The Many Lives of Candide

The birth of Candide the comic operetta dates back to 1953, when Lillian Hellman proposed to Leonard Bernstein that they collaborate on a musical adaptation of Voltaire's novella. She saw in the book's Inquisition scenes fodder for a satirical swipe at Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Bernstein liked the idea, and as Hellman sharpened her pen to take on HUAC, he began writing songs in collaboration with John Latouche, and later Richard Wilbur. It took three years to get the piece to production, and along the way, it acquired a few more stellar collaborators: Dorothy Parker as lyricist and Tyrone Guthrie as director. Alas, the quality of the talent didn't stop Broadway critic Walter Kerr from dubbing the original Broadway production "a really spectacular disaster."

That might have been enough for another fledgling work, but not Candide. Soon after, the creators took another shot at the show in England. Hellman enlisted Michael Stewart to help her revise the book, Bernstein wrote a new duet, "We Are Women," and some of the music was shuffled around. It opened in London in the spring of 1959 and was no more of a success there than on Broadway.

One might think that would have been the end of Candide, but thanks to the recording of an original cast album, the show survived and even began to attract new fans who had never seen the original stagings. Over the next dozen years, the work popped up twice on the West Coast, first in a 1966 revival at UCLA, with Gordon Davidson directing, then in a 1971 Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Association production, which tried again to massage Hellman's book (and was again unsuccessful) and created a new order for the musical numbers. This production toured and eventually wound up at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., but it ended its life there.

Then, two years later, director Harold Prince got his hands on the show and made the most dramatic changes yet. He ditched Hellman's book completely, replacing it with a new, one-act adaptation of Voltaire's story by British playwright Hugh Wheeler. (Hellman approved.) New lyrics by Stephen Sondheim were added, musical instruments were taken away (the orchestration was cut back to 13 instruments), and songs were shuffled some more. The result was a lighter, quicker, carnival-like Candide that the public embraced. It moved to Broadway and was a smash. This variation came to be called the "Chelsea version."

But Prince wasn't done with Candide yet. In 1982, it was revived for the New York City Opera, with Prince directing. For this, the "Opera House version," Prince had Wheeler expand his adaptation to two acts and allowed Bernstein to restore some music which had been cut for the Chelsea version. It was the fullest Candide yet ­ and the first to draw the serious attention of opera companies ­ but it wasn't complete.

John Mauceri, who had assisted Bernstein for the Chelsea and Opera House versions, attempted a complete version in 1988 for the Scottish Opera House, adding even more music and new additions to Wheeler's text, courtesy of Jonathan Miller and John Wells. The "Scottish Opera House version" is the version most often considered definitive today ­ it's the one that's the basis for Austin Lyric Opera's production ­ but it isn't the last version.

Before he died, Bernstein himself took a final stab at Candide, restoring bits of music here and there, and tweaking some of the show's signature numbers. He also conducted a concert performance of the piece, which was recorded and is valuable as Bernstein's last comment on the work ... but it ain't considered definitive by most folks.

Lastly, Hal Prince took another shot at the show in 1997, producing it for Broadway with a cast that included Jim Dale, Harolyn Blackwell, Andrea Martin, and Arte Johnson. While the piece was essentially the same as Prince's earlier stagings, the director continued to fiddle with it, making more adjustments to the text.

And that, it appears, will be Candide's fate: to be forever tinkered with, always in the midst of change.

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    The musical Candide has had as tumultuous a life as its wandering hero. Robert Faires catalogs its journey and explains what has kept it alive and why it's always a pleasure to revisit.

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