Friday, 31 October 2008

Why did Bernstein's Candide fail?

Leonard Bernstein's overture to Candide is one of his best-known piece of music and the musical, premiered in 1956, was expected to be a huge success. That's not surprising when you consider the list of those involved in it. Bernstein himself had a strong track record, both as a conductor (mostly of such "difficult" contemporary works as Messiaen's Turangalila and Ives' 2nd symphony) and as a composer of two musicals: On The Town (filmed with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra) and Wonderful Town.

But the proposal for a musical based on Candide didn't come from Bernstein but from the senior partner in the collaboration, Lilian Hellman. She was the more established figure, with a strong track record as a playwright whose plays included The Children's Hour. She and Bernstein had worked succesfully together on her version of Jean Anouilh's L'Alouette (The Lark) for which Bernstein wrote incidental music and the discussions about a musical came out of that collaboration. Candide was Hellman's second suggestion; Bernstein dismissed the first as too unlikely to succeed.

Others associated with the collaboration were: James Agee, Dorothy Parker, John LaTouche and Richard Wilbur. It's possible that Felicia Bernstein and the very young Stephen Sondheim played a part at this stage. Tyrone Guthrie was engaged to direct. And the stars - Barbara Cook, Richard Rounceville and Max Adrian - were as good as could be hoped.

The show opened to all the high expectations the overture arouses but responses were, at best, lukewarm. Subsequent productions have been greeted respectfully - sometimes with pleasure - but never as ecstatically as fans of musical theatre might expect from such a team.

So what went wrong?

I'm going to suggest four possibilities.

1. Perhaps there were too many disasters and arguments between the creators. There were even two sudden deaths - of James Agee and John LaTouche. The death of John LaTouche must have been particularly upsetting. He had been replaced as chief librettist (though many of his lyrics survive in the show) and he died suddenly, days after a legal settlement had been reached, paying him off for his work. Reports often say that Lilian Hellman was "difficult," but this criticism is often levelled at women creators in that period.

2. Lillian Hellman's book was too clunky or too heavy-handed or too political. I've read this in many places - and until I looked at extracts from Hellman's book, assumed it was true, especially since Hellman's words were withdrawn after the 1956 production (later versions have different texts). But Hellman was experienced in stagecraft and the extracts from the book now available on the internet suggest a quite manageable script open to interpretation by the singers and actors. Nor was Hellman as heavy-handedly political as some critics suggest. In the weeks between the Boston tryout and the Broadway opening, Hellman's amendments seem to have taken the political sting out of the auto-da-fe scene. The first (sung) version includes lyrics by Wilbur which implicate the crowd (implicitly American) in executions and persecutions. The second version, used for the Broadway run, makes the inquisitors responsible. Recent critics have suggested that Bernstein's frothy music is inappropriate for Hellman's heavy ironies. But Bernstein knew what kind of work Voltaire's Candide was. The "froth" of his music, which mimics the sweeping emotionalism of the best musicals, works as an ironic counterpoint to their content and context. It's in that contrast that the musical is closest to Voltaire.

3. The political atmosphere of the time made success impossible. All those involved had been affected by the McCarthy witch-hunts and the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities. Bernstein's passport was briefly withdrawn. Hellman had famously refused to name names, declaring "I will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashion." But for all this, Bernstein was, at the same time as writing Candide, collaborating with "friendly witness" Elia Kazan by providing the score for his anti-communist film, On The Waterfront. The pre-Broadway amendments suggest some toning down of political references, for instance omitting the popular enthusiasm for the public execution of a Jew. Perhaps this had too many uncomfortable resonances in the wake of the electrocution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. And some powerfully political lyrics by Richard Wilbur were never used. These include the War and Peace version of "The Best of all Possible Worlds" and The Inquisition song, which makes the parallel with the HUAC witch-hunts entirely clear. Wilbur, rather than Hellman, seems to have been the most political of the writers - and his lyrics have never been called into question as Hellman's book has.

But while the politics of the time obviously had an influence on the reception of Bernsetin's Candide, I tend to think there's another reason for Candide's failure. After all, musicals have famously dealt with contentious subjects - think of Showboat, South Pacific - even Sondheim's Assassins. Bernstein's own West Side Story, which he was writing at the same time (it's been suggested that the music for "Gee, Officer Krupke" was originally intended for Candide) touches on difficult subjects including the hostility some recent immigrants were experiencing in the United States.

4. I grew up watching musicals - mainly from the gods of the Wimbledon Theatre. The productions of the London Transport Players were a glimpse of glamour. Looking back on those early experiences - shows ranged from King's Rhapsody to Camelot and Half a Sixpence - they have a quality which Candide lacks. Drawing on the film critic Richard Dyer (and adpating him shamelessly for my own ends), what I experienced was an overwhelming sensation of yearning intensity, conveyed through the transparency of the characters in the musical. This is present in all musicals I find successful, though it may take some strange forms. (In Pal Joey, Joey yearns for a nightclub of his own and, in Assassins the yearning for happiness motivates the assassins of the past, from John Wilkes Booth to "Squeaky" Fromme as they crowd round Lee Harvey Oswald in the Texas Book Depository.) But Candide lacks that quality of yearning intensity. The characters are puppets - naive or dishonest as their creator, Voltaire, directs. Moreover they do not yearn - they find ways of being satisfied with their lot, whether by insisting that everything is for the best "in the best of all possible worlds" or by making their garden grow. As Candide and Cunegonde sing in the finale:

We're neither pure nor wise nor good;
We'll do the best we know;
We'll build our house, and chop our wood,
And make our garden grow.

This is neither yearning intensity nor its satisfaction. An audience may enjoy elements of Candide but will emerge feeling short-changed, knowing that there is some essential part of the stage musical that has been overlooked, some customary feeling that they have failed to experience.

It all goes back to Voltaire. Perhaps his book was, after all, the wrong choice for a musical. Would Bernstein have done any better with Hellman's first choice of subject - the one Bernstein said would never work? Of course not - it was a ludicrous idea. Who would ever attend a musical based on the life of Eva Peron?

Perhaps Bernstein's Candide works better in a different form. The musical came into being nearly fifty years before machinima came into being. But a machinima adaptation of one song suggests that it is possible to present Candide's ironies without stirring the hopes and expectations that musical theatre arouses. And the on-line game sources for this short film even bring to mind Richard Wilbur's unused "War and Peace" lyrics for the song "Best of all Possible Worlds."



Heidi said...

I really enjoyed your talk on the 29th--it was really illuminating to see the connections--and disconnections and it's nice to be able to go back and read this. You should look to publish a version of it! Heidi

オテモヤン said...