Behind the Masterpiece: Everything You Need to Know About Candide

One of the greatest works in Western literature, Voltaire’s 1759 satirical novel Candide, or Optimism follows its eponymous hero on a whirlwind tour throughout much of the known world. Bernstein’s 1956 musicalization of the novel followed almost as many twists and turns on its journey from Broadway to the opera house.

On Jan. 27, we resume our 2017-18 season with Bernstein’s masterpiece. Before you go, here is everything you need to know about Candide.

A still from the original 1956 production of Bernstein's Candide. (From left to right: Max Adrian, Louis Edmonds, Barbara Cook and Robert Rounseville).

A still from the original 1956 production of Bernstein’s Candide. (From left to right: Max Adrian, Louis Edmonds, Barbara Cook and Robert Rounseville).

Who Was Voltaire?

Voltaire was the pen name of François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778), a hero of the French Enlightenment’s progressive ideals. He was an enormously prolific philosopher, playwright, poet, historian and author, who had a knack for making his points in pithy aphorisms (including “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him” and “History is the lie commonly agreed upon”). In his novel Candide, he relentlessly skewered intolerance, corruption and established religion. His writing popularized ideas that had previously been clandestine, spurring public opinion into action and helping to create change throughout Europe.

French philosopher, playwright, poet, historian and author François-Marie Arouet, who was published under the pen name Voltaire.

French philosopher, playwright, poet, historian and author François-Marie Arouet, who was published under the pen name Voltaire.

The Novel: Candide, or Optimism

First published in 1759, the satirical Candide was an instant bestseller. Even though it was widely banned, 17 different editions were sold in France and three different translations were published in London within a year. It has been translated into every major language  around the world, has never gone out of print, and remains the most widely read work of the European Enlightenment. Its tale of a sweet-natured young man enduring an unending series of tragedies is just as engaging, funny and stinging today as it was more than 250 years ago. Candide asks enduring questions: If God is good, why does He allow evil to exist? How can one explain human cruelty or natural disasters?

Leibniz and Optimism

“Optimism,” as espoused by Dr. Pangloss throughout Candide, doesn’t simply mean looking on the bright side of things. Optimism was a philosophy promoted by, among others, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), who stated that we live in “the best of all possible worlds.” Since the universe was created by a perfect and all-knowing God, he believed, everything in it is rationally ordered according to God’s perfect plan and everything that happens is for the best. Horrified by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which killed 75,000 people, Voltaire relentlessly derided the concept of “the best of all possible worlds” in Candide.

Behind the Words

Playwright Lillian Hellman (1905-1984), whose most famous stage works included The Children’s Hour and The Little Foxes, was blacklisted by Hollywood in the 1950s for her leftist activism. In 1953, after noting parallels between the McCarthyism of her own time and the phony moralism and inquisitional attacks that Voltaire had railed against in Candide, Hellman approached Leonard Bernstein with the idea of adapting the novel into a play. Bernstein agreed to compose incidental music, but became so fascinated by the subject that he persuaded her that it should be a “comic operetta.” Hellman set out writing the script.

American playwright Lillian Hellman (Photo: Associated Press)

American playwright Lillian Hellman (Photo: Associated Press)

Trouble Along the Way

Hellman wanted the poet Richard Wilbur to write the lyrics. He turned her down, so she and Bernstein turned to the talented songwriter John LaTouche. It was not an easy collaboration, and LaTouche left the project in 1955. Wilbur had a change of heart and became principal lyricist. Additional lyrics were written by Bernstein and Hellman themselves and by poet James Agee, who died a few months after coming on board. (Hellman didn’t like his verses anyway.) Satirist Dorothy Parker also contributed some lyrics before bowing out, complaining that “there were too many geniuses involved.”

The Original Cunegonde

Barbara Cook had already played four leading roles on Broadway when she auditioned for Candide. She sang a ballad, then Bernstein asked for something with high notes. She offered Cio-Cio San’s entrance from Madame Butterfly, which she’d never sung outside her voice teacher’s studio. “You have great musical courage,” Bernstein said afterward, impressed. “You mean I’ve got a lot of guts,” replied Cook. Bolstered by her triumph as Cunegonde, she went on to create the roles of Marian in The Music Man and Amalia in She Loves Me. She later became an iconic concert artist, singing well into her eighties.

The Old Lady’s Tango

One of the score’s many highlights is the rollicking “I Am Easily Assimilated,” in which the Old Lady describes the adaptability that enables her to survive, has no exact counterpart in Voltaire’s novel. Bernstein wrote the lyrics himself, his Chilean-born wife Felicia contributing the Spanish verses. “My mother came from Rovno Gubernya,” the Old Lady sings—a tribute to Bernstein’s Ukrainian born father, who immigrated to America from that city. With an eclectic mash-up of Latin rhythms and klezmer sonorities, the composer called it a “Jewish tango” and wryly designated the tempo as “moderato hassidicamente” in his score.

A scene from Francesca Zambello’s 2015 production of “Candide” at the Glimmerglass Festival. (Photo: Karli Cadel)

Candide Hits Broadway

After a troubled development and hectic tryout in Boston, Candide opened on Broadway on December 1, 1956. The show that audiences saw was lavishly staged by Tyrone Guthrie and featured a huge cast of 42. Most of the reviews were raves, especially praising the score and stars, although some described Hellman’s book as leaden. Influential critic Walter Kerr panned Candide as a “really spectacular disaster.” The show never caught on with general audiences and Candide closed after 73 performances.

From Flop to Favorite

The brilliance of Bernstein’s score inspired its many admirers to bring Candide back to life. Hellman, however, wanted nothing to do with it and refused to allow any of her work to be used again. For a 1973 revival, fleetly directed by Hal Prince, Hugh Wheeler devised an entirely new book and Stephen Sondheim was called upon to add new lyrics. This time, Candide worked. Crusty Walter Kerr even reversed his opinion, calling it “an evening of enormous charm.” It transferred to Broadway, where it ran nearly two years. In 1982, Candide was adapted for New York City Opera, launching its entry into the repertoire of opera houses around the world.

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4 Responses to Behind the Masterpiece: Everything You Need to Know About Candide

  1. Elliott says:

    You omitted to mention that Candide really took off with the John Wells/John Mauceri/Jonathan Miller adaption premiered by Scottish Opera in Glasgow in 1988. That production led to Bernstein re-examining the work, adding to it and recording his revised version with the LSO on Deutsche Grammophon in 1989

  2. David Willis says:

    What recording comes the closest to the version of Candide that L.A. Opera will be performing?

  3. Shamey Cramer says:

    One minor detail you leave out in your excellent “Everything You Need to Know” is that Cunagonde was based upon Gabrielle-Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, the Marquise du Châtelet (1706-1749). She was Voltaire’s protectress, sometime science partner and lover during their years together living at Cirey, her husband’s country chateau (1735-1749) near the border with the Duchy of Lorraine (separate from France at the time). She translated (and corrected) the works of Sir Isaac Newton and is considered the Mother of the Age of Enlightenment. When she died following childbirth, Voltaire wrote to Frederick the Great stating: “She was a great man whose only fault was being born a woman.”

  4. Davida says:

    Not clear on who will be the author(s) of the version we will see.

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