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If there were a special prize for "most labored-over show in theater history," the honor would most certainly go to Candide. Life has imitated art: the show's forty-four-year saga resembles Voltaire's picaresque narrative itself, as numerous brilliant minds have endeavored gallantly to create the "Best of all Possible" shows.
In 1953, the renowned playwright Lillian Hellman proposed to Leonard Bernstein that they adapt Voltaire's Candide for the musical theater. Voltaire's novella of 1758 satirized the fashionable philosophies of his day and, especially, the Catholic church whose Inquisition routinely tortured and killed "heretics" in a ghastly event known as an "Auto da Fé" ("act of faith"). Hellman observed a sinister parallel between the Inquisition's church-sponsored purges and the "Washington Witch Trials" being waged by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Fueled by rage and indignation, she began her adaptation of Voltaire's book. John LaTouche was engaged as initial lyricist, while Bernstein made numerous musical sketches. Before long, LaTouche was replaced by poet Richard Wilbur. Hellman, Bernstein and Wilbur worked periodically over the next two years but labored in earnest through 1956. By October, Candide was ready for performances in Boston. At some point during those Boston performances, Dorothy Parker contributed lyrics to "The Venice Gavotte," while Bernstein and Hellman had also added lyrics of their own to other numbers. The lyrics credits were already beginning to mount up.
The production, directed by Tyrone Guthrie, with sets by Oliver Smith and costumes by Irene Sharaff, opened at the Martin Beck Theater in New York on December 1, 1956, to mixed reviews. Hellman's satire was thought cerebral and heavy-handed; the sophistication of the music (much of it in a flashy operetta style) did not appeal to audiences. The production closed on February 2, 1957. Fortunately, the original cast album was recorded by Columbia Records. The music continued to thrive; the recording sold well and Bernstein's score gained a sort of cult status.
In 1958, a full-scale production in London, England, was prepared, with a revised book credited to Lillian Hellman assisted by Michael Stewart, and one new musical number ("We Are Women," a duet for Cunegonde and the Old Lady, with lyrics by Leonard Bernstein). Candide opened at the Saville Theater in London on April 30, 1959. In the United States, there was no production which could be called major until 1966, when Gordon Davidson directed Candide for the Theater Group at the University of California at Los Angeles, with Carroll O'Connor in the role of Pangloss.
In 1971 the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Association mounted a production which attempted a complete revision of Hellman's book, as well as a substantial shuffling of musical numbers. This version was performed in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. It is probably at this time that Mr. Bernstein wrote the song "Words, Words, Words," which includes a bitter reprise of "The Best of All Possible Worlds." Though this production was not successful, it seems to have stirred up interest in Candide. In 1973, Harold Prince and Hugh Wheeler devised a new small-scale version which won the support of Lillian Hellman, who at this time withdrew her original adaptation of Voltaire. Thus, the 1956 version of Candide is no longer available for performance.
This new version opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Chelsea Theater in December, 1973. Harold Prince directed a free-wheeling single-act production, which included some new lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a thirteen-instrument orchestration by Hershy Kay. When this production moved to the Broadway Theater in Manhattan, the theater itself was rebuilt from the inside out: walkways and platforms were constructed around the auditorium, and the audience sat on wooden benches, right in the middle of the action. The audience was even invited to eat peanuts during the show, adding to the circus-like atmosphere. The young and lively cast, and spirited musical direction by John Mauceri, helped make this production Candide's first critical and popular success. (Known as the "Chelsea" version, this is the earliest version of Candide available for performance.)
In October, 1982, New York City Opera (Beverly Sills, general manager) presented Candide in its first version for an opera house. As a full length two-act production, much music that had been cut in 1973 was reinstated, under Mr. Bernstein's supervision, by John Mauceri. New scenes were written by Hugh Wheeler, adapted from Voltaire. Once again Harold Prince directed.
As music director of the Scottish Opera in Glasgow, John Mauceri took the opportunity to examine Candide one more time in 1988, with a production that included even more music, including a new "Entr'acte" and a recurring chorale, "Universal Good," created by Mr. Bernstein from a long-discarded aria. Jonathan Miller and John Wells directed and further adapted Hugh Wheeler's script.
After Mr. Bernstein had attended the final rehearsals and the opening in Glasgow, as well as a production later in the season devised by Jonathan Miller for the Old Vic in London, he decided the time had come for the composer himself to re-examine Candide. Taking the Scottish Opera version as a base, he restored, among other things, two dozen bars in the "Auto-da-Fé," shuffled the order in the second act, and touched up the orchestration throughout. For example, he altered the endings of several numbers, including "Glitter and Be Gay," where he placed chords on off-beats in the manner of Tchaikovsky, whose Fourth Symphony he had just conducted.
This revised and renewed version of Candide was presented by the London Symphony Orchestra in concert at the Barbican Centre, London, England, in December, 1989, and was recorded by Deutsche Grammophon and videotaped by Video Music Productions. Leonard Bernstein and John Wells created a narration, performed at the time by Adolph Green, that moved the action swiftly from one musical number to the next.
Harold Prince continues to champion Candide: in 1994 he directed the New York City Opera version (1982) at the Chicago Lyric Opera, and in the Spring of 1997, Mr. Prince directed Candide for Livent, on Broadway. It had been more than twenty years since Candide had a Broadway production. This was also the 1982 New York City Opera version, with yet more lyrics supplemented by Stephen Sondheim.
In 1994, the engraving of the Scottish Opera version became available from Boosey & Hawkes, in a piano/vocal as well as in a full score (with engraved orchestral parts). While this publication encompasses the complete score, it by no means reflects a final, frozen show. Like its hero, Candide is perhaps destined never to find its perfect form and function; in the final analysis, however, that may prove philosophically appropriate.