The Lamplighters’ Candide

Dave and I went back this afternoon to see the Lamplighters’ production of Candide — which is playing this weekend at the Lesher Theater in Walnut Creek — another time. There’s one more performance in W.C. tomorrow, and then the following weekend they play in Mountain View. It’s a terrific production, full of liveliness and humor and color and satire.

There are also a lot of friends and colleagues of ours in the production, which makes it a double pleasure for us. Phil Lowery, who directed the 2009 steampunk production of my adaptation of Les Contes d’Hoffmann, directs this production, and does a terrific job; Adam Flowers, who sang Hoffmann in that same production, has two very funny turns as the governor of Montevideo and a wealthy slaveowner in Surinam; Kelcey Jay Poe, who both choreographed that production and performed in the ensemble, both choreographs and performs in the ensemble in this production; and then there are Jennifer Ashworth, Sam Rabinowitz, and Bill Neely from last year’s production of Die Fledermaus, or The Bat Bites Back, and John Rouse from the first production (in 1996) of my Bat out of Hell, and Arie Singer, who I met a few years back when she took part in a reading of a work in progress of mine, and so on. Great fun to see so many people I have worked with and admire and love in such an enjoyable production.

Dave and I were particularly impressed by the fact that Jennifer, who is one of the two performers alternating as Cunegonde, does something in the final lines of “Glitter and Be Gay” that takes it over the top in a way that totally works (or it did for us, anyway), is hilarious, and that we don’t remember ever seeing done before — and we’ve both seen the number performed a whole lot of times by now. I won’t give away what it is that Jennifer did, because half the fun was that we totally did not see it coming.

I also have to mention the awesome comic excellence of Phil Wong, who is playing the role of Cacambo, a character from Voltaire who has not been used in other versions of the musical. Personally, I am torn. As a librettist I am very conscious of dramatic structure, and from the point of view of libretto structure (which is quite a different thing from, say, novella structure), omitting the character of Cacambo is very obviously a good idea. However, I am also a playgoer, and Mr. Wong is really, really delightful to watch, even totally stealing the show from the rest of the cast at a few points; this is the first time I can recall seeing him, and if the writer of this libretto had not included Cacambo, I wouldn’t have had that pleasure. So, like I said, I’m torn about that.

The production is sort of a staged concert version. There’s no real set, just a simple platform that runs along the back of the stage and a ramp that comes diagonally forward from it. But each of the show’s many, many changes of place — from Westphalia to Holland to Paris to Lisbon to Cadiz, and that’s just Act One — brings on a fresh wave of colorful costumes for the company, so there’s always something eye-filling going on.

As for the particular version of Candide that the Lamplighters are doing, however — well, it’s a great tribute to the talents of Phil and the cast and the rest of the company that the show is as enjoyable as it is and that the audience remains enthusiastic to the end, because this version of the libretto is an overlong mess. The show runs a bit over three hours, even though this production is briskly paced; it’s just that this version of the libretto includes rather too many songs and takes rather too many detours along the way.

There have been many revisions of Candide over the decades, so there are lots of songs to choose from if you want to create yet another. A couple weeks ago, after we saw this production for the first time (and had immediately decided we wanted to see it again), Dave was wondering about where the different songs had been used and was comparing recordings, and he noticed that this version — which is the Royal National Theatre version, first done in 1999 — has exactly the same songs as Bernstein’s own “final revised” version from 1989 but in a different order. So I’m guessing that the Royal National Theatre’s intention with this version was to use all the same songs that Bernstein chose, but to fit them all into a libretto that sticks more closely to the order of events as given in Voltaire’s novella.

One big problem, it seems to me, is that this libretto sticks far too closely to Voltaire’s novella. In this version, Voltaire (played from the conductor’s stand by Baker Peeples) is actually before us as the narrator, often reciting to us long stretches of the novel that, however witty they are, do not exactly serve to hurry the story along. Furthermore, the songs often convey to us the same things that the novella does (which, after all, is the function they were written to serve). This means that if Voltaire reads to us a considerable chunk of the corresponding portion of the novella first, as happens over and over again in this libretto, the songs lose some portion of their punch and surprise.

Then again, a number of the songs in this version seem to me to be just plain in the wrong place. Ever since the New York City Opera version in 1982, for example, it seems to be the thing to have the Act One Finale occur in Spain with the decision to travel to the New World. But the show was originally written to have the Act One Finale occur later in the story, in the New World when Candide decides to travel to the fabled city of El Dorado. I find this more recent placement of the finale disconcerting (and did when I saw the 1982 version, too) because the contrapuntal finale is based on the song “My Love”, which is sung in the New World and which, therefore, we aren’t going to hear until Act Two. It’s as though you were listening to a Beethoven symphony and for some inexplicable reason the orchestra decided to play the complex development of the main theme before it had played the unadorned main theme by itself even once. Musically, that’s just wrong, so wrong. It robs the finale of its sense of building on music you’ve heard earlier, and then in the second act it robs “My Love” of its own musical effectiveness, because it feels now like a reprise, not a new song.

Then there is “We Are Women”, which surely must have been written for when Cunegonde and Old Woman are in Venice, or at least nearing Venice, or perhaps at the very earliest when they are still in South America but have already made the decision to go to Venice. The music suggests a tyrolienne (especially when we get to the all-but-yodeling countermelody), the lyrics make several explicit references to Italy, and it was clearly part of Bernstein’s scheme that the music for Candide would be in a hodgepodge of national styles that reflected Candide’s whirlwind travels through Europe and the New World. So when the women sing the duet immediately on arriving in, um, Montevideo, it feels like it got accidentally bumped into the wrong scene.

Using the song at this point in the story also has the effect of clashing with “My Love” immediately following, because the whole point of “We Are Women” is that Cunegonde is consciously deciding that she will use her feminine charms to survive (and putting the song in this position means that she is saying that she is going to seduce the Governor in order to get things from him), while the point of “My Love” is that the Governor is trying to seduce Cunegonde; she hasn’t done anything to attract his attentions, and in fact the Old Woman has to pressure her into entertaining his offer at all.

(Which is yet another reason why “We Are Women” would work better leading into the Venice scene: because that’s where Cunegonde is at the stage in her character development that she is ready to express those ideas, to own the decision to prostitute herself. Back in Montevideo, she is in denial, willing to sell herself if the price is right, but rationalizing to herself that she’s doing it only for noble reasons, still hanging on to her illusions about her honor and virtue. The Cunegonde who sings of her “virginal condition” in “My Love” and who has to be pressured by the Old Women into negotiating a good price for her sexual favors is not yet the Cunegonde who can boast brightly in “We Are Women” about men’s inability to resist her sexual attractiveness; and yet this version of Candide puts the latter song right before the former.)

Then there’s the way “The King’s Barcarole” is used near the end, with Candide’s overhearing of it being how he gets the idea to start a humble farm. This seems to me like a bad place and use for the song for several structural reasons. First, the humor in the song lies in the slow and pompous formality with which the six kings are conducting their discussion — but then, is such a slow and pompously formal song, sung by six very, very minor characters in your story, really what you want to put this late in such a long show, when the audience is getting decidedly impatient for the main characters’ story to reach its conclusion? Second, if Candide really gets the idea for his farm just from overhearing this song, then has he actually learned anything from his adventures? Isn’t he showing that he’s still quite willing to go and base his whole life on the philosophizing of silly people? All he’s doing, really, is transferring his naïve faith from Dr. Pangloss to six silly kings passing by; he has yet really to learn to think for himself.

And then third, a librettist who is fashioning a libretto around these songs does not need in any case to contrive an explanation for why Candide decides to buy a farm, because Candide tells us himself that this is his dream in the lyrics of “Oh Happy We”, way back in the first scene of the show. Indeed, it seems pretty likely that this is exactly why the farm is mentioned in that song in the first scene, so that when Candide makes his decision later in the final scene, we’ll see that he is thinking for himself at last after a lifetime of letting others do his thinking for him. If you’re going to use the songs, why not let them carry the parts of the story that they were written to carry?

After all the criticism I’ve just made of this version of the libretto, I now have to hang a uey and say that the libretto nevertheless passes what for me is the single most important test of any version of Candide: Whatever else, “Make Our Garden Grow” at the very end of the show has gotta move you. If this finale feels false and overblown after all that has come before it, if I don’t tear up at least a little, if I find myself feeling like the characters have done nothing and learned nothing to justify their singing of these eloquent verses set to this glorious music, then the libretto has failed in its single most important job. I’ve seen the 1974 Broadway revival version and the 1982 New York City Opera version performed (the former twice, the latter only once but by the NYCO itself), and both have left me dry-eyed and unsatisfied at the end. This 1999 version, though, not only moved me but had me actually crying, beginning at that wonderful moment in the final chorus when the entire company is singing and orchestra drops out, leaving the company singing without accompaniment. It’s such a simple musical effect, but amazingly powerful when the moment feels true, and it felt true to me at both performances I saw. For all that I have been grousing about a number of the choices that the writer of this libretto made, the final effect, at least in this production, is deeply moving.

For me, the best version of the libretto to Candide is still probably the original one by Lillian Hellman. It moves swiftly; it’s pointedly, bitingly funny; and — maybe this is important only to me, but hey — the structure of its story is the one that the songs were actually written to work with. I say probably the best, though, because I’ve never actually seen Hellman’s original libretto performed; I’ve only read it, but many times and with a lot of pleasure. It clearly has its problems, too, but boy, I wish I could see half the talent and effort go into strengthening its few flawed scenes that has gone into replacing it altogether. When a revival was planned in the 1970s, Hellman was told that another writer was being brought in, over her objections, to revise the book, and in response Hellman refused permission for so much as one line of her writing to be used at all. But Hellman is no longer with us, and I continue to harbor the hope that I might live long enough to see her estate give permission to use her book with revisions — and of course that the revisions will be well done.

In the meantime, I think this is a terrific and enjoyable production and well worth seeing. This version of the libretto is awkward in a lot of ways, but it’s serviceable. The performances are excellent. And of course the score is brilliant, both musically and lyrically. Very good stuff.

4 thoughts on “The Lamplighters’ Candide

  1. I saw the Mountain View Sunday matinee, and felt keenly all the pluses and minuses of this production and version that you mention.

    Except one. The other Cunegonde was singing, and she didn’t do anything special with “Glitter and Be Gay” that I heard. So, now that the production has concluded, would you mind spilling the secret?

    • Sure, now that the production is over. During the coloratura at the end, Jennifer gradually turned the number from a parody of a jewel song into a parody of a mad scene à la Lucia, and ended the number cackling hysterically.

  2. Excellent in-depth review.

    Tell me, did they omit or shorten “What’s the Use”? It’s such a clever song.

    I didn’t find it too long. When something’s that good, I want to experience as much of it as possible. One on-line source says that it has 34 numbers — amazing!

    • Thanks! I’m leery of calling anything here a “review” — to me, that implies more of an attempt to write even-handedly about all aspects of a production, and I usually want to write mostly about the words, because that’s what I have the most opinions about.

      They did not omit “What’s the Use?”, exactly — in this version, it has new lyrics (by Richard Wilbur, I think) that change the point of the song. Also, the song is divided up among more characters, so instead of four characters each getting a verse, six get two lines each and one gets four (if I’m remembering correctly).

      The new lyrics are amusing, but they don’t serve the scene, IMO. They’re focused on the idea that all the characters are making themselves miserable by their complaining — with the exception of Martin, who doesn’t complain because he doesn’t expect things to be any better, but who is exasperated by the complaining of the others. However, the point of the Venice scene isn’t about the futility of complaining, so the song is out of synch with the scene.

      Now, the Venice scene is IMO one of the problems with Hellman’s original script — it isn’t made very clear why Candide is so troubled to find Cunegonde here. Some of the problem for me is that in the quartet, Candide keeps singing “It’s a very moving tale”, which indicates polite exasperation rather than growing disgust, and if he’s not growing increasingly disgusted by this masked woman through the course of the quartet, why should he be so disillusioned to find out at the end that she’s Cunegonde?

      What I think is going on in Hellman’s book is that Candide’s final hope, after leaving the New World and returning to the Old, is that now that he is wealthy, he will at least be free from all the ruthless behavior that poverty forces people into. And when he arrives in Venice, he finds a milieu that is, if anything, even more corrupt and repellent. I think that’s the point that “What’s the Use?” is trying to make, to help set up (in a comic way) the idea that people still behave evilly toward each other even when they have enough money, so that we are prepared for Candide to be revolted by all of this and to be disillusioned when he discovers that Cunegonde is no different from anyone else in this.

      However, this isn’t exactly crystal clear from Hellman’s Venice scene itself; I’ve arrived at this view of the scene in part from extrapolating from Hellman’s script up to this point. If this view of the Venice scene is where Hellman was planning to end up all along, then it makes sense — for me, anyway — of her overall structure. But if I’m right about this, why doesn’t the Venice scene make all these points more strongly and unambiguously? It’s not as though Hellman was the sort of writer to shy away from making a harsh point if she thought it was a truth. So, even though there’s obviously a lot of speculation going into all of my thinking here, I have to wonder whether, if we could look at Hellman’s earlier drafts, we’d find that she’d originally written the climax of the Venice scene more along those lines but was pressured by her collaborators to soften the scene out of fear that it would make Cunegonde too unsympathetic for the audience to want Candide to marry her at the end of the story.

      In any case, the new words to “What’s the Use?” seem to me to undercut the Venice scene still further by focusing on the futility of complaining rather than introducing Venice to us as a place of great wealth and great corruption.

      Now, it’s also true that the futility of complaining was part of Voltaire’s point in Candide. But the new book doesn’t really fully reconstruct the show to follow Voltaire’s take on the story instead of Hellman’s. It just sort of straddles the two, following some of Voltaire’s version and some of Hellman’s, not fully committing to one or the other.

      Which is why I don’t think we’re really going to ever fix the book to Candide without going back to the structure, at least, of Hellman’s book (even if we abide by her request and don’t use any of her dialogue). The songs were written for Hellman’s structure and view of the characters, not Voltaire’s, and they reinforce Hellman’s themes, not Voltaire’s. Trying to fit them into a new book based on Voltaire and not Hellman probably looked like a great idea on paper, but in practice it makes for a far greater disconnect between the songs and the story than the original suffered from.

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