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From Act I, Kristin Chenoweth (Cunegonde) sings the aria "Glitter and Be Gay."
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THE GREAT AMERICAN MUSICAL RESCUE
By Thomas Hischak

When "Candide" first opened on Broadway in 1956, expectations were very high. Voltaire's comic novella of 1759 for the musical stage was adapted by Lillian Hellman, one of America's pre-eminent playwrights, and famed composer Leonard Bernstein wrote the music. He had already composed the scores for such musical theater hits as "On the Town" and "Wonderful Town" and, within a year, would be represented on Broadway again with "West Side Story." The lyricists for "Candide" included the young and promising John Latouche, the renowned wit Dorothy Parker, and the celebrated American poet Richard Wilbur. The production was staged by esteemed drama and opera director Tyrone Guthrie and the cast featured two of the most beautiful voices heard on Broadway in the 1950s: Barbara Cook and Robert Rounseville. Rarely had a show opened on Broadway with a more distinguished pedigree.

Perhaps such impressive credits could only lead to disappointment, for audiences and critics were generally let down. The score was immediately embraced and the performers and lush decor praised, but Hellman's book failed to please. Some complained it was too subtle, others thought it awkward and disjointed. Voltaire's tale is indeed episodic and the characters are often cartoonish types used solely for satirical purposes. But on stage the humor seemed strained and the musical's "debits outweighed its assets" (to quote from the later version of the script). It barely managed to run three months on Broadway, closing after 73 performances. However, the cast recording immediately became a classic, while Bernstein's overture became one of the most frequently performed and beloved of all orchestral pieces. In the subsequent decade, opera and theater companies tinkered with the book and revived "Candide," but never with much success. It seemed that one of the gems of the American musical theater was unstageable.

The musical was saved from sinking into relative obscurity in 1973 when director Harold Prince and librettist Hugh Wheeler refashioned the piece into a raucous, silly, and playful farce that was closer to Voltaire's comic book original. Much of the score was deleted, Stephen Sondheim wrote some additional lyrics to existing Bernstein music, and a young and very unoperatic cast performed it in a circuslike setting at the Chelsea Theatre Center in the Brooklyn Academy of Music and later on Broadway. This time "Candide" was a hit, running 740 performances (though it still lost money due to the limited seating in the environmental rearrangement of the large Broadway Theatre).

But not everyone was pleased. Bernstein's celebrated score was severely cut, and with its reduced orchestrations and the likable but not musically overwhelming cast, the music became almost secondary to the action. Wheeler's new libretto was indeed funny and he moved the action across continents as swiftly as Prince staged the cast to bounce from one acting area to another. So this roughed-up production proved that "Candide" was playable. Soon it was being produced by both opera and theater companies; the New York City Opera added it to its repertory in 1982.



Top banner photos: Jeff Blumenkrantz (Maximilian), Paul Groves (Candide), Janine LaManna (Paquette), and Kristin Chenoweth (Cunegonde); conductor Marin Alsop (all photos by Chris Lee).

Michael McCormick as the Baron Thunder-Ten-Tronck

In addition to the Baron Thunder-Ten-Tronck, Michael McCormick plays the Donald Trump-esque Inquisitor.

Patti LuPone (The Old Lady), Paul Groves (Candide), Kristin Chenoweth (Cunegonde), and Michael McElroy (Captain)

The finale of Act I, as the lovers, accompanied by The Old Lady, escape to the New World on the Captain's ship.

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A DVD of the concert performance is available from Amazon.com.
 
 
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