A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Having seen four versions of "Candide," including the opening on Broadway in 1956, two cabaret productions and a recent Broadway version, I can report that this offering at the Royal National Theater in London was the best of the bunch.  Imaginative staging by John Caird and Trevor Nunn, who restore Bernstein's previously-truncated score, captures the effervescent spirit of this operetta judged the century's best American musical.

Serious composer Leonard Bernstein was also a brilliant musical parodist, and as Voltaire's picaresque hero travels the world, so does the score traverse musical fashion from baroque opera to Latin rhythms to Viennese waltzes to simple ballads, matched by impertinent lyrics like "What a Day for an Auto da Fe," by a score of lyricists including John Latouche, Richard Wilbur, Lillian Hellman, Stephen Sondheim, Dorothy Parker and Bernstein himself.    The metaphor of this lively production -- apt for a journey around the globe to prove that "this is the best of all possible worlds" -- is a group of trunks fitting within each other and representing everything from school desks where Candide and his beloved Cunegonde are taught by the optimistic philosopher Pangloss, to a ship where they sail for the new world, to a chest of money and jewels from friends in El Dorado.  Simple props are assisted by ingenious lighting that represents the sea where Candide swims for his life after a shipwreck, the fire of a threatening auto da fe, or a battlefield where he is the only survivor.       

The  large cast is headed by multi-talented Simon Russell Beale as Voltaire and Pangloss, Daniel Evans as Candide,  Alex Kelly as Cunegonde, and Beverley Klein as the Old Woman.  Adding to the charm of the production are Peter Darling's choreography for the twenty young spirited singers and dancers, and costumes representing the national dress of eleven countries, by John and Elsie Napier.

As seen on Broadway and subsequently, "Candide" was so truncated  by anxious, budget-dominated producers, that the quiet acceptance of the ending came as a jolt, and the shift in tone was severely criticized.  (See the account of pre-production woes in  Pentimento by Lillian Hellman, who wrote the original book for this musical,  after suggesting to Bernstein their collaboration on a musical "Candide." Click here to order. )  Now, with the restored barcarolle sung by six kings as the bridge between  the despair of "What's the Use" and the  contentment of the finale, "Make Our Garden Grow," Voltaire is vindicated!   This must-see "Candide" is a must-bring-to-Broadway.