Candide, or the Optimistic Journey of an Opera

Candide, or the Optimistic Journey of an Opera

The path to operatic canonization does not typically begin with a lackluster Broadway premiere. But along with George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935) and Marc Blitzstein’s Regina (1949), that is the case with Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. Following its New York debut in December 1956, one prominent critic dubbed the operetta “a really spectacular disaster.”

Such commentary certainly did not bolster already tepid ticket sales and Candide folded after only 73 performances. While this could have been the end of the story, the show persevered. In many ways, the creation story of Candide parallels the trials and tribulations of its title character. In the “best of all possible worlds” a theatrical piece arrives onstage in its final form and finds success. But Candide navigated a serpentine path spanning the second half of the 20th century. Despite changes in the creative team, the story line, and the music, the show refused to surrender.

The musical version of Candide on which The Santa Fe Opera’s production is based coalesced more than 30 years after the show’s first appearance on Broadway and just two years before Bernstein’s death in 1990. Bernstein is the single member of the creative team involved from start to finish, but an important part of Candide’s genesis is the revolving cast of creators — a host of lyricists, book writers, and directors providing both forward and backward momentum.

The constant push-and-pull of the creative process became evident right from the start. Bernstein initially did not wish to work with playwright Lillian Hellman, who wrote the original book for Candide. Bernstein wrote to his sister Shirley in April 1950 that he had informed Hellman to “count me out” as a collaborator. But Hellman persisted, and the two began to pass project ideas back and forth, including a potential show about the recently deceased first lady of Argentina, Eva “Evita” Perón.

The idea of adapting Voltaire’s French Enlightenment novel to the world of musical theater emerged in a letter from Hellman to Bernstein in late 1953. She wrote: “I think [Candide] could make a really wonderful combination of opera-prose-songs. It’s so obviously right that I wonder nobody has done it before, or have they?” Hellman was particularly drawn to Voltaire’s satirical take on the Portuguese Inquisition of the mid-16th century. To test the faithfulness of its Catholic population, the church carried out a ritual that became known as auto-da-fé. These “acts of faith” included public penance, ranging from whippings to burnings at the stake.

In the wake of the Hollywood Ten hearings in 1947 before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the anti-communism movement led by Senator Joseph McCarthy continued to gain momentum. Both Bernstein and Hellman were listed in Red Channels, the so-called blacklister’s bible of supposed or known communist sympathizers prominent in the entertainment industry. Unlike many of his colleagues, Bernstein escaped the communist “witch hunt” mostly unscathed — his passport was temporarily revoked in 1953. But he became cautious of overt political statements in his creative work. This trepidation may also have contributed to his initial reluctance to work with Hellman. Regardless, the original version of Candide made little reference to such politically loaded issues, although they lie just below the surface for production companies to excavate as they so choose over time.

With the Candide story in hand, Bernstein and Hellman struggled to find a suitable lyricist. First there was John La Touche. His name also appeared in Red Channels, although this would not prevent him from soon becoming the librettist for Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe (1956). Bernstein, Hellman, and La Touche spent the summer of 1954 on Martha’s Vineyard, developing the first act of  Candide.  But  by that fall,  La  Touche was  asked  to   leave the project. Dorothy Parker contributed a few verses before the show was put on hold in mid-1955. When Bernstein and Hellman resumed work the following spring again on Martha’s Vineyard — they brought in poet Richard Wilbur. Some of the show’s most famous numbers emerged from this period: “Glitter and Be Gay” and “Make Our Garden Grow.”

Following Candide’s unsuccessful opening run on Broadway in 1956-57, the show languished for nearly two decades, in large part because Bernstein soon ascended to international stardom. In August of 1957 he became music director of the New York Philharmonic — the first American-born conductor to hold the post — and in September West Side Story made its debut. Perhaps assuming Candide to have run its course, he recycled discarded songs into his eternally popular adaptation of Romeo and Juliet: “Candide’s Lament” reverberates in “I Have A Love,” and the rejected songs “Love Duet” and “Where Does It Get You in the End?” became “One Hand, One Heart,” and “Gee, Officer Krupke,” respectively.

But while Bernstein turned his attentions elsewhere, members of the theatrical community remained optimistic that Candide could work. Other versions emerged: a concert version in 1958, a production in London in 1959, a revival at UCLA in 1966, and an adaptation presented in honor of Bernstein’s 50th birthday in 1968. However, Hellman became dissatisfied with narrative changes made by the creative team and cut ties with them in the early 1970s. In fact, she refused to allow the use of any of her book, including original plot and lyric contributions, when producer Hal Prince mounted a version of Candide at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1973.

Effectively forced to begin again, Prince hired Hugh Wheeler to author a new book and Stephen Sondheim to contribute additional lyrics. “Life is Happiness Indeed” — including its quintessentially Sondheimian quip about a pimple — became the new opening number of what is known as the “Chelsea Version” of Candide. This one-act rendition made a successful transition to Broadway in 1974 and received four Tony awards. But Bernstein remained not fully satisfied with the piece, perhaps because of his longstanding vision for the American musical stage.

During the fall of 1956, Bernstein hosted an episode of the television program Omnibus titled “The American Musical Comedy.” There he explained that Broadway represented “an art that arises out of American roots, out of our speech, our tempo, our moral attitudes, our timing, our kind of humor.” But for Bernstein, the American musical had not yet reached its zenith. He turned to The Magic Flute as one such example from the past, opining:

All we need is for our Mozart to come along. If and when he does we surely won’t get any Magic Flute; what we’ll get will be a new form, and perhaps ‘opera’ will be the wrong word for it. There must be a more exciting word for it. And this event can happen any second. It’s almost as though it is our moment in history, as if there is a historical necessity that gives us such a wealth of creative talent at this precise time.

Bernstein was hinting at the imminent arrival of Candide, which would debut just two months later. However, he was wrong about it being the “precise time.” The journey was not yet complete. Still, the initial failure of Candide ultimately provided the requisite time and space — and range of creative contributors — to become the successful piece of theatre that it is today.

Candide reached its final destination in 1988. This version built upon a 1982 New York  City Opera production, which was a two-act expansion of the Chelsea Version. In addition to restoring several songs lost over the course of time, it included an expanded orchestral accompaniment prepared by John Mauceri. Following Mauceri’s appointment as music director of the Scottish Opera, Bernstein teamed up with director Jonathan Miller and a third book writer, British satirist John Wells. Both Hellman and Wheeler had died by 1988, allowing the creative team to mix more freely elements of past productions.

One such example is the four-part choral number “Universal Good,” originally written in 1955. It serves as an important, recurring motif throughout the show with lyrics that embrace resignation to a greater power, a power that ultimately has a plan whereby everything works out in the end and “is right and good.” But neither the message nor the show need be so heavily scripted. Bernstein and his collaborators left enough flexibility in Candide for individual directors and performers to bring new life to the piece as it navigates its way through the 21st century. And therein lies the beauty of this supposedly “final” version of the show. The proverbial garden continues to grow with each subsequent production.


RYAN RAUL BAÑAGALE is the Crown Family Professor for Innovation in the Arts at Colorado College. He is author of Arranging Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue and the Creation of an American Icon and serves on the editorial board for the George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition.