Candide at the Huntington: Tony-winner Mary Zimmerman takes on a flawed classic.

By Arthur Smith

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Since its Broadway opening in 1956, Leonard Bernstein's Candide has drawn theater and opera companies to its rocky shoals with results that range from leaks to total wreckage.  The composer's take on the classic Voltaire satire involved the work of many hands. Lillian Hellman took first honors for the book, but others poked, prodded, pruned, or puffed up, the libretto. The list of Bernstein's collaborators is a mini-who's who of American theater: Hugh Wheeler, Richard Wilbur, John La Touche, Dorothy Parker, and Stephen Sondheim (and that's just the "A list").  Perhaps its first hearing--in a read-through at MIT, of all places--was the best of all possible versions. It may be that that this slender, mordant novel just doesn't want to be onstage!

That hasn't kept theater and opera companies from trying. The score is a sumptuous delight, but the piece as a whole has seldom jelled. In the '90's Boston Lyric Opera brought a handsome, but rather inert production from Opera Theatre of Saint Louis to town; more recent productions by Opera Boston and the New England Conservatory reaffirm the magic of the musical score--Bernstein's songs weave gold from musical idioms as diverse as Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy duets, '60's folk songs, and Shostakovich--but these great numbers risk stopping the show's forward momentum. And even the score isn't stable: pieces have been reworked and re-orchestrated, lyrics toned down, or songs dropped. In one case, the inquisition scene was gutted for a New York production to spare the sensibilities of Walter Kerr, then head drama critic of the New York Times, and a Roman Catholic. Poet Richard Wilbur was pleased with his lyric, "What a day! What a day! for an Auto-da-fe," referring to a burning at the stake that was turned into a jaunty vaudville-style number for the show, in line with Voltaire's original savage satire of the Catholic church. But it all got nixed. I guess nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, especially on the musical theater stage! nbsp;

There's every reason to believe the Huntington Theatre might make a hit of it. They have brought Chicago-based   Mary Zimmerman's acclaimed Goodman Theatre Production to Boston. Zimmerman's career has been built on a transformative magic that transmutes great works of literature into arresting stage drama. (Imagine the pitch meeting for her notion that a staging of Ovid's "Metamporphoses" would draw audiences. That's Ovid, as in the Roman poet from the first century B.C.) The show went on not just to draw audiences but to win Tonys. Her career has embraced a raft of other great works--The Odyssey, The 1001 Nights, and most recently the ridiculously convoluted story lines of 19th century opera in several handsome productions for the Metropolitan Opera.

Zimmerman probably regards the work's gory literary history--including Hellman's refusal to let people use her book after the show was altered--not as a burden, but as an invitation to go back to Voltaire. Her method is reportedly to work closely with the original novel every single night and to come to the actors the next day and help them create the work anew. Sounds a lot like putting a show together from scratch with a living playwright and a gang of energized kids. Voltaire is still winking at us from 1759, and if anybody can catch his gaze, and help us look at ourselves through his wise eyes, it's Zimmerman. Candide opened September 10 at the Huntington and runs through October 16.  Full info at http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/




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About the Author
Arthur Smith Arthur Smith
Arthur Smith is the former editor of WGBHArts. Executive producer for digital education at WGBH, Arthur, an amateur pianist and singer, was previously a freelance classical music reviewer for the Washington Post for 9 years. He has also worked at an opera company, and ran the information service and publications programs for OPERA America, the national service organization for the art form.  Since 1991, he has been the program annotator for Vocal Arts DC, a classical song recital series based at Washington's Kennedy Center. 

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