Friday, September 19, 2008

Neither Pure Nor Wise Nor Good

If the past 52 years have taught us anything (and I sometimes doubt it) it is that you can't make a musical of Candide.

Voltaire's classic 1759 novella, which destroys the philosophy of mindless optimism by putting its characters through an outlandish series of adventures and gruesome events, has 30 chapters and rushes at breakneck speed through an astonishing number of plot points, with a huge number of cardboard characters who exist to serve up his wicked satire. This is fine in a picaresque novel, but what on earth made Leonard Bernstein and Lillian Hellman think that it would make for good theatre? Things can be described much faster than they can be dramatized, so putting even half of the novel's events onstage would take all day. And the lack of characters with an inner life makes it very hard for an audience to care about their adventures. The best a stage version can hope to do is select as many incidents as possible and hope that spectacle and satire carry the day. Is it any wonder it flopped in 1956?

But Bernstein, damn him, had to write one of the most beautiful scores in the history of musical theatre. The songs somehow combine the musical virtuosity of opera with the drama and intelligence of theatre. It's just that the show is a mess. But as long as that music is there, people will want to stage the show.

Unfortunately, the problems with Candide are at the root--the novel's essential unsuitability to the stage. None of the revisions of the play (and there have been many) have really solved that problem. Nothing can fix them--or at least, nothing has yet--and I don't see what could be done to change that.

I appeared in a production of Candide my junior year at Northwestern. It featured some spectacular performances, gorgeous designs, and real moments of savage satire and beauty. It was also a disaster--three hours long, hard to follow, harder to identify with. Audiences loved the music and the performances, but couldn't get in to the story. This maximalist approach tried to stuff in as much as possible--more songs, more story, more satire, more everything. Unfortunately, in trying to include everything, in focusing on the parts, it lost the whole.

Porchlight Music Theatre is currently producing the 1974 edition of Candide, originally directed by Harold Prince with a book by Hugh Wheeler, at Theatre Building Chicago. A selection of reviews of this production can be found  here. This version is minimalist and intermissionless, clocking in at around 105 minutes the night I went. Since I attended a preview, I will try not to discuss details of the production, but the concept has not changed, and that is where the shows problems lie.

The developers of this version seemed to think that what had scuttled Candide in the original production was that it was just too much--too much plot, too many songs, too huge a production, and too much heavy-handed satire. As a result, they put it on a radical diet, cutting it almost in half. Gone went chunks of the plot (the Venice sequence, with "What's the Use" being the most tragic loss), much of the music, and Voltaire's point of view. There's nothing wrong with a show that's a goof, but it's not satire, it's not Voltaire, and it's not Candide. The novel's humor comes from the contrast of persistent optimism with awful tragedies. If there is no horror in rape and murder, earthquakes and the inquisition, the satire has not teeth. All that is left to provoke laughs is a series of jokes and rather dumb ones at that. The play makes sense, and some of the laughs land, but if the characters never suffer, then they never learn anything, and "Make Our Garden Grow," the finale, is simply a lovely song, not the immensely moving statement of people who have suffered and finally learned how to live in a punishingly arbitrary world. And what's the point in that?

So there's the dilemma: do Candide maximalist and it will be bloated and incoherent, despite moments of brilliance, do it minimalist and it is robbed of its reason for being. So what's left? Do it as a concert without even trying to tell a story?

Has anyone seen either of these productions who has other thoughts? Has anyone seen a theatrically satisfying Candide? Can anyone prove me wrong? Please continue the conversation!

On a completely unrelated note: in case anyone was wondering, my internship at Northlight Theatre does not mean I will be publishing any dirt or secrets. First off because I have ethics, and secondly because everyone at Northlight knows I have this blog. So sorry to all those looking for Skokie theatrical gossip, I'm afraid I can't provide it.

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