Missed The Boat: Candide

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I reckon I’d be quite accurate in thinking that not many (if any) of you reading this post have ever read Candide – even fewer in the original Old French. Well, I have. And it was bloody hard work, believe me! When you choose to study A Level French you know you’re probably giving yourself a massive challenge, but this was beyond anything my very small class expected; 12 years ago me would almost certainly be in complete shock that I’d intentionally put myself in the way of this story ever again! The novella, first published in 1759, was written by François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire, to you and me) and is a satire that targets religion, government and philosophers – chiefly Leibniz and his “Théodicée” (optimism, and the belief that this is the “best of all possible worlds”).

Hardly the obvious choice for a musical. However, in 1956 (almost the double centenary of the novella’s publication), Leonard Bernstein’s operetta – with libretto by Lillian Hellman – made its Broadway debut at the Martin Beck Theatre, directed by Tyrone Guthrie. Since 1974, however, most productions and performances have used a new libretto, written by Hugh Wheeler and said to be truer to Voltaire’s original text. It has been performed in various venues across the world, including the National Theatre in London, the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, the Lincoln Center in New York, and Teatro Argentina in Rome.

download Michael Cooper Photographic
Photo credit: Michael Cooper Photographic

Probably the most recent performance of the score that I’ve missed out on was last year’s LMTO concert at Cadogan Hall – it was in July, so the chances are I was at one of the shows at the Globe (which I’d booked in January, so no changes of plan there) and unable to make it. There was also a production at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2013, starring Scarlett Strallen as Cunegonde, that passed me by. I really do think a revival is well overdue; given the endless stream of disasters (both natural and otherwise) that we hear about in the news, I’m definitely in the mood for a bit of satire about “the best of all possible worlds”.

And while in some ways it seems like an odd source for a stage show, Candide’s extensive travels take him all over the world (including Lisbon, Paris and Buenos Aires) which provides great inspiration for different genres of music. It also must be a gift to choreographers, getting to play around with a variety of styles – I’d pay a king’s ransom to see Drew McOnie work his magic on it one day…

They begin in Westphalia (now a part of Germany, then under its own sovereignty), the first song on the cast recording being Dr Pangloss’ The Best of All Possible Worlds – an incredibly catchy chorus that makes the song a bit jauntier than what ensues not long after.

download Sarah Shatz
Photo credit: Sarah Shatz

The Paris Waltz is a beautiful example of how the change in the story’s location informs the music, evoking images of a sumptuous ballroom with couples filling the floor waltzing away. I’m Easily Assimilated, sung by an old lady, Cunegonde and the chorus, is a fantastic example of a tango (perfect for the home of the dance: Buenos Aires) – you hear the Spanish influences and are immediately transported to an atmospheric Argentinian street.

Venice is the last new location from the operetta that features on the cast recording, with What’s the Use? and Venice Gavotte moving the listener over to Italy. The former is another waltz, this time set in gambling rooms where Pangloss is playing roulette, with some stunning harmonies from the ensemble that enhance the work of the orchestra. A gavotte is a French dance rather than Italian, but it’s also associated with this particular era in history; its upbeat nature is ideal for the celebratory tone required, following Pangloss’ win on the roulette tables.

The overture is also something of a masterpiece, combining elements of The Best of All Possible WorldsBattle MusicOh, Happy We and Glitter and Be Gay, alongside melodies specific to the overture to tie it all together. It’s widely performed in concerts as a standalone piece, and so may be familiar to you even if you’ve never seen Candide (or knowingly listened to the score). The particular version of the cast recording I own actually has an alternate version of the overture as the final track as a nice little bonus.

20286948_651440041725188_5636508095598363159_o Nick Rutter
Photo credit: Nick Rutter

With a Bernstein classic, I think it’s wrong to say I’ve completely missed the boat on this one – there’s surely hope of a revival at some point (if I have to go to New York for it, then so be it), though in the meantime there are a couple of concerts scheduled at the Barbican for December.


Candide (Original Broadway Cast Recording – remastered) was released on 13 May 2003 on Sony BMG. You can buy the album online.

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