A TALK ON CANDIDE


In the summer of 1991, I attended one of the last elaborate press junkets ever sponsored by a classical record company. The occasion was the posthumous release of the 1989 concert version of "Candide," conducted by Leonard Bernstein himself less than a year before he died.  Deutsche Grammophon hosted a two-day event in an actual castle in Westphalia. They flew me over from New York City to make a speech before the evening screening of the concert. My suitcase never arrived, so they took me shopping in Dusseldorf for two days' worth of brand-new clothes. Those were the good old days of the record biz, all right!

 

But what stays freshest in my memory of that trip is an interview I gave to some young classical music journalist, who asked me a question about Voltaire. I made some reference to the play of  "Candide," and my interviewer very gently reminded me that Voltaire's work was, in fact, a novella.

 

Ouch! My ignorance exposed! For the truth was, I'd never read "Candide." Not for the first time or the last, I vowed never again to attempt discussing something I knew nothing about.

 

Anyway, after that humbling incident, I did my homework and read Voltaire's "Candide." You know, it's a terrific little book.

 

My sister Nina has always maintained that the perfect director for "Candide," the movie-musical, would be Terry Gilliam. It's true that "Candide" has a very Monty Pythonesque sensibility, with its gleeful, antic accounts of human suffering; its cartoon-like lurches from one far-flung location to another; and its merry lampooning of all the most reverent notions of the day.

 

Nina also pointed out that the history of "Candide" the musical is as picaresque and convoluted as Voltaire's narrative itself. And I would add that "Candide" the musical is an excellent demonstration of crankiness being channeled to good use -- the crankiness in question being that of that world-class curmudgeon, the playwright Lillian Hellman.

 

It was originally her idea to adapt "Candide." Voltaire's satire of the Spanish Inquisition, with its religious hysteria and official torture, struck her as a perfect way to demonstrate the folly of the Communist witch-hunts of the 1950's, which sported their own imperiously hurtful inquisitory body, the House Un-American Activities Committee. You may recall that it was Lillian Hellman who, when summoned before that committee, refused to testify against her colleagues. What was her famous line? "I will not cut my conscience to fit the political fashion of the times."

 

What began as Hellman's notion in 1953 took three years to come to fruition -- and over the years since the first Broadway production of "Candide," there have been dozens of revisions, additions, subtractions, tantrums, permutations and transmogrifications. And don't worry; I'm not going to list them all for you.

 

"Candide" is baseball-like in its tendency to sprout statistics. There are over 2 hours of music in "Candide," comprising an incredible 30 musical numbers. Writing the show's book, Lillian went through 14 different versions. My father saw at least seven different versions of the show over the course of his life.  The original Broadway production ran a paltry 73 performances, barely two months' worth of shows, for a total gross of $340,000. For his three years of labor, my father made $10,000. (Voltaire, by the way, wrote his novella in 3 weeks.)

 

Many of you may be familiar with the parade of writers who participated in the book and lyrics of "Candide" over the years: John LaTouche, Richard Wilbur, Dorothy Parker, Hugh Wheeler, Stephen Sondheim, John Wells. And then there are the directors: Tyrone Guthrie, Gordon Davidson, Jonathan Miller, Harold Prince. Seems likeeverybody knocked his or her head against "Candide" at some point.

 

But back to Lillian Hellman. Lillian has achieved a kind of myth status in our family. In addition to being my father's collaborator on "Candide," she was also my parents' very close friend. In the summers, we used to rent a house on Martha's Vineyard, where Lillian also had a house, so we saw a lot of her in the summers -- especially between 1954 and 1956, when she and my father were working on "Candide."

 

Everything about Lillian Hellman was scary to a child: her craggy face with the big, irregular teeth; her raucous, gravelly voice; the way her mouth turned down when she laughed. Some years later, when Nina was five or so, our mother told her that Lillian had been appointed Nina's godmother or legal guardian. "That's right, kid," Lillian told my sister; "When the plane goes down, I getcha." You can imagine Nina's alarm.

 

But no one suffered more acutely from Lillianophobia than our dachshund, Henry. The minute Lillian walked in the door, Henry lunged for her ankle. One winter after "Candide," when Lillian was no longer making such regular appearances at our apartment on 57th Street, Henry the canine genius went into my father's studio and chewed up Lillian's photograph.

 

I still remember opening night of "Candide" in December of 1956 -- not because I saw the show, but precisely because I didn't. My parents were all decked out in their finery. "Where are you going?" I asked. "We're on our way to see "Candide!" my mother said, with a little shiver of anticipation. All dressed up to see candy? That sounded perfect for me. "I want to go too!" I said. "No, darling, this is for grownups." Candy -- for grownups? Were they kidding?! "I want to see the candy. I want to see the candeeee!" Such a tantrum I threw.

 

Even though the original production of "Candide" closed in a couple of months, Goddard Lieberson at Columbia Records had the prescience to record the cast album, and that recording is really what put "Candide" on the map. It became a cult classic. And how glad we are that Barbara Cook's performance as Cunegonde was preserved for all to enjoy. A few years ago, Barbara wrote a wonderful description of her first audition for the show:

 

"Bernstein swept in wearing black patent leather loafers and a loden cape lined in red. I'd never seen anything like it or his energy. His incredible energy!

 

"I sang my usual audition number, 'Make the Man Love Me' from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Then he asked, 'Do you have anything else?'

 

"'I have a version of "You Are Love" I could sing for you. It's got a big high C ending.'

 

"'Don't sing "You Are Love." I know EXACTLY how you'd sing "You Are Love."'

 

…BIG pause…

 

"'Well… I've never sung this outside my voice teacher's studio, but I guess I could sing Madame Butterfly's entrance for you -- but I don't have the music.'

 

"'That's OK, I know it,' he replied, and sat down at the piano. 'Oh Lord,' I thought. But when I ended with the big high D flat (I sang the bejeesus out of it), he just BEAMED."

 

"Candide" is often referred to as Leonard Bernstein's valentine to Europe, because of the way he affectionately raided every European song and dance form he could think of in the process of composing the music. This score is the very definition of "pastiche." Here is an incomplete list of his sources: schottische, tango, polka, mazurka, Venetian waltz, English folk song, gavotte, barcarole, Neapolitan bel canto, Germanic chorale, coloratura -- and even a 12-tone row, which Bernstein deliberately uses in a song about boredom!

 

I like what Terry Teachout wrote a few years ago in the Wall Street Journal: "If you don't succumb to the champagne-like charms of 'The Best of All Possible Worlds,' 'You Were Dead, You Know,' 'Glitter and Be Gay,' 'I Am Easily Assimilated,'  'What's the Use?' and the divinely radiant 'Make Our Garden Grow,'  it's time to triple up on the Prozac."

 

But here's the irony: at the point where the score chokes you up, that's the point where Bernstein and Voltaire have parted ways.

 

Voltaire's caustic sensibility was much closer, actually, to Lillian Hellman's than to Bernstein's. As effervescent and delightful as the songs are in "Candide," it was not enough for Bernstein to leave it at that. He just had to give the show some heart. But in truth, that's not in the genuine spirit of Voltaire.

 

The tone of Voltaire's novella is remorselessly cynical about the foibles and hypocrisies of man -- and yet Bernstein's music takes us somewhere else entirely, especially in the much-loved finale, "Make Our Garden Grow."

 

When Candide says "Cultivons notre jardin," Voltaire meant it as an expression of rueful resignation, an acceptance of one's limitations -- as if Candide were saying: "Oh, let's quit spewing our fancy philosophy and go make ourselves useful for a change."  But the music is telling us something completely different: the soaring chorus seems to be telling us that growing our garden is a metaphor for the flowering of mankind itself! I'm pretty sure that's not what Voltaire meant. But while this finale may not quite align itself with Voltaire's original intent, I think the end result is greater than the sum of the parts. After all, when it comes to cynicism and idealism, the truth about our existence lies somewhere in between.

 

There was a wonderful article about Voltaire by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker a few years ago. It was actually a review of two new books on Voltaire, and he discusses "Candide" at some length, in a most intriguing way. Gopnik is particularly insightful about this whole notion of "optimism," the philosphy presented in the teachings of Leibniz, which Voltaire uses as the springboard of his novella.

 

Dr. Pangloss is Voltaire's cartoon version of Leibniz. Pangloss takes the philosopher's notion that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds, and then renders it preposterous. Voltaire does this by juxtaposing Pangloss's dogged optimism against the most ghastly evidence of human suffering. Hence, the earthquake in Lisbon that killed 50,000 people was a good thing because house builders got so much work out of it. Or Dr. Pangloss's severe, nose-erasing case of the clap actually led to Columbus's discovery of America -- don't ask.

 

But according to Gopnik, what Voltaire was really steamed about was not Leibniz; Leibniz was just the tool Voltaire used to whittle away at his real nemesis: the Church hierarchy and its collusion with the French state. "What drives Voltaire crazy," Gopnik writes, "is the ability of religious fanatics to exploit the fatality of the world in order to enact their own cruelties." That's what the auto-da-fe in "Candide" is all about: a natural disaster (the Lisbon earthquake) that's turned into an excuse for the church/state cartel to further terrorize the populace in their own wicked fashion -- and all in the name of God.

 

 "Candide" makes quite a compelling argument for the separation of church and state -- which strikes me, more and more, as the most profound idea anyone ever had. In these strange times of ours, when Christian fundamentalism is all tangled up with the current White House administration, we could even look to "Candide" as a cautionary tale about what can happen if we let this sort of thing slip too far out of our legislative grasp.

 

So Voltaire's  "Candide" is really about two different things: the foolishness of optimism, and the evils of politico-religious oppression. Although it was the political oppression theme that originally attracted Lillian Hellman to the project, ironically her sharpest writing on the topic was jettisoned while the show was still out of town. The director, Tyrone Guthrie, became too nervous about the scene she'd written satirizing the House Un-American Activities Committee; it was too close for comfort. The scene was restored once -- for a 1966 revival in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum -- but never again.  It would appear that the urgent political impetus for writing the musical was the one aspect of the work that didn't stand up to the test of time.

 

So that leaves optimism as the enduring theme in "Candide" the musical. Adam Gopnik writes about how a calamity like the Lisbon earthquake could -- literally -- shake people's faith to their foundations. He then speculates that the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was our own faith-shaking equivalent. Gopnik writes: "The realization that all may not be tending toward the best, that religious fanaticism and tribal intolerance could prevail over liberal meliorism, is the earthquake of our time."

 

That was a new word for me: meliorism, the belief that the world keeps getting healthier, wealthier and wiser. It-just-keeps-getting-better-ism. Unconsciously or not, most of us go through life harboring that general sensibility -- until something comes along to shake us up.

 

I think the event that shook up my father and his generation was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

 

I had never seen my parents cry before November 22nd, 1963. So on that Friday after school, when my father’s face contorted with anguish and my mother crumpled on her bed and sobbed, I felt my world lurch on its foundations -- because I sensed that's what their world had just done.

 

My father struggled all his life with his own clashing emotions of optimism and pessimism. He worked so hard to make the world a better place. But was the world coming to its senses? Was it in fact becoming a better place? He wasn't sure, and we can hear him wrestling, as a composer, with the notions of faith, hope and despair in piece after piece. 

What makes "Candide" unique among my father's works is that it's the only one in which he addressed these wrenching, difficult issues with a sense of humor. Voltaire might not have approved of that mushy ending, but I bet he would have loved the rest of it.

 

After the Kennedy assassination, my father's musical works grew darker, his assessment of our state of things grimmer. But he never stopped working toward the goals of brotherhood and world peace that he held so close to his heart. And in spite of his gloom about the way things were going, he never gave up hope for a better world. After all, artistic creation is in itself a most profound act of -- well, optimism.