Hidden from small

“The Best of All Possible Worlds”: The Philadelphia Orchestra presents Bernstein’s "Candide" this June

April 01, 2019

Since its premiere in 1956, and through several subsequent revisions, Leonard Bernstein’s comic operetta Candide has held singular appeal for a broad range of audiences. Set to a libretto by Lillian Hellman (and featuring sheer brilliant lyrics by Richard Wilbur, John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, and later, Stephen Sondheim, as well as orchestrations by Hershy Kay), Candide offers equal delights to the opera mavens and the Broadway kids. Its irrepressible earworms make for an enchanting night at the theater; so could its heady philosophical reckoning fuel a college seminar in metaphysics. Writing for the New York Times, Howard Taubman surmised that, with Candide, “the popular instincts of the Broadway theatre have been seasoned with delicious sophistication and immense gusto.”

It is, in other words, Bernstein through-and-through: a restless creative who longed for the best of all possible worlds and refused to accept anything less; the charismatic maestro whose art embraced Mahler and Gershwin equally, and who took the reins of one of America’s most prestigious orchestras, becoming the New York Philharmonic’s music director in 1957, and conquered Broadway with West Side Story in the same year (and who had by this time also become a television star).

Bernstein was a quintessentially American artist, and in Candide, he produced a quintessentially American work of art. Like the Statue of Liberty, it is of French provenance, based on Voltaire’s 18th-century novella Candide, ou l’Optimiste. So, too, does Bernstein’s score—what he described as a valentine to European music—honor the continental forebears of his art. Its Overture nods to Rossini, and the proceedings are rife with European dances: gavottes, marzurkas, polkas, waltzes. The coloratura of Cunegonde’s aria “Glitter and Be Gay” would not be out of place in a Donizetti opera, while the duet “You Were Dead, You Know” recalls the bel canto duet “Son geloso del zefiro errante” from Bellini’s La sonnambula. But Candide wraps these European traditions in the distinctly American garb of musical theater—“an art,” Bernstein said while hosting the 1956 television special The American Musical Comedy, “that arises out of American roots, out of our speech, our tempo, our moral attitudes, our timing, our kind of humor.”

Leonard Bernstein composing at the piano in 1955. Photo by Al Ravenna

Thus sprung from its European origins, Candide is a work that entertains, as American politics aspire to entertain, a contest of ideas. The tale charts Candide’s philosophical journey from the blissful optimism of his mentor, Pangloss, to a more virtuous realism (“We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good / We’ll do the best we know”). In Voltaire’s satirical critique of Leibnizian philosophy (encapsulated in Pangloss’s credo, “Once one dismisses the rest of all possible worlds / One finds that this is the best of all possible worlds”), Bernstein and Hellman saw an opportunity to challenge the complacency of Eisenhower’s America. Bernstein’s leftist tendencies earned him an extensive FBI dossier, and particular scrutiny during the McCarthy years. Candide originally included a scene satirizing the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was nervously edited out before the premiere, and restored only once, for the 1966 production in Los Angeles.

As Robert Kennedy famously said, “Democracy is messy, and it’s hard. It’s never easy.” Candide’s creative gestation turned out to be as much a contest of ideas, as much a quest for self-realization, as its subject matter. Dorothy Parker contended that, between Bernstein, Hellman, and the rest of their creative team, there were “too many geniuses involved.” Bernstein and Hellman began work on the operetta in 1954, and continued to work side-by-side through the summer and fall of 1956. Hellman worked through no fewer than 14 versions of the libretto. Voltaire’s peripatetic novella—traversing Westphalia, Lisbon, Paris, Cádiz, Buenos Aires, Venice, Surinam, and other locales in just 87 pages—proved difficult scaffolding for a coherent theater piece.

First page of the original manuscript of the Overture to Candide.

Its first showings were hardly an unqualified success. A trial run of the show in Boston, in October 1956, met with measured reviews. Variety reported, “It’s a spectacular, opulent, and racy musical, verging on operetta. It’s replete with eye-filling costumes, lavish settings, a big cast and fine musical score. A major hurdle to popular acceptance of the show is the somewhat esoteric nature of its satire (and the public’s unfamiliarity with the Voltaire original). The musical also needs severe cutting, especially in the second act.” Its tepid reception incited a panic of cuts, additions, and revisions. Bernstein and Richard Wilbur were visiting the men’s room when the composer spontaneously improvised the tune that would become the Act II number “What’s the Use?” The two retreated to their hotel rooms and worked separately throughout the afternoon, the lyricist periodically phoning the composer with a new verse. Hershy Kay meanwhile took the train from New York to Boston, orchestrated the tune within hours, and “What’s the Use?” was incorporated into the show that very evening.

The Broadway premiere, on December 1, inspired more polarized critical reactions, from declaring it “brilliant musical satire,” “a triumph of stage arts molded into a symmetrical whole” (New York Times), and “a work of genius … so good that it stands in a class by itself” (Daily News), to “a really spectacular disaster” (Herald Tribune). It ran on Broadway for just two months.

L to r: Max Adrian (Dr. Pangloss), Louis Edmonds (Maximilian), Barbara Cook (Cunegonde), and Robert Rounseville (Candide) in the original 1956 production of Candide.

Bernstein directly participated in the subsequent versions prepared for productions in London (1959), Los Angeles (1966), Chicago (1967), San Francisco (1971), and—in its most pronounced departure from the original 1956 version—an off-Broadway 1973 production, staged by Harold Prince. This version featured a new libretto by Hugh Wheeler, after Hellman withheld permission to use her text, and cut a significant amount of music. A decade later, New York City Opera’s Candide restored much of the music that had been cut, but within Wheeler’s dramatic framework. In 1988, the conductor John Mauceri supervised a revival at Scottish Opera, restoring Hellman’s libretto while keeping some of Wheeler’s scenes, and incorporating additional lyrics by John Wells. This was the “final revised version” that Bernstein conducted in a concert performance the following year.

Its complicated performance history notwithstanding, the magnitude of Bernstein’s musical accomplishment in Candide is unquestionable. Only Bernstein could have produced such a work, injecting musical theater with Enlightenment discourse. Even when Candide believes his lover, Cunegonde, dead, and witnesses Pangloss’s execution at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition, the music’s irresistible tunefulness never abates. After all, as Bernstein once professed, “Man’s capacity for laughter is nobler than his divine gift of suffering.”

Candide remains a challenging endeavor, but an ultimately compelling work of art. It may simply be that Bernstein, Hellman, & co. were ahead of their time. Eisenhower’s America was ill equipped to properly digest Candide; even the culturati of Boston and New York struggled indeed with “the somewhat esoteric nature of its satire.” But as Candide and Cunegonde resolved, so went Bernstein—in this and every creative venture, from Candide and West Side Story to his triumphant MASS: “We’ll do the best we know / We’ll build our house and chop our wood / And make our garden grow.”

Patrick Castillo is a composer and writer living in Philadelphia. He is founding director of Third Sound and executive director of contemporary music collective Hotel Elefant.

The Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin perform Bernstein’s Candide June 20-22 in Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center, with stage direction by Kevin Newbury, starring Alek Shrader as Candide and Erin Morley as Cunegonde.