When Leonard Bernstein Turned Voltaire’s Candide into an Opera (with Help from Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker & Stephen Sondheim)

The sev­en­teen-fifties found West­ern civ­i­liza­tion in the mid­dle of its Age of Enlight­en­ment. That long era intro­duced on a large scale the notion that, through the use of ratio­nal­i­ty and sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge, human­i­ty could make progress. For the Enlight­en­men­t’s true believ­ers, it would have even­tu­al­ly become quite easy indeed to assume that we had nowhere to go but up, and would soon­er or lat­er attain a state of per­fec­tion. No such fan­tasies, of course, for Jean-Marie Arou­et, bet­ter known as Voltaire. Despite being an Enlight­en­ment icon, he pulled no punch­es in attack­ing what he saw as its delu­sions, most last­ing­ly in his 1759 satir­i­cal nov­el Can­dide, ou l’Op­ti­misme.

Two cen­turies lat­er, West­ern civ­i­liza­tion, and espe­cial­ly the fresh­ly formed civ­i­liza­tion of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca, had entered a new age of rea­son. Or rather, it had entered an age of tech­ni­cal, indus­tri­al, and orga­ni­za­tion­al “know-how.”

The con­vic­tion that Amer­i­ca could be per­fect­ed through engi­neered sys­tems played its part in gen­er­at­ing a degree of pros­per­i­ty the world had nev­er known (and would have scarce­ly been imag­in­able in Voltaire’s day). But it also had grim­mer man­i­fes­ta­tions, such as McCarthy­ism and the House Un-Amer­i­can Activ­i­ties Com­mit­tee, whose pro­ce­dures ground away at the core of the anti-Com­mu­nist “red scare.”

In Can­dide, Voltaire takes to task a vari­ety of not just beliefs but insti­tu­tions, includ­ing the Por­tuguese Inqui­si­tion. The play­wright Lil­lian Hell­man, who’d been black­list­ed after appear­ing before the HUAC in 1947, “observed a sin­is­ter par­al­lel between the Inqui­si­tion’s church-spon­sored purges and the ‘Wash­ing­ton Witch Tri­als,’ fueled by anti-Com­mu­nist hys­te­ria.” So says the web site of Leonard Bern­stein, Hell­man’s col­lab­o­ra­tor on what would become a com­ic-operetta adap­ta­tion of Can­dide. With con­tri­bu­tions from lyri­cist John LaTouche, poet Richard Wilbur, and Algo­nquin Round Table wit Dorothy Park­er, their pro­duc­tion was ready to open in the fall of 1956.

Stripped in the eleventh hour of Hell­man’s most direct top­i­cal attacks, and even then crit­i­cized for over-seri­ous­ness, the orig­i­nal Broad­way pro­duc­tion of Can­dide end­ed after 73 per­for­mances. (Record­ings of the orig­i­nal pro­duc­tion can be pur­chased online.) Nev­er­the­less, there was cause for opti­mism about its future: the show would be revived in Lon­don with a revised book two years lat­er, with fur­ther new ver­sions to fol­low in the nine­teen-sev­en­ties and eight­ies, its lyrics sup­ple­ment­ed by no less a Broad­way mas­ter than Stephen Sond­heim. The two-and-a-half hour video above com­bines high­lights of two con­sec­u­tive per­for­mances in 1989, con­duct­ed by Bern­stein him­self in the year before his death. “Like its hero, Can­dide is per­haps des­tined nev­er to find its per­fect form and func­tion,” notes Bern­stein’s site. “In the final analy­sis, how­ev­er, that may prove philo­soph­i­cal­ly appro­pri­ate.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Voltaire: Enlight­en­ment Philoso­pher of Plu­ral­ism & Tol­er­ance

What Voltaire Meant When He Said That “We Must Cul­ti­vate Our Gar­den”: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

Leonard Bernstein’s Mas­ter­ful Lec­tures on Music (11+ Hours of Video Record­ed at Har­vard in 1973)

Hear the Famous­ly Con­tro­ver­sial Con­cert Where Leonard Bern­stein Intro­duces Glenn Gould & His Idio­syn­crat­ic Per­for­mance of Brahms’ First Piano Con­cer­to (1962)

Leonard Bern­stein Awk­ward­ly Turns the Screws on Tenor Jose Car­reras While Record­ing West Side Sto­ry (1984)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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