So far as I know, Leonard Bernstein only had one flop, and this is it. In 1956 it ran for 73 shows, to critical disdain. But the cast album was a hit, and ever since people have been tinkering with it. What was wrong the first time? Some say it was a heavy-handed book by Lillian Hellman. Some say the story wasn’t right for the time, like Bob Fosse’s Chicago, which didn’t catch on until the revival. Harold Prince brought Candide back in 1974 with a new book by Hugh Wheeler, who worked with Stephen Sondheim on A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and Sweeney Todd. (Did you know Sweeney is currently lensing (as they say in Variety) in London, helmed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp? I can hardly wait!) The story and songs in this new version had been tweaked by Sondheim and others, including Dorothy Parker. Considering she’d been dead for seven years at the time, I assume this was a project long in gestation. I’m just as glad I missed this version, as they seem to have jettisoned half of Bernstein’s music! What were they thinking?
I have a soft spot in my heart for Candide. The Nederland, Texas, High School Band (2nd Chair French horn: John Varley) performed the overture, and it was one of the toughest pieces of music we ever tackled. It has become part of the standard concert repertoire, always a crowd pleaser with its pleasing themes, rollicking tempo changes, dramatic swoops and flourishes. Most people don’t know the rest of the music score, but I’m familiar with most of it. But I’d never seen it staged.
… and maybe I still haven’t. Depends on what you mean by “staged.” Several reviewers of this performance call it “semi-staged.” This is to distinguish it from “concert performances,” such as I’ve seen on videotape of Sondheim’s Follies. This format is like a dramatic reading, with songs. Actors stand before the orchestra, maybe with a script in hand, and do the play with no scenery or movements.
I’ll confess to a weakness for seeing something new and experimental, especially when it comes to older works. I’m up for almost anything. Lee and I have seen The Mikado set in Texas (The Mikado, Y’all!), and the Eric Idle version set in an English seaside hotel. Loved them both. (The Mikado has absolutely nothing to do with Japan.) I liked Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet almost as much as the “authentic” version by Franco Zeffirelli. Sure, I like the old-fashioned stuff with costumes, set changes, and all that jazz, like My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Guys and Dolls. Vegas is getting into the act more and more, with mega-spectacles like The Producers and, opening tomorrow at the rebuilt “Grail Theater” at the Wynn, Spamalot. But the kind of things that intrigues me more are the giant turntable in Les Miserables, or the band on stage, singers and dancers sitting in the open until called on as in Chicago, or the no-frills, bare stage of A Chorus Line.
This Candide is a mixture. It ran only 4 performances (could have gone much longer, I’m sure) at the Avery Fisher. The “pit” orchestra was the New York Philharmonic (!!), under the baton of Marin Alsop, the foremost female conductor in the US, and former musical director of the Eugene Symphony in Oregon while I lived there. But the musicians weren’t in the pit, they were right out there on stage, with Alsop in the center of things (she even had a line of dialogue). At the back of the hall were five rows of chorus singers, the front rows of which doubled as actors and soloists in the small parts. They did things like hold up signs to enhance the story. And the action took place on runways between the orchestra and chorus or out in front. No scenery, no costume changes, few props, but tons of sparkle and wit.
Comparing the various versions I will have to leave to those more versed in Broadway lore than I. Some strong views were expressed (“Bernstein is rolling over in his grave!”), but the majority seem to think that all the changes wrought were improvements on a rather turgid (except for the music) original. That sounds about right to me. I try to envision this frothy material done in period costumes, and I think it would be a hard sell. I don’t know if the original had a narrator who later becomes part of the action as Dr. Pangloss, as in Into the Woods, but it works for me. I do know that in the original the character of “The Old Woman” had only one song, and as played here by Broadway legend Patti LuPone she has five. Works for me. I could listen to her sing all night, and the lady can act as well, anything from Noises Off to extensive appearances in Shakespeare’s plays. (In this Candide, the cast got so tired of calling her The Old Woman that they finally referred to her as Patti LuPone, to much laughter.)
There are a lot of jokes like that. When LuPone first makes her appearance, the orchestra begins and it looks like she is about to sing, but Cunegonde stops them and says, forcefully, “My song,” and waits for the diva to slink offstage. “Donald Trump” is brought on to do some firing. This is in the operetta tradition of Gilbert and Sullivan, where it is standard practice to add topical verses to such songs as the Lord High Executioner’s “I’ve Got a Little List.”
The music is performed perfectly, and the singing is great, led by LuPone and 4′ 11″ firecracker Kristin Chenoweth, who I know mostly from her role in the last seasons of “The West Wing” as Annabeth Schott, upon whom six-footer Allison Janney as C.J. Cregg once looked down on and said “It’s hard to believe we’re the same species.” I had no idea Chenoweth could sing, but my oh my, she can! She has a glorious soprano voice and completely owns the upper register. (I used to find operatic sopranos excruciating, but I don’t anymore. I wonder if it’s hearing loss?) She is terrific in Cunegonde’s aria “Glitter and Be Gay,” which I understand is very tough to sing. It sure sounds like it.
The man playing Candide is not someone I’ve ever heard of, but his voice is great, as is the fellow playing Pangloss. All in all, a wonderful evening at the operetta.