Tom Morrow’s poster art for Candide (1956). He also created other iconic logos for Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me, among others.
“The trouble with Candide is that it didn’t fail.” — Lillian Hellman
That ironic comment came out of how sick Lillian Hellman became at the many attempts to “fix” Candide. In truth, her faulty adaptation of Voltaire’s satirical novel didn’t live up to the show’s vibrant score, resulting in a decades-long mission to rescue composer Leonard Bernstein’s sterling reputation.
And over the years, people certainly tried (Hellman eventually gave up entirely).Voltaire’s philosophical allegory, first written in 1759, takes a young man’s optimism and puts him through the trials of Job as he searches the world for truth and beauty without ever really finding it. Themes of religious hypocrisy abound and never feel outdated (sadly) told in broad and biting comedy.
When it premiered on Broadway in 1956, the opulent Candide had cost $350,000 to produce — almost exactly the same budget as My Fair Lady, which opened earlier that season. Most reviews found a great deal to admire about Candide, but audiences not so much (especially those still trying to get into MFL). Closing quickly after a disheartening seventy-three performances, Candide was a conspicuous failure in spite of the five credited authors listed in the opening night Playbill (six, if you count Voltaire himself). In addition to Hellman and Bernstein, the lyrics were by Richard Wilbur, our nation’s second Poet Laureate in his one and only Broadway score (which was a shame). Prior contributions came from John Latouche, a talented composer/lyricist who wrote the book and lyrics to The Golden Apple (1954), but was dead “you know” by the time of Candide’s opening (a joke, as everything of Latouche’s was discarded with the exception of “My Love” and “You Were Dead, You Know,” both revised by Wilber). Also credited (though later to be revealed for only a single line) was renowned poet and writer Dorothy Parker. Perhaps the thinking was that having her name in ads would sell a ticket or two, who knows? Also, Bernstein took an early stab at the lyrics and wound up co-writing “I Am So Easily Assimilated” (a standout in the score) with his wife Felicia Montealegre. Many cooks for a rich broth.
It starred Irish actor Max Adrian (Dr. Pangloss), tenor Robert Rounseville (Candide) and the glorious soprano of the twenty-nine year-old Barbara Cook (Cunegonde). It was directed by Tyrone Guthrie, a Brit entirely new to the intricacies of the Broadway musical, but someone with a long and impressive resume, mainly in the classics. All of which confoundingly led to Candide’s elements not adding up to success. Walter Kerr, then writing for the Herald Tribune, called it “a really spectacular disaster” (although when it came to innovative musicals, Kerr often missed what others found fascinating, famously dissing West Side Story and Company). In actuality, it wasn’t the reviews that killed the show. Audiences were simply puzzled by its mix of high-brow and low-brow in performance and song and it probably didn’t help that it was billed as “a comic operetta.” Yet when it started advertising “LAST WEEKS” the theatre began filling up. Sadly, its producer, Ethel Linder Reiner, didn’t have the stomach for the hard work it would take to further invest in making a go of it and cut the losses then and there. It opened on December 1st and was gone by February 2nd.
Robert Rounseville and Barbara Cook as the young lovers Candide and Cunegonde (1956).
Then how did Candide come to be done eventually by every major regional theatre in the country, have two Broadway revivals and become a standard in opera companies the world over? Herein lies the tale.
First there is the score. Most critics did indeed criticize Hellman’s attempts to capture Voltaire’s satire, but all singled out Bernstein’s exceptional music. Few overtures offer more gleeful anticipation of what’s to come than Candide. In fact, the score is so good that even its discarded tunes were recycled for later use. One of them (titled “One”), with new lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, found its way into Bernstein’s next musical West Side Story as “One Hand, One Heart.”
Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990).
After it closed, Candide had no national tour, though a concert version was conceived and briefly produced with Robert Rounseville repeating his title role. The first of many rewrites began with a London production in 1959 that added Michael Stewart to aid Hellman’s book. It included a newly written duet “We are Women,” but folded even quicker than the Broadway production after sixty performances. Then in 1966, Gordon Davidson directed it in Los Angeles with Carroll O’Connor (before his leap to fame as Archie Bunker) playing Dr. Pangloss. Good reviews didn't really make a significant change in the show's reputation since its limited two-week run meant that few saw it. A year later in 1967, actor/director Sheldon Patinkin, a mainstay of Chicago theatre (and yes, a cousin to Mandy), using Stewart’s London changes, staged it outdoors in Grant Park. This led to a 50th birthday concert in honor of Leonard Bernstein in 1968, featuring a one-night only Candide at Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall (now Geffen Hall). Patinkin again directed with Alan Arkin in a rare musical role as Dr. Pangloss and Irra Petina recreating her performance as the Old Lady from the original production. And who took on Barbara Cook’s role of Cunegonde? The great Madeline Kahn, that’s who, prior to her film stardom.
Three years later in 1971, a fully staged production opened at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco and toured to Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. This is where Hellman parted company with Candide with the program now reading “Book Adaptation by Sheldon Patinkin,” who continued to direct. Bernstein added one new song “Words, Words, Words” and there was talk of it moving to Broadway, but it ended up being just talk. For the record, opera tenor Frank Poretta was Candide, Mary Costa and Barbara Meister alternated Cunegonde and the famed Canadian actor Douglas Campbell was Dr. Pangloss (though replaced by comedian and actor Robert Klein for the final stop in D.C.). The Old Lady was the wonderful Tony Award winner Rae Allen, still with us at age ninety-four.
Then came the production that changed it all. In 1973, Candide was overhauled and environmentally staged in the round in a Brooklyn production (with direction by Harold Prince, who would win a Tony Award for it when it moved uptown a short time later). With Hugh Wheeler taking over as book writer, it was deconstructed (including its large orchestra) and new lyric contributions came from Stephen Sondheim, at that time enjoying the peak of his career. Critics bestowed unqualified praise upon it with even Walter Kerr recanting from eighteen years prior calling the Prince production “an evening of enormous charm.” It was awarded four additional Tonys, including a special one as “outstanding contribution to the artistic development of the musical theatre.” It also ran ten times longer than it did the first time (740 performances). Though Bernstein wasn’t personally involved in the production, he gave his blessing of a fuller recording than the original for a two-disc set with a good deal of dialogue included. Lewis J. Stadlen was an ideal Dr. Pangloss, with Mark Baker (Candide), Maureen Brennan (Cunegonde) and June Gable (Old Lady), all of whom received Tony nominations.
Poster art by Doug Johnson, also responsible for Big River and The Secret Garden among others.
But that wasn’t the end of Hal Prince reworking Candide, as he planted a firm foothold on it for many years. In 1982, he created a proscenium staging for the New York City Opera, restoring the full chorus, orchestrations and previously cut numbers (the 1974 version was considerably shortened and performed with no intermission). Later recorded and broadcast on PBS, Lillian Hellman was not pleased, writing to Bernstein: “You are too unfeeling to know that I could not have wanted a hack like Hugh Wheeler to fool around with my work, and I have never been very fond of the work of Hal Prince.” Ah, Lillian. Do not go gentle into that good night.
Lillian Hellman in the “What Becomes a Legend Most?” series for Blackglama (1976).
Candide is a score that keeps being recorded with at least seven prominent ones by my count, including a 1989 studio version conducted by Bernstein himself. Also recorded was another Prince-staged Broadway revival in 1997 (with Jim Dale (Dr. Pangloss), Jason Danieley (Candide), Harolyn Blackwell (Cunegonde) and Andrea Martin (Old Lady). And in 2017, at the fine age of eighty-nine, Prince had one more Candide up his sleeve and magically directed a version at the Rose Theatre at Columbus Circle (at what was formerly the Time Warner Center and, as of yesterday, is now the Deutsche Bank Center — you learn something new every day). I greatly enjoyed this production and in addition to Gregg Edelman (Dr. Pangloss), Jay Armstrong Johnson (Candide), Meghan Picerno (Cunegonde) and Linda Lavin (Old Lady), the cast also boasted the comedic antics of Chip Zien and Brooks Ashmanskas.
Kristin Chenoweth (Cunegonde) and Patti LuPone (Old Lady) in yet another Candide, this one for PBS, staged by Lonny Price (2004).
One last thing on Candide, specifically about one of its songs not yet mentioned. For me, it’s difficult to imagine anyone hearing Bernstein’s soaring music for “Make Our Garden Grow” and not be moved by one of the great closing numbers in Broadway history. I can’t fathom how many critics ignored it in so many reviews back in 1956. Even if they had sat for 2 1/2 hours with nothing thrilling them, surely this number would have had them staggering out into the street, rushing to their typewriters (as was done back in the day and explained in some detail in a previous column), and extoll Bernstein’s soaring melody and Richard Wilbur’s inspiring, poetic lyric writing. Especially in its original production with a full company of forty-four singers and an orchestra of twenty-five players. I mean, when the orchestra drops out and that a capella singing begins rushing through your ears and to have NEVER heard that before should have knocked audiences out of their seats.
Or maybe that’s just me?
One of my favorite versions with Laura Osnes and Aaron Tveit from “New York Philharmonic New Year’s Eve: Bernstein on Broadway in 2017:”
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