Bernstein's Voltaire-inspired "Candide" to get semi-staged performances by BSO conducted by Marin Alsop and featuring NPR's Peter Sagal as narrator.
In his satirical 1759 novel, "Candide," Voltaire comically skewered what he saw as the Pollyanna philosophy of Leibniz, who considered this the best of all possible worlds because of a pre-ordained harmony.
Voltaire begged to differ. The young, naive title character in his book gets a rude awakening to dreadful things of all kinds caused by religion, the state, sex and good old-fashioned greed. Given how regularly human beings seem determined to reconfirm Voltaire's point, the novel has never lost its appeal — or its sting.
Among those taken with it was the brilliant composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. His musical theater version of "Candide" will receive a semistaged presentation from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this week, conducted by Marin Alsop.
Joining the orchestra will be the Baltimore Choral Arts Society; a large cast that includes Broadway veteran Judy Kaye as the Old Lady with one buttock (surely among Voltaire's most distinctive characters); and Peter Sagal, host of NPR's "Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me," as narrator.
"There is a level of sophistication in 'Candide,' just like in 'West Side Story,' that is beyond the medium in a way," Alsop says. "It opened a pathway for [Stephen] Sondheim and others."
The pathway that led to "Candide" was rather bumpy.
After an often tempestuous creative period, it opened on Broadway in 1956 with the best of all possible credentials. In addition to music by Bernstein, the show boasted a book by the fiery Lillian Hellman, who had suggested to the composer that they adapt the Voltaire work for the stage; and lyrics by Richard Wilbur, who would win the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes for poetry the next year.
Additional lyrics came from the ever-clever Dorothy Parker, as well as accomplished lyricist and librettist John Latouche.
All that talent did not guarantee success.
"To choose that kind of subject matter for a work of musical theater was very daring — and slightly insane," says Alsop. "There are so many layers to the piece, and it seems so absurd on the surface. It can be difficult for people to digest and wade through."
Although only one major newspaper panned the show outright, and ticket sales started to pick up, the plug was pulled after 73 performances. "Candide" got stuck with a reputation as a flawed work.
Hellman's book, in particular, has come in for its share of complaints. She did pack in a lot of scenes and incidents. She also set out to underline a parallel between Voltaire's targets and the American political scene of the 1950s.
"I think bringing in issues of McCarthyism was overly ambitious in a way," Alsop says, "And there were a lot of agendas going on between Lenny [Bernstein] and Lillian Hellman at the time."
Bernstein poured into the score a wide range of styles — "It's very hard trying to be eclectic," Bernstein wrote to fellow composer Aaron Copland while working on "Candide" — and the result can be a little overwhelming.
"Bernstein never wrote anything that was simple," Alsop says. "He was very accessible, but very complicated as a musician, thinker and human being."
Garnett Bruce, stage director for the BSO venture, finds some of the composer's complicated side problematic in the show.
"The second act takes many left turns just to visit some musical jokes. The song 'Quiet' is a 12-tone joke that lays a big egg," Garnett says. "Marin has agreed to omit it here."
"Candide" is best known today for its delicious overture, which is never far from earshot, and two of the vocal numbers: the witty coloratura soprano aria "Glitter and Be Gay" (sung to acclaim by a young Barbara Cook in the 1956 premiere); and the richly emotional closing anthem, "Make Our Garden Grow."
Productions of the complete work do not come all that often. And when it is performed, you can count on one thing: It won't be exactly like the show unveiled in 1956. "Candide" went through more changes than Michael Jackson's face.
All sorts of people had a hand in trying to enhance it, among them the celebrated Sondheim, leading to a plethora of performing versions over the decades. Bernstein was directly involved in crafting several of those versions before his death in 1990. (Michael H. Hutchins' website, sondheimguide.com/Candide/, offers an invaluable compendium of the many manifestations of "Candide.")
The ups and downs of the piece may suggest that it's the worst of all possible messes, but that would be unfair. In whatever version, "Candide" can be remarkably effective. The music never fails to impress, even when it may not serve the action perfectly.
And the mix of dark, strange and comic adventures experienced in the plot by the much-battered Candide and his beloved Cunegonde certainly makes for interesting theater.
"I think of this like 'Gulliver's Travels,' where we learn new lessons every place we go in the story," Bruce says.
The payoff of the final destination can be considerable, when Candide and the others decide "to make some sense of life; we're neither pure nor wise nor good; we'll do the best we know; we'll build our house, and chop our wood, and make our garden grow."
"When this musical is done well," Sagal says, "as it was in a production I saw in Chicago directed by Mary Zimmerman a few years ago and as I am confident it will be [in Baltimore], too, when they sing the final number, you cry. That's what I did. It has that kind of catharsis, a sense of peace, resignation and commitment."
Bruce, who invited Sagal to serve as narrator in the BSO's "Candide," likewise finds the finale deeply satisfying.
"Voltaire wrote a more pessimistic ending, but Bernstein wants to hug the whole word," the director says. "This anthem unites us all, at least for three minutes, and makes us think about putting our hands together and solving problems."
One of the first big attempts to solve the perceived problems in this show was made by director Harold Prince and writer Hugh Wheeler, who fashioned a new book (Hellman withdrew her original). The result was a streamlined, in-the-round production that ran off-Broadway in 1973 and then played for two years on Broadway, where a certain young woman found herself entranced.
"I saw it when I was a teenager," Alsop says, "and maybe the way they did it would have brought any show to life for me at that age. But the simplicity of that 'Candide' influenced me. The simpler the version, the more enjoyable it is, at least from my perspective."
In 2004, Alsop led the New York Philharmonic in a semistaging of "Candide" that was broadcast on public television. The edition she used was based on a 1988 version by Scottish Opera, adapted and directed for the Philharmonic by Lonny Price.
Alsop is using that adaptation as the basis for the BSO presentation, but with some revisions and reordering of numbers. Bruce, a Peabody Institute faculty member who has directed theater and opera at major companies in this country and abroad, has taken a fresh look at the narration.
"We've trimmed it down some because I really wanted to focus on the music, which is the heart and soul of the piece," Bruce says. "The more efficient the dialogue, the better the chance to have it heard and understood. One of my goals from the outset was helping people keep track [of] where we are in the story. There will be place-holder cards used in a 'Wheel of Fortune'-esque way to help with that."
Whether fully staged or done in concert form, "Candide" is "never the same show," Alsop says.
But the ultimate meaning never changes.
"Every piece Bernstein writes is about seeking a belief system and what he, as a human being, could believe in," Alsop says. "That's why Voltaire appealed to him. 'Make Our Garden Grow' is without a doubt one of the most uplifting, beautifully simple messages in any repertoire. It's about believing in the strength of connections — family, love — the same message of Beethoven's Ninth."
Bruce, who worked as an intern with Bernstein's management company during the making of the composer's 1989 recording of "Candide" in London, still finds freshness in the "wink and a nod" of the piece, its remarkable sophistication.
"Bernstein clearly labored over it," Bruce says. "There is a lot of thought and energy and purpose to everything [the show's collaborators] were doing. It was not going to be just a frothy bunch of tunes. I want to honor Bernstein with this [BSO presentation], but I also want it to be a tribute to an essential piece of 20th-century music history."