After opening on Broadway in 1956, Leonard Bernstein’s operetta “Candide” ran for a paltry 73 performances. That’s a disaster in terms of music theater.
Most criticism centered not on Bernstein’s flamboyantly characterful music, but on playwright Lillian Hellman’s clunky adaptation of Voltaire’s strange novella “Candide.” Where the 18th-century French philosopher and writer was brilliantly witty and ironic, Hellman was “academic, blunt, and bareface,” wrote the New York Herald Tribune’s critic.
In other words, the production (directed by Minneapolis theater founder Tyrone Guthrie) was a leaden-footed plodder where effervescence was necessary. After all, “Candide” contains some rather barbaric material, but it’s treated as lightly as Voltaire felt the world treated its social ills.
In the six decades since Bernstein’s spectacular Broadway flop, repeated efforts have been made to “fix” the operetta. No fewer than five versions are available to license by the Bernstein estate. None of these versions uses the Hellman libretto.
Adapters, rewriters and directors keep trying, though.
“Because of how glorious Bernstein’s score is, people are determined to make the book work,” said Theater Latté Da Artistic Director Peter Rothstein, who unveils his own “Candide” at the Cowles Center in downtown Minneapolis this week.
Despite contributions from brilliant 20th-century writers such as Dorothy Parker and Stephen Sondheim, the sweeping scope of Bernstein’s “Candide” remains too beastly for most theater companies to tackle. “We’re not seeing many big commercial revivals of the piece,” Rothstein said.
Bloomington’s nonprofit Artistry theater marked last year’s Bernstein centennial with a concert version. For the past few decades, though, audiences have been far more likely to catch a concert version at the symphony.
That’s in part because the operetta’s title character (a naively optimistic fellow who thinks “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds”) gets catapulted across nations and continents in his quest for love — representing a global odyssey too sprawling for most theater budgets.
It’s also due to Bernstein’s music, which fizzes with color and inventiveness but borders on operatic in terms of complexity. “Most things that you do in smaller venues have four to six instruments,” Rothstein said. “And the choral finale ‘Make Our Garden Grow’ is not going to soar with 12 voices.”
But when conductor Philip Brunelle approached Rothstein recently, the director suddenly saw a solution to these obstacles. For the first time, Theater Latté Da will partner with Brunelle’s VocalEssence choir for what Rothstein calls a “semi-staging.” “I thought this could be the best of both our organizations,” Rothstein said of the coproduction. “With 75 voices on stage, musically we’ll have the forces that I think the piece needs to fly.”
Satire in America
As written, Bernstein’s “Candide” features a hanging, a stabbing, a tsunami and an earthquake.
“There’s no way I can create all of that visually when I have nearly 100 artists on the Cowles Center stage,” Rothstein said.
These complexities were circumvented, however, by relocating the action to what Rothstein called a “theater of the mind.” The new production re-imagines “Candide” as a 1930s radio drama in the vein of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast. Rather than Candide’s worldwide journey, Rothstein went for “the claustrophobia of a recording studio” — complete with a sound effects table — where the thrills and spills of Candide’s travels are reported live by a narrator (played by veteran Twin Cities singer and actor Bradley Greenwald).
Solving the logistical difficulties of staging “Candide” was one thing. Addressing what Rothstein called the work’s “problems of tone” is quite another.
As Candide travels the world, he encounters a series of rapes, murders and other violent crimes. The narrative can seem gratuitous — until a theatergoer realizes it’s meant to viciously satirize the idea that life unfolds the way it does for a reason, with collateral damage being nothing more than unfortunate reality.
Irony is everywhere in Bernstein’s “Candide” — from the rueful meditation on prostitution that is the sparkling aria “Glitter and Be Gay” to the sardonic commentary on forced migration of “I Am Easily Assimilated.” It can be startling if taken at face value.
“I have a sense that the satire and irony in the show is tricky for an American audience,” Rothstein said.
Bernstein biographer Humphrey Burton went so far as to blame the operetta’s initial failure on the inability of 1950s Broadway audiences to appreciate the work as satire. “The truth seems to be that there were not enough theatergoers of sophisticated taste in New York to support the show past a couple of months,” Burton wrote in his 1994 tome “Leonard Bernstein.”
Yes, “Candide” contains violent, often misogynistic events, with a slew of criminal actions that go unpunished. But its presentation of violence against women — which can seem offhand, even tongue-in-cheek — is all part of the satire, Rothstein argued. “I think that’s exactly what Voltaire, Lillian Hellman and Bernstein were trying to do, to comment on society’s ability to shrug off misogyny and rape, and civilization’s inability to advance to a kinder world.”
He said he hopes that framing “Candide” as a period radio drama — with the markers of an obviously fictional tale — will emphasize the satire, uncovering the work’s deeper humanity.
While “semi-staging” often means compromise for a director like Rothstein, solving the work’s problems and surmounting budgetary limitations ultimately helped him reach a clearer view of the work’s central message.
“What ‘Candide’ says has value in contemporary society,” he said. “How humankind was created essentially good. And how we have to act locally to tend our own gardens, to move toward a more compassionate society.”
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.