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Review: ‘Candide’ Continues to Confound

Chip Zien, Gregg Edelman, Brooks Ashmanskas

By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, January 9, 2017

Every decade or so, Harold Prince serves up a dog’s breakfast and calls it Candide. New York City Opera presented the latest such repast last Friday at the Rose Theatre.

Just so you understand what was in play here, a brief historical review may be in order. Candide: A Comic Operetta based upon Voltaire’s Satire, with music by Leonard Bernstein, book by Lillian Hellman, and lyrics mostly by Richard Wilbur, opened on Broadway in 1956, in a lavish production supervised by Tyrone Guthrie, the preëminent theatrical and operatic director of the day. With the sole exception of Walter Kerr at the Herald-Tribune, the thirteen critics whose opinions mattered were positive-to-rapturous about the show, but they fretted about how to classify it—Was it a musical? An opera? Something in between? Did it matter?—and about how it compared with Voltaire’s novella, which most of them remembered, inaccurately, as a lighthearted romp. Business was decent, but a lot of money had gone into the show, and it was expensive to run, so the producers cut their losses and shut it down after 73 performances, even though, by closing night, as Barbara Cook, the original (and still unsurpassed) Cunegonde, remembers it, “there wasn’t a seat to be had and people were actually standing on their seats screaming: ‘No! No! Keep this show open!’” After a second production failed to take hold in London, a myth arose that Candide had been an artistic and commercial disaster, pilloried by critics and loathed by the public. The creative team didn’t help: Hellman and Bernstein fell to bickering over revisions, and Guthrie began a campaign of genteel finger-pointing, suggesting that the show had been fatally pretentious from the outset, and that, in any case, musicals were no place for Hellman’s “hard-hitting argument, shrewd, humorous characterizations, the slow revelation of true values and the exposure of false ones.” From this, and from the runaway success of an original-cast album, a second myth arose: that if only Bernstein’s sparkling score could be pried loose from Hellman’s leaden, preachy book, Candide might turn out to be a great show, maybe even a big hit. Enter Harold Prince.

With a boost from Bernstein, Prince developed a radically different Candide, featuring a racy new book by Hugh Wheeler, additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, a handsome young cast, and a sensationally randy environmental staging. This version opened in Brooklyn in 1973 and soon transferred to Broadway, where it racked up a slew of awards, including Tonys for Prince and Wheeler, and ran for nearly two years. Prince won credit for making Candide “unclassical” and “unpompous” again, more like the “schoolboy’s prank” that Voltaire once claimed it was (and never mind that he said that as he fled the country, two steps ahead of Louis XV’s thought-police). Success bred success, however, and Prince-Wheeler became the basis for all subsequent productions, beginning with an “opera-house version” commissioned by New York City Opera and premiered by that company in 1982, under Prince’s direction.

With two spectacular exceptions, City Opera’s current production is still pretty much the one Andrew Porter reviewed back then. Overall, Porter wrote, “the process that began in 1973—converting a coherent and shapely work of art into a piece of low, brash flummery—is continued,…[and] the new staging, like [Wheeler’s] book, replaces polished Voltairean wit with stock gags and routines.” Musically, an “integrated score is dismembered,” so that numbers appear “in irrelevant contexts, to new words, and their effectiveness is thereby diminished.” At the highest structural level, Bernstein’s finely-wrought “networks of development and allusion are rent.” In the end, Porter lamented, “of Voltaire’s and Bernstein’s point and purpose nothing remains.”

Porter was being polite. (Hellman, not so much: she called Wheeler “a hack” and disdained Prince’s work, and if you dare, you can click here, and then here, to see her reaction to their 1973 version.) The devolution from Voltaire’s surgical delicacy (“One day Cunégonde was walking near the castle in a small wood that was called ‘the park,’ when she saw Doctor Pangloss in the underbrush giving a lesson in experimental physics to her mother’s chambermaid, a pretty and obedient brunette.”) and Hellman’s ingenious theatrical compressions (“Good morning, Gretchen.” “You owe me money.”) to Wheeler’s sledge-hammer smuttiness (“Spread your legs, girl” was deleted at some point, but “I will await you in the stables. Bring the lubricant!” remains to this day) is almost impossible to grasp without reading all three texts—a distressing exercise, but one that I recommend nonetheless. Add to this Wheeler’s predilection for what can only be called Jew-jokes and fag-jokes, and Prince’s very literal woman-bashing, and you have something very coarse and ugly. Add to that the fact that Prince, Wheeler, and Sondheim sliced and diced the score, moving numbers around without regard for their manifest structural meaning and larding them up with cheesy new lyrics (“Life is pleasant, life is simple—/Oh my God, is that a pimple?”), while pulling numbers off the 1956 reject-pile and foisting them on singers who have neither the vocal ranges to attempt them nor the diction to put them across, and you have a massive act of cultural vandalism, regardless of any good intention that may have been involved.

The current production only adds to the mayhem. It features a mixed grill of Broadway veterans and conspicuously handsome young opera-singers, all of whom seem to have been coached to perform as if they were hyperkinetic tenth-graders. Deploying a large repertoire of funny voices and ethnic stereotypes, Edelman, Zien, and Ashmanskas turn what is arguably the greatest set of lyrics ever written for the musical theatre into near-gibberish, while Phares lacks the dramatic temperament for his role, and Johnson and Picerno lack the notes. None of the principals was vocally adequate, especially at the high end, and in this show, no amount of schtick can make up for that. “Glitter and Be Gay” was only the most glaring of many cases in point, with much of its rapid-fire coloratura either squeezed out or yelled. In fairness to Picerno, she had to dispatch one of the most challenging showpieces in the soprano repertoire while conducting a strenuous physical catfight with a mime calliope-player. Still, if you can’t cast “Glitter and Be Gay,” maybe you shouldn’t be putting on Candide.

I mentioned exceptions.

Meghan Picerno, Linda Lavin, Jay Armstrong Johnson

Meghan Picerno, Linda Lavin, and Jay Armstrong Johnson in ‘Candide;’ photo: Sarah Shatz

Exception Number One: Linda Lavin. In the midst of a stage-full of cartoon cutouts, she found a real person for herself to play, and she did it with delicacy, precision, consistency, and sincere meaning. She treated her colleagues’ lamest exertions as if they were the most compelling things on Earth, and her reactions alone gave the proceedings a hint of true emotion that was otherwise absent. She has maybe two notes of her music firmly under command, her dancing has to be taken on faith, and she moves with visible caution at all times, but when her big moment came, she tore into “I Am Easily Assimilated” as if she were Salome on a charm-offensive, nearly obscuring the fact that the script required her to do so at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons, in a physical location that the lyrics flatly contradicted. By the end of the number, she could have had every man in the house up there with her, if she’d given us the slightest encouragement. This is what musical theatre is all about. This is what Candide can, and should, be about.

Exception Number Two: “Make Our Garden Grow.” Even after two-and-a-half hours of Wheeler’s inane sitcom-shenanigans, in which four idiots follow a hypocritical old crank halfway around the world and learn nothing from the experience, this glorious hymn to sober experience and reasonable expectation still has the power—almost!—to turn the whole thing around and make it feel like it was about something, especially when the cast simply lines up, faces front, and sings it straight, with feeling—and even more so when Lavin, evidently so moved that she can no longer stand still, starts moulding the words gently with her hands. This was magnificent, but it was fatal to Prince’s whole approach: by letting Candide speak, even for a moment, as it was meant to speak, he showed how utterly debased it has become in his hands, and how vital it is for others to step in and recover what Porter called “the poetry, the romance, the honest emotion, and the small bright beam of reasonable hope, making life’s tragedy endurable, that shine in both the book and the original opera.”

The 1956 Candide, warts and all, is one of the glories of musical theatre, and it is crying out for restoration. Copies of Hellman’s book can be had for a penny, and the brilliant original-cast album has never been out of print, from that day to this. What’s keeping you?


Candide presented by the New York City Opera at the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall on January 6, 2017 through January 15, 2017. General Director, Michael Capasso. Music by Leonard Bernstein; book by Hugh Wheeler (after Voltaire); lyrics by Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche and Leonard Bernstein; conducted by Charles Prince; directed by Harold Prince; choreography by Patricia Birch; associate director Arthur Masella; scenic design by Clark Dunham; costume design by Judith Dolan; lighting design by Ken Billington; sound design by Abe Jacob; wig and make-up design by Georgianna Eberhard. Cast: Gregg Edelman (Voltaire/Dr. Pangloss), Jay Armstrong Johnson (Candide), Meghan Picerno (Cunegonde), Jessica Tyler Wright (Paquette), Keith Phares (Maximilian), Linda Lavin (Old Lady), with Chip Zien, Brooks Ashmanskas, Peter Kendall Clark, Sishel Claverie, Eric McKeever, Glenn Seven Allen, Curt Olds, Wayne Hu, Christopher Morrisey, Damian Chambers, Zak Edwards, Matthew Michael Urinak, Barrett Davis, Makoto Winkler, Leah Horowitz, Kat Liu, Esther Antoine, Hannah Jewel Kohn.

Cover: Chip Zien, Gregg Edelman, and Brooks Ashmanskas in ‘Candide;’ photo Sarah Shatz/NYCO


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