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“There’s more of me in that piece than anything else I have ever done,” Leonard Bernstein said of his 1956 musical Candide. That is a strong endorsement indeed, coming from the composer who produced such American classics as West Side Story and On the Town. But Bernstein’s charming and revolutionary score, so unlike anything written for the Broadway stage before or since, has borne out that endorsement. More than 50 years after its creation, Candide continues to challenge and entertain audiences.
For all its enduring qualities, however, Candide has become a classic only after what Bernstein called a “highly checkered career.” It began in the mind of writer Lillian Hellman, for whose play The Lark Bernstein had written incidental music. Hellman had long admired Voltaire’s work for its attack on “all rigid thinking… all isms.” This perspective seemed especially relevant in 1954, as Hellman languished on the Hollywood blacklist for refusing to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Over the next two years, Bernstein and Hellman (along with a small army of lyricists, most notably the brilliant young poet Richard Wilbur) collaborated to bring Candide to the stage.
Candide opened on Broadway on December 1, 1956, in a lavish production directed by Tyrone Guthrie. Despite mostly admiring reviews, it closed after only two months. Perhaps this was due to the acidic satire of Hellman’s script, or to Guthrie’s over-stuffed production, or to the difficulty of selling a work billed as a “comic operetta,” but Candide failed to find an audience in its first incarnation. Once that original production closed, however, the cast recording unexpectedly became a best-seller. Listeners across the country fell in love with Bernstein’s thrilling and funny music and with the witty lyrics. By combining winning melodies with spot-on parodies of famous classical compositions, Bernstein had created a new classic of his own. To this day, the overture to Candide is a staple of the orchestral repertoire.
The decades that followed saw numerous attempts to translate the magic of the songs to a complete production. In 1973, director Harold Prince engaged playwright Hugh Wheeler to rewrite Hellman’s script. Prince’s innovative production placed the action in the middle of the audience, and the delightful result ran for nearly two years on Broadway. However, much of Voltaire’s sharp satire was lost among the frivolity. Prince returned to Candide in 1982 at the New York City Opera and for a 1997 Broadway revival, substantially reshuffling musical numbers and scenes each time. A more successful version came from director and playwright John Caird, whose 1999 production at the National Theatre in London found a better balance between satire and humor, between music and words.
Now, with director and writer Mary Zimmerman bringing her own creative interpretation of Voltaire’s and Bernstein’s classic works to the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Candide remains as stunning and alive as ever. Few other pieces can match its mix of social criticism and raucous entertainment, of high and low on the same stage. No wonder it was its composer’s personal favorite.