Review: A ‘Candide’ That’s The Life of the Party, But Still Loses Sight of Its Origins
By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, April 20, 2018
Carnegie Hall’s “One-Night-Only Benefit Concert in Celebration of the Bernstein Centennial” took the form of selections from the concert version of Candide currently licensed by the Leonard Bernstein Office, performed by a top-of-the-line crew of singers, players, and dancers, with luxury guest-cameos by Len Cariou, Danny Burstein, and Marilyn Horne.
As an extended party-joke, reeled out between drinks in the Rohatyn Room and supper with members of the cast in the Weill Terrace and Music Rooms, it was undeniably effective: a full house yipped and cheered, and seems to have gotten what it came for. In every other respect, however, it fell woefully short.
This concert version, with uncredited “narration excerpted from Hugh Wheeler and Voltaire,” is one of the many rewrites Bernstein authorized or took part in, hoping to undo Candide’s failure to thrive in its original version, with Lillian Hellman’s elegant libretto, on Broadway in 1956 and in the West End the following year.
It is a sorry affair, reductive and silly, nudging, winking, and condescending at every opportunity to a story that it barely bothers to tell, pausing only for brief comic-strip vignettes that serve to set up the next musical number. The best you can say for it is that it avoids much of Wheeler’s stunning vulgarity (and if you’re not a Candide completist, you may want to review the show’s production-history and Wheeler’s outsize role in it, both of which are summarized here); while the worst is that it drains Voltaire’s novel, Bernstein’s score, and what’s left of Richard Wilbur’s lyrics of all sense and feeling.
The result is a random, tawdry spectacle, good for an easy giggle or two if you have a taste for stale camp, twee sarcasms, and the sight of mature performers affecting to let down their hair and romp like hoydens. Of the point and purpose of Voltaire’s book—still, God help us, as vital and relevant as it was the day it was finished—nothing remains.
The performance, for better or worse, was true to its material, full of mugging and schtick, inviting us to chuckle fondly at rape, murder, pillage, prostitution, human trafficking, mutual assured destruction, religious persecution, and the killing arrogance of wealth and power. Everything was amplified—even with a full concert orchestra, classically-trained voices, and a large chorus onstage—which meant that everything was too loud and too fuzzy, and most of the words were lost, including the bulk of John Lithgow’s spoken narrative. Tempi were uniformly on the peppy side, and even the longest of Candide’s four [!] laments—a Liebestod-wannabe clocking in at six-and-a-half minutes—chugged through without even a hint of real feeling. The singing was occasionally brilliant, but again, it had a blunted, muffled quality due to the amplification, and anything involving an accent—Patricia Racette’s entire performance, for example—was incomprehensible.
The versions of Candide that Bernstein had decisive or unfettered control over—which is to say, virtually every one since the original production, where Hellman had the professional clout, the theatrical know-how, and the strength of character to stand up to him—increasingly feature Bernstein’s own lyrics and “restore” pieces that were cut, for compelling theatrical reasons, during the show’s initial tryout in 1956.
Before he was done, Bernstein had added nearly 35 minutes of material to a show already reputed to be long, complex, and heavy, and two-thirds of that showed up in the Carnegie Hall performance, every note of it redundant, sometimes in several ways at once. (“We Are Women,” for example, makes the same dramatic point as “Glitter and Be Gay,” in language similar to that of “I Am Easily Assimilated,” while sending up a well-known coloratura showpiece, Strauss’s “Großmächtige Prinzessin,” just as “Glitter and Be Gay” parodies Gounod’s“Jewel Song.” By the same token, the two “restored” laments are functionally identical, both to one another and to the two that have always been there; on top of that, they are florid and long, wildly out of character for someone as artless and plain-spoken as Candide.)
As composer-tributes go, this one was unusually, if inadvertently, honest, pointing up everything that was most problematic about Bernstein as a creative artist—his tendency to panic when success didn’t come easily, or didn’t come at all; his inability to trust his own work, and to let finished pieces find their own way; his overvaluation of his own abilities, which fed a preference for working with younger subordinates rather than seasoned peers; his increasing avoidance of the strong directorial and editorial oversight that had produced his most successful earlier pieces; his growing disdain for the vernacular, where he was matchless, in favor of the grandiose and exotic, where he never quite rang true; and his willingness to do whatever it took to turn a perceived flop into a hit, even if he had to “destroy the village in order to save it.”
If only he’d remembered his own words, spoken shortly before Candide opened, about the 1950s being “our historical moment,” when the American musical—hand in hand with jazz, our most distinctive contribution to world musical culture—might move beyond its local roots towards something more like opera. The model he had in mind was the Singspiel, which, he said, was once again “awaiting its Mozart.” He never seemed to realize that he was that Mozart, and that Candide could have been his Così, if only he’d left it alone.
Candide presented in concert by Carnegie Hall on April 18, 2018. Music by Leonard Bernstein; book by Hugh Wheeler; lyrics by Richard Wilbur; additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Leonard Bernstein; orchestration by Leonard Bernstein and Hershy Kay; additional orchestration by John Mauceri; Rob Fisher, musical director and conductor; Gary Griffin, director; Joshua Bergasse, choreographer; Scott Lehrer, sound designer; Tracy Christensen, costume designer; Alan Adelman, lighting designer; Wendall K. Harrington, projections designer; Orchestra of St. Luke’s; Mansfield University Concert Choir.
Cast: Paul Appleby (Candide), Erin Morley (Cunegonde), Patricia Racette (Old Lady), William Burden (Governor), John Lithgow (Voltaire / Dr. Pangloss), Ryan Silverman (Maximilian), Bryonha Marie Parham (Paquette), Danny Burstein (Don Issachar, The Jew), Len Cariou (Archbishop), Marilyn Horne (Queen of Eldorado); Glenn Seven Allen, Ross Benoliel, and Kyle Pfortmiller (Inquisitors); Christine DiGiallonardo, Andrea Jones-Sojola, David Scott Purdy, and Nathaniel Stampley (Vocal Quartet); Paloma Garcia-Lee, Stephen Hanna, Akina Kitazawa, and Devin Roberts (Ensemble Dancers).
Cover: Paul Appleby and John Lithgow in ‘Candide;’ photo: Chris Lee.