Staging the wondrous but elusive 'Candide'

Full of glorious music, 'Candide' represents some of Leonard Bernstein's best work as a composer for theater. But putting the story on stage has bedeviled writers and directors. A new version may be the best effort yet.

Courtesy of Huntington Theatre Company
Geoff Packard as Candide and Lauren Molina as Cunegonde star in the Huntington Theatre Company's production of "Candide."

Will there ever be a definitive “Candide”? Does there need to be one?

The blessing (or curse) in staging Voltaire’s acidic, seriocomic 18th-century novel “Candide, or The Optimist” as musical theater began in 1956 when composer Leonard Bernstein wrote a magnificent score as part of bringing the story of “Candide” to Broadway.

The show itself was a flop. But the music, with its sassy and memorable pastiche of styles, lived on in recordings. And the jaunty overture became a staple in the repertoire of symphony orchestras.

“Candide” “is probably Bernstein’s grandest, wittiest, most sophisticated theater score, showing the full range of his talents ... all of it crafted with a virtuosity far beyond the capacities of most Broadway composers,” writes music critic Peter G. Davis. Bernstein himself said, “There’s more of me in that piece than anything else I have ever done.”

The musical styles range from tango, mazurka, waltz, gavotte, and schottische (a German country dance) to parodies of classical composers, notes Broadway historian Stanley Green. The song “Glitter and Be Gay,” which demands a tour de force from a comic actress/soprano, pays off as the showstopper. The hymnlike finale, “Make Our Garden Grow,” puts a soaring, affirmative exclamation point on a show that’s otherwise laced with cynical humor.

Because Voltaire’s work takes place in myriad locations on several continents, in places both “real” and imaginary, it creates problems for anyone attempting to stage it. And the ambition of Bernstein’s score makes “Candide” an attractive proposition for opera companies as well, raising the question: Is “Candide” musical theater ... or opera?

All this has worked against settling on a “definitive” version. Besides its 1956 Broadway debut, “Candide” was rethought, reworked, and restaged (including the addition and subtraction of musical numbers) three more times (1974, 1982, 1988) during Bernstein’s own lifetime. It returned to Broadway in 1997, and in 2004 the New York Philharmonic presented a concert version that headlined Kristin Chenoweth.

The most recent “Candide” adaptation, conceived and directed by MacArthur “genius” award winner Mary Zimmerman, just landed in Boston at the Huntington Theatre Company (through Oct. 16), after runs in the last 12 months at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Only time will tell if it becomes a “definitive” staging. But Ms. Zimmerman’s “Candide” surely is a worthy candidate.

In the story, a poor, good-hearted, if naive young man (Candide) searches the world for his love, Cunegonde. He tries to follow the philosophy of his childhood tutor, Dr. Pangloss, who has assured him that no matter what happens it is all for the best in this “best of all possible worlds.” (That bit of questionable wisdom is Voltaire’s parody on the views of 17th-century German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.)

Zimmerman solves the problem of frantic globe-hopping onstage through clever, overtly theatrical devices, from a miniature hot-air balloon on a rope pulley and a miniature sailing ship on a stick, which symbolize travel, to dumping tiny toy soldiers down a trap door, which denotes the casualties of war.

In fact, “clever” and “theatrical” are adjectives that well describe the whole of this thoroughly entertaining production (though the running time of nearly three hours makes one wonder if a little tightening here and there could still be done as a nod to modern attention spans).

Geoff Packard as Candide, Lauren Molina as Cunegonde, and Larry Yando as Dr. Pangloss – who’ve traveled with the show as it’s moved between Chicago, Washington, and Boston – are a delightful trio of leads among a superb cast. A 14-piece orchestra attacks the Bernstein score with verve and precision, though ears accustomed to “Candide” recordings may still long for the lush sound of a full symphonic orchestra.

One hopes this marvelous “Candide” will continue to make the rounds of the nation’s top regional theaters. And it deserves a chance someday to charm Broadway audiences, too.

Is this the best of all possible “Candides”? It certainly is an awfully good one.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.