HAPPY SIXTIETH, CANDIDE By Peter Filichia
Who’d expect that a contemporary Dutch playwright would take time in one of her plays to cite a song from Candide?
While I watched The Origin Theatre Company’s production of Lot Vekemans’ arduous but moving Poison, I was astonished to hear “It Must Be So” mentioned.
Still, a reference to that excellent short song was a nice way to remember that Candide celebrated an anniversary during the run of this play. It opened sixty years ago on Dec. 1, 1956.
In Candide, “It Must Be So” is sung by the show’s title character who’s just endured the death of Cunegonde, his one and only love. As Candide will learn through the rest of the show, when it comes to life, it’s always something.
The couple who takes the stage in Poison would agree. He and She, as they’re solely known, have been divorced for nine years, after a harrowing death divided them. Now outside circumstances force a meeting, where we learn that She’s never overcome the tragedy, while He’s done the best he can with it.
And, he says, “It Must Be So” helped him move on.
That’s a little surprising, for the line “There is a sweetness to every woe” doesn’t seem to apply to He. But we all find consolation where we can – and the lyric “Men are kindly; they’ll give a helping hand” might have helped He.
It may even help She. After He sings it a capella, She admits “It’s beautiful. It’s lovely. Thank you.” Yes it is, but more importantly, we see once again that art can heal.
But would it have spoiled some vast eternal plan if Vekemans had mentioned that the song comes from Candide? She didn’t, although she did trouble to say it had music by Bernstein (she skipped the Leonard). For that matter, why didn’t she mention that Richard Wilbur had written the song’s lyrics? As great and haunting as Bernstein’s melody is, Wilbur’s words are, after all, what got He through his crisis.
Maybe Vekemans felt that it’s Bernstein’s show because he wrote all the music right down to the Overture, which he even chose to orchestrate. (Composers seldom-if-ever do that.) And isn’t Candide’s Overture one that you inevitably see on every list of The Greatest Ever Overtures — and always positioned close to the top?
Perhaps Vekemans solely mentioned Bernstein because of the a surfeit of lyricists on Candide. The joke has always been that the show had only a few more Broadway performances – seventy-three – than lyricists.
After James Agee toyed with the notion of taking the job, John (The Golden Apple) Latouche was signed. He died not long after writing “You Were Dead, You Know,” fewer than four months from the premiere; that’s when Wilbur took over.
Who wrote what lyrics may be as unsolvable a question as the one we ask about the Stonehenge slabs, but we usually hear that Bernstein himself wrote “The Lisbon Sequence,” although he got by with a little help from his wife Felicia Montealegre on “I Am Easily Assimilated.” It’s sung by The Old Lady (bookwriter Lillian Hellman’s name for the character, not mine) to stress how well she deals with stress. Wilbur and Latouche also had to share credit with Dorothy (“Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses”) Parker on “The Venice Gavotte” and even Hellman chipped in by providing the words to “Eldorado,” the so-called “City of Gold” where Candide expects to strike it rich. (Yeah, right … it’s always something …)
Had there ever been a Broadway musical that had contributions from three female lyricists? Has there since?
For the 1974 revisal, Stephen Sondheim got into the act, adding a bit to “What a Day for an Auto-da-fé,” totally writing “Sheep Song” and “This World,” and rewriting “Venice Gavotte” into “Life Is Happiness Indeed” – one of the greatest revisal lyrics ever since wordsmiths started tinkering with previously written songs.
Sondheim would have a great deal to do with the famous 1973 revisal that rescued the show. He and bookwriter Hugh Wheeler turned it into the second longest-running musical revival in Broadway history. (At the time, only No, No, Nanette had run longer.) The result has been a much-produced musical; I’ve even seen a community theater production in Tampa. Starting next month, there’ll be a new Harold Prince-directed production at New York City Opera.
So life has pretty much been happiness indeed for Candide ever since. Oh, sure, a 1997 Broadway staging was a 104-performance failure, but the show is musical theater caviar, and such a show would never fill a barn like the Gershwin eight times a week. But how many other flops (I’ll guess none) have had seven major recordings? All three of the Broadway outings are available on Masterworks Broadway.
All three make us marvel at Bernstein’s music, right to final moment when we get the glorious “Make Our Garden Grow.” Its most stunning moment occurs when the orchestra just stops and rests and the dozens upon dozens of cast members sing it a capella.
True, Candide has always been a Broadway flop if one uses the strictest barometer: shows that make money are hits even if they stink; shows that lose money are flops, even if every critic urged the world to “Run, don’t walk.” All three times Candide has played Broadway, despite an aggregate total of seventeen Tony nominations and five wins, it’s lost plenty of money.
But let’s be fair. The much-acclaimed 1974 revisal was the sensation of the season. It got a special Tony Award in those days before revivals had their own categories. Columbia made a new recording that included not only the songs but also the dialogue on a two-record set that’s now a two-disc set.
So why did this much-cheered Candide lose money? It was staged in a freewheeling carnival atmosphere in The Broadway Theater that was totally reconfigured, and its seating capacity was reduced almost by half to 900 seats. That, however, wasn’t the actual reason why the production, running nearly two years, wound up losing upwards of $300,000. Because of the cramped surroundings, only thirteen musicians – or half the usual number — could be accommodated inside. Ah, but Local 802 said that the contract for The Broadway Theatre specified twenty-six musicians were to be paid. So twenty-six were paid, although thirteen of them never showed up at the theater except on payday. (This is Broadway’s version of the government paying farmers not to grow wheat.)
The money spent to musicians who didn’t play a note was – yes — upwards of $300,000. Director and co-producer Harold Prince begged the union to be fair under these unique circumstances. Local 802 wouldn’t agree, but in essence said of the inflated payroll, “It must be so.”
Well, as Candide has always stressed since Voltaire wrote his novella in 1759, it’s always something …
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.