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Writings by Bernstein on Candide

Candide was written as a kind of personal love letter to European music. Itís an Americanís Valentine to Europe...And it is a pastiche, itís eclectic, thatís the whole point of it. That opening number that we just a kind of salute to everything I love in Gilbert & Sullivan, in Offenbach, in Bellini, even. The formality of which we take advantage in introducing the number, the absolute cue-ishness of it. Dr. Pangloss says, ĎThis is the best of all lands and the best of all possible worlds.í Cue, music. Thatís exactly the way itís supposed to be in Gilbert, and thatís the way we did it as a kind of bow of veneration to Gilbert and to Sullivan, and to all the others. Of course itís a European eclectic work. [Intv. w/Hew Weldon in London, 1988]

[Voltaireís] masterpiece was a tough, skinny novella called Candide, which inspired the playwright Lillian Hellman and me to have a bash at it musically. The challenge to us was to dramatize and musicalize the stinging satire of Candide, without turning it into burlesque. Thatís why this so-called Broadway Show was subtitled an operetta, in which we could play with time, place and style. (Well, we were 35 years younger then.) [Intro to London performance of Candide, Oct-Dec. 1989]

Columnist George Ryan thought the show's difficulties stemmed from over-intellectualization, as he explained in his article "Eggheads Ahoy!" for The Pilot in October 1956:

Somewhat in the short-lived tradition of Camino Real, Reuben, Reuben, and Waiting for Godot, this Lillian Hellman-Leonard Bernstein Candide is theater for the intellectual--genuine, quasi, and pseudo. It is, in other words, pretentious and freighted with allegory and symbol. It is based on an 18th Century French `Philosophic Tale' by Voltaire. And it would appear that the ideal spectator of this new Candide would approach the playhouse armed with some knowledge of Voltaire's period and his philosophy, which latter earned his complete works, in 1804, a special place in the Church's Index of Forbidden Books. (This last should not deter the reader who wishes to see Candide; the ban applies only to the original, surely not to this musical adaptation.)

. . . From a production point of view, Candide is sumptuous and steadily beautiful. Its choice of colors, its wealth of costumes and settings--both contribute grandly to a most attractive spectacle. The music of Leonard Bernstein is sheer loveliness, solidly in the operatic vein and most pleasant to hear.

But as it now stands, Candide must be labored over and made more palatable for the general play-goer, otherwise this business venture in the realm of art will surely fail. Its story line must be clarified so that the various parts will fit and harmonize and pull together; the jumps in time and space are nothing when compared with the 7-league leaps in the focus of ideas. . .

Esteemed theater critic Walter Kerr did not mince words when expressing his decidedly poor opinion of the original production of Candide. The article ended with the phrase "pessimism is the order of the evening." The review appeared in the New York Herald Tribune on December 3, 1956.

Three of the most talented people our theater possesses--Lillian Hellman, Leonard Bernstein, Tyrone Guthrie--have joined hands to transform Voltaire's Candide into a really spectacular disaster.

Who is mostly responsible for the great ghostly wreck that sails like a Flying Dutchman across the fogbound stage of the Martin Beck? That would be hard to say, the honors are so evenly distributed.

. . . Satire, as I understand it, is a matter of humor--partly of good humor, partly of snappish wit. Miss Hellman's attack on it is academic, blunt and barefaced.

. . . Irony is thumped out with a crushing hand, nobility is underscored by bewildering tears (Max Adrian as Dr. Pangloss, did really seem to be crying onstage at the opening of Saturday night, for reasons which shall forever remain his secret). Nowhere in all the garlanded banquetry, the wild Parisian waltzing, the South American veranda-lolling, the frenzied double-hanging that winds up a Portuguese bacchanal are we permitted to take a moment's shrewd delight in the sly thrust, the mockery that amuses even as it kills, the tell-tale truth that grins and gleams behind a sombre mask.

. . . Once the air has cleared a bit, I imagine Mr. Bernstein will come off best, if there is a best to be salvaged from this singularly ill-conceived venture. For a great part of the evening Mr. Bernstein is composing trilling little pastiches that are surely meant as wry comments on music, if not manners. . . .

[Copyright 1956, New York Herald Tribune Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.]

This article by Don Ross published in the Herald Tribune on November 25, 1956, a week before the show"s opening, featured personal accounts of the collaborative process from Bernstein and Hellman:

. . . The other day in Boston, a reporter called on Miss Hellman and Mr. Bernstein in their hotel suites to find out how things were coming along. Each suite was in considerable disarray, as though many protracted and soul-searching conferences had been taking place all day. The main difference between the suites was that Miss Hellman's had freshly typewritten manuscript pages lying around and Mr. Bernstein"s had sheets of partly completed music.

Both writers had the distracted, absent-minded air common to authors and composers as the deadline approaches. Both were smoking at a furious rate. Both had been getting too little sleep.

. . . "The Lisbon scene is not clear and needs rewriting," Miss Hellman said by way of greeting the reporter.

"The gavotte at the end of Venice is a mess," said Mr. Bernstein. "It needs to be fixed."

"It seems to me I've been working on Candide all my life," said Miss Hellman. "Occasionally I fear I"ll end up in an institution looking like a bust of Voltaire and demanding that the attendants address me as Voltaire."

Voltaire was a brave, wise and unscrupulous man who was born in Paris in 1694 and died there in 1778 after living in exile much of the time. He took the hide off so many people in his book, including drama critics whom he compared to eunuchs, that there was quite a bit of jubilation when he died. Miss Hellman has not included the polemic against the critics in the play.

"Three years ago I was reading Candide in bed," she said. `I was laughing and having such fun with it. I had read it first when I was very young and I guess I read it every five or six years from that time on. To me it was a great book, full of laughter, wisdom, comment, satire and bite. I thought of it as an attack on all rigid thinking, on all isms. I decided that night I'd like to do something with it."

Mr. Bernstein had often told Miss Hellman he wanted to do a musical with her. After the fun-in-bed session she cabled him in Milan, where he was conducting at La Scala, and said:

"How about Candide? I'm excited. Are you?"

He cabled back that he was excited, too, and that started the collaboration. They've worked on the show off and on for two and a half years. . . .

[Copyright 1956, New York Herald Tribune Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.]

Harold Prince's 1973 production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Chelsea Theater was heralded as a triumph, as exemplified by Clive Barnes review in The New York Times from December 21, 1973:

There are musicals that are smash hits, musicals that are successes, musicals that are all manner of failure right down to abject and beyond, and musical that are legends. Leonard Bernstein's Candide was a legend. Now the Chelsea Theater Center of Brooklyn--it lives most vigorously in a handsome attic at the Brooklyn Academy of Music--has made the legend a reality.

It was no secret that Mr. Bernstein's comic operetta Candide was not only the most brilliant work Mr. Bernstein has ever composed, but also that in its original staging it had been an unhappy, unlucky failure. It was the kind of musical where you cherished the record and conveniently forgot the scenic circumstances. It was the classic did-not-work-on-the-stage musical.

This is now a new musical, a fun musical, and, so far at least, the best musical of the Broadway season. (It happens to be in Brooklyn, but that is all the same territory to someone with a subway token.)

Everyone who loves the American musical knew about Candide, and everyone sympathized with its comparative failure both on Broadway and in London's West End. In its original version, it had everything going for it except success.

Harold Prince, in deciding to stage Candide for the Chelsea, took one brave and very intelligent decision. He decided that the old book, by Lillian Hellman, simply did not work. He was very right. He brought in Hugh Wheeler to provide a new book, still tenuously based on Voltaire, and while most sensibly keeping most of the original lyrics by the poet Richard Wilbur, also enlisted the occasional and dazzling assistance of Stephen Sondheim.

Then Mr. Prince decided--and this was the real creative leap--that this was not a conventional musical fit for the occasionally fallen arches of a proscenium. He knew the music, understood the show's rapid changes of circumstance and scene, and devised a way to express the work's particular style.

The work is episodic. Basically that is why it originally failed. Mr. Prince has staged it episodically and that is why it is now one of the few luminous delights of the New York theater. It is simply a lovely, heartwarming piece.

. . . I loved this new Candide. I always knew that the Bernstein music was a great score [that] somehow had been lost on the way to the theater. Here it has at last been found. Mr. Bernstein, Mr. Wheeler, Mr. Prince and, of course, Mr. Voltaire, have given us a new and effervescent musical.

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