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)

Leonard Bernstein Introduces the Moog Synthesizer to the World in 1969, Playing an Electrified Version of Bach’s “Little Fugue in G”

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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