Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Best of All Possible Sites

Here's a great site, Michael Hutchins' "A Guide to Leonard Bernstein's Candide. It's an exhaustive resource for fans of that frustrating, elusive, unworkable, brilliant musical, Candide: one of those shows that will never quite work, but has so many good things in it, and so much ambition and craftsmanship, that no one will ever stop trying to make it work. Hutchins guides us through all the many different versions of the show and the tangled textual history of it.

His judgments are dead on, too; he correctly notes that Lillian Hellman's original book, which is no longer used (in part because she withdrew her permission to use it), is far superior to the camped-up scripts that have been used in subsequent productions. Hellman's book takes liberties with Voltaire, and worse, it's almost entirely unfunny -- not surprising when you consider that Hellman wasn't exactly known for being a laugh riot or making her points with any subtlety. But it's an efficient and effective enough book that gets us from sequence to sequence, and song to song, without the lame gags of the Hugh Wheeler version that has been used in varying forms since 1973. (Hellman, in a letter to Bernstein: "You are too unfeeling to know that I could not have wanted a hack like Hugh Wheeler to fool around with my work.")

The original production of Candide was also sort of the apotheosis of '50s middlebrow culture, for which there has been quite a bit of nostalgia of late. The people who worked on it were either members of Broadway's mid-cult elite (Hellman, Bernstein) or high-culture types doing Broadway work without shame (director Tyrone Guthrie, lyricist Richard Wilbur). The cast included a Shakespearian actor, Guthrie favorite Max Adrian, a Broadway ingenue, Barbara Cook, and several genuine operatic voices -- this was a time when Broadway shows still didn't use microphones and weren't afraid of "legit" singers -- including tenor Robert Rounseville, the original Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. It's a reminder of a time when all the best talents in the world seemed to be converging on Broadway, determined to fuse art and showbiz into one and create something that would appeal to highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow alike. It didn't exactly work with Candide, but it certainly increases the nostalgia factor to think that there was a time when Broadway could have attracted and even welcomed such a variety of talents and styles.

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