It was as if Candide, with its multitude of locations and situations, gave Bernstein the blank cheque he had always wanted. He lavished the score with eighteenth-century gavottes, Viennese waltzes, a genuine coloratura showstopper for the heroine, and no end of witty but loving tributes to Offenbach, Sullivan, and even Arnold Schoenberg. And he could even include his much-loved Latin rhythms for the South American scenes.
Candide finally lumbered onto Broadway in December 1956 in an expensively mounted but heavy-handed production directed by Tyrone Guthrie, who had directed Olivier in Hamlet but never touched a musical. Out of seven reviews, four were raves and three were pans. No matter that the gorgeous costumes were by Sharaff, the public weren’t buying this confusing parade of satire and spectacle. It closed after 73 performances, presumably on a Saturday night.
Would Candide ever get a second chance, or would Bernstein’s most ambitious and brilliant score to date be lost to theatres, accessible only through the truncated cast recording? Happily for the show, and for us, director Harold Prince overhauled Candide in 1973 with some new lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a new book by Hugh Wheeler. It was a success, and whetted the appetites of opera companies around the world. Bernstein himself became involved in Candide’s rehabilitation and supervised subsequent revisions. By the time he died in 1990, he had the satisfaction of knowing that his beloved ‘Valentine card’ was back in the repertory, his wealth of beautiful music not gone to waste.
Short of a full production, the best way to hear Candide is in the brilliant suite devised by Bernstein’s associate, Charlie Harmon. ANAM presents it, alongside the famous Overture, with José Luis Gomez at the helm.
– Extract from ANAM Music Makers volume 25 (Feb 2018)