Imagine ‘the best of all possible worlds’ that persistently rewards the rich and powerful while immiserating the masses. Imagine an international cartel that scapegoats minorities and immigrants while treating women like chattel to be bought, coddled, and dumped. Voltaire did so in his 1759 novella Candide by simply observing – and ruthlessly satirising – the world around him. Leonard Bernstein and his collaborators did so two centuries later in their notorious 1956 Broadway flop which has been radically revised more often than any other musical yet has lost none of its sting. Given the rise of right-wing authoritarian leaders and the refugee crises of the 21st century, Candide has arguably become even more relevant than ever.
Candide (1956) is a puzzling piece. Its Broadway premiere, with a dazzlingly inventive score by Leonard Bernstein and heavy-handed libretto by Lillian Hellman, garnered famously mixed reviews; conventional wisdom has it that its failings are obvious, although no two critics are agreed on what they are. Despite the firmament of starry names associated with it over the years, the piece continues to have its supporters and detractors. Its plot is as impudently peripatetic as its protagonists, and its wildly eclectic score ranges in style from bubbling musical comedy charm songs to coloratura aria, from operatic cris de cœur to flamenco. At least seven different libretti follow in the wake of Lillian Hellman’s much-disparaged original. Only once has it enjoyed a long run in the theatre, in Harold Prince’s 1973 musically stripped-down, environmental staging for which Hugh Wheeler wrote a frothy new book. Hellman, who considered Wheeler ‘a hack’, was very unhappy with his revision and withdrew the performance rights to her script. The 1973 libretto does indeed turn the piece into a brittle comedy, which was criticised by John Mauceri, conductor of the 1988 Scottish Opera version, as being ‘one long joke’ from which the ‘heart, the tears, and the faith’ were excised. Yet by necessity, Wheeler’s rewrite has become the jumping off point for all subsequent revivals and adaptations, which as a rule keep moving the piece closer and closer back to Voltaire’s original. Although six lyricists were credited on the title page by 1988, the lion’s share is by Richard Wilbur, former U.S. Poet Laureate and twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
Harold Prince’s Broadway production, like many others, streamlined Candide’s emotional and musical scale, deleting more than half the score, and emphasised its farcical elements at the expense of Voltaire’s penchant (in Bernstein’s words) for ‘throwing light on all the dark places’. Bernstein and Hellman were drawn to the novella for its caustic satire of both Leibnizian optimism and Spanish Inquisition-style tyranny, which they saw as being analogous to the tranquillised complacency of the 1950s and the persecution of leftists in the McCarthy hearings. Their Candide, like Voltaire’s, thus depicts anything but the best of all possible worlds. Both were committed progressives who had been bullied and threatened during the anti-communist witch hunts of the early 1950s, and both were intent on using Candide as artistic revenge. Although Hellman was taken to task for ‘wielding the text as too blunt an instrument of social critique’, hers and every subsequent version of the musical mount a satirical attack on political tyranny, militarism, ideological straitjacketing, materialism, and colonialism.
Despite Leonard Bernstein’s championing of ‘American musical comedy’ during the 1950s, Candide is plainly a burlesque of European operetta – from Jacques Offenbach to Gilbert and Sullivan, the most satirical and topical of musical theatre genres. But it is also undeniably an eclectic, Broadway-style musical whose inventive, ambitious score places it in line with other genre-stretching musicals of the 1950s that were also attempting to elevate the form. Because all Candide’s principals except Pangloss/Voltaire require operatically-trained voices, it is usually encountered these days in opera houses. Candide’s first act, whose action is more or less the same in all the post-Hellman versions, follows the characters from Westphalia to their embarkation for the New World and has a straightforward narrative that always plays well in the theatre. In contrast, Candide’s second act varies substantially from version to version and risks becoming scattershot and digressive, an odyssey without an Ithaca, resolving only belatedly in its radiant finale, ‘Make Our Garden Grow’.
The theatrical challenges of performing Candide vary from version to version. Even Hellman scholars consider her original script at odds with Bernstein’s sparkling score and she is credited in revised versions as writer only of ‘additional lyrics’. In 21st-century opera houses, the most widely performed edition is the 1988 Scottish Opera version adapted by John Wells and John Mauceri. This work was approved by Leonard Bernstein and used the original orchestrations by Bernstein and Hershey Kay; the composer based his ‘final revised version’ of 1989 off these performances of the year before. In this and every other edition of Candide, its theatrical dynamism lies in the violent clash between the ravishing beauty, sweep, and wit of music and lyrics and the relentless succession of horrors that comprises its plot. (Stephen Sondheim considers it to have ‘the most scintillating set of songs yet written for the musical theater’). This clash, however, is not a flaw; on the contrary, it is the crux of the piece’s unique brilliance and power. I quote at length Raymond Knapp’s litany of the ‘horrifying realities’ that Voltaire’s Candide exploits to emphasise the musical’s uniquely schizophrenic logic. These realities include:
devastating natural disasters (earthquakes, fires, storms at sea, and the like), the plague, syphilis, war (including forced conscription, multiple rape, dismemberment, and other brutalities), slavery (including multiple rape, punitive dismemberment, and other brutalities), piracy (including rape, dismemberment, and other brutalities), partial cannibalism, . . . religious conflict and persecution, racial conflict and persecution, class-based exploitation, political corruption, prostitution and other more direct forms of sexual slavery, . . . and everyday cruelties such as poverty, hunger, the repayment of kindness with betrayal, and a general lack of human charity toward those who suffer. If this seems a grim list, it is nevertheless by no means complete, for Voltaire’s Candide is unrelenting in its detailed parade of human misery. It is, in fact, one of the most unpleasant classic texts available, . . . for the most part expressing no credible hope for its embattled cohort of characters whose sufferings are elaborated as the core of nearly every episode.
How is a director to stage the violent contradiction between such a jarringly ‘unpleasant’ plot and such a dazzling score? A realistic production being unthinkable, most directors choose to emphasise the farcical, fantastical, cartoon-like character of Candide’s brutalities and the two-dimensionality of its protagonists. Even so, it is impossible to stage Candide’s sparkling comedy without conceding its tragic subtext. For all its silliness, Candide disproves Leibnizian optimism by depicting the realest of all possible worlds as a merry-go-round of exploitation, greed, and slaughter. As John Wells writes, ‘“Optimism” was dangerous, Voltaire believed, because it played into the hands of Oppression,’ inducing an acquiescence ‘he called ‘a despairing fatalism’. The piece’s optimistic fatalism also puts it into dialogue with two plays that took the world by storm during the decade of Candide’s launch, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1952) and Endgame (1957). Like Beckett’s plays, Candide lays bare the inexorable law of a ruthlessly arbitrary, unjust world. Like them, it employs classic vaudeville turns while reframing them through irony, lampooning the feverish materialism that underlay the post-World War II boom years and simultaneously illuminating the darkest corners of our own world.
The score’s clearest example of this schizophrenia is the Lisbon ‘Auto-da-fé’, in which a death machine is turned into a merry celebration, intermittently disrupted by summary trials and executions.
What a day, what a day
For an auto-da-fé!
It’s a lovely day for drinking
And for watching people fry!
The clangorous dissonance between the giddy song and dance and the gruesome interruptions is a shocking indictment of the bourgeois entertainment that exploits and profits from genocidal violence. Yet even after all the misfortune, it is questionable whether the hapless Candide ends his journey an enlightened man. Beginning with the Scottish Opera version, however, Bernstein’s hero is given a moment of illumination, the elegiac aria ‘Nothing More Than This’ which follows his ridiculously overdue acknowledgment of Cunegonde’s venality. Candide’s complaint, with lyrics by Bernstein, has such tragic power because it reaches far beyond Cunegonde’s betrayal to become a bitter rejection of Pangloss’s irresponsible optimism and an acknowledgment of the evanescence of all earthly things.
Despite its cavalcade of terrors, Candide does not end in disgust and despair. Rather, in the final number, ‘Make Our Garden Grow’, Bernstein and Wilbur stage the entire social collective—the world—and bring the full cast on stage. In this luminous finale, they pull the action unmistakably into the contemporary world of which we are all citizens. Voltaire (and Bernstein) believed that because only human beings can improve their lot, living responsibly ‘must begin,’ John Wells writes, ‘with an acceptance of the fact that our fate is in our own hands’. In the 21st century, the reality of climate change gives even greater urgency to Candide’s resplendent finale. It is almost as if Bernstein and his collaborators knew that the passage of time would translate a quintessentially U.S.-American Cold War protest against tyranny into an emotionally overpowering reflection on the contemporary state of the planet and the human species, which, some sixty-odd years after Candide’s premiere, has become more precarious and endangered than Bernstein could have imagined.
David Savran is a specialist in U.S. and German theatre and musical theatre and is the author of eight books, most recently Highbrow/Lowdown: Theater, Jazz, and the Making of the New Middle Class. He has served as a judge for the Obie Awards, the Lucille Lortel Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize in Drama and is the Vera Mowry Roberts Distinguished Professor of Theatre and Performance at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.