Among other things, Voltaire's Candide might have made a fine musical comedy. The book is a terrifically sophisticated, funny recit in which nothing is final--least of all the conclusion. But now that a horde of famous individuals has brought its talents to bear upon Candide, the spectacle is appalling. The new musical is not like the old book or other musicals or anything, except maybe a bad circus.
Lillian Hellman seems most responsible. Her libretto strips down Candide to an unattractive caricature of itself. While the unity in Voltaire's book comes from the way each happening reflects on another so as to make all things appear absurd, the happenings are not related in Miss Hellman's version. They are absurd by themselves; the confusion lacks irony and is simply confusing. Miss Hellman makes the wanderings of Candide appear a series of unrelated but similar adventures.
The first of these scenes are quite funny--especially in Lisbon just before the earthquake where junkmen, winesellers, and Arab conjurers litter the stage. A bear frolics--chased by his bearman--and the wild infant Casmira screams, "The earth will quake and the ground will shake," to which the Very, Very Old Inquisitor grunts toward the Very Old Inquisitor, "The danger has passed." Just then the stage begins to rumble. As the play wears on, however, these scenes become repetitions and progressively less funny. Toward the end, Candide wearily remarks, "You cannot live by bed alone."
The lyrics were written by Richard Wilbur, with help from John LaTouche, Dorothy Parker, Miss Hellman and Leonard Bernstein. They are about on a par with the libretto. Most of the songs like "The Best of All Possible Worlds" and "Eldorado," play upon Voltairean cliches with repetition and insipidity.
If the book and lyrics are a travesty, the actors are talented, and courageous. In the double role of the pedant Dr. Pangloss ("thrice graduated from Heidelberg"), and the pessimist Martin, Max Adrian has the play's best, and worst, lines. Confronting his roles with a scraggly singing voice and an enormous confidence, he is the star of the show. In the more innocuous part of Candide, Robert Rounseville acts stiffly but has a powerful and accurate singing voice. Barbara Cook as Cunegonde is an appealing actress with a good voice, and stops the show with one number, "Glitter and Be Gay."
The rest of the expensive production is done competently. Oliver Smith's sets are remarkable. They aren't set up behind a curtain; they drop from the sky! Irene Sharaff's costumes are lavish. Hangings occur right on stage. So does a shark, a wonderful bear (Charles Morrell), and an earthquake. This is engineered by director Tyrone Guthrie whose crowd scenes are especially smoothly run. If technical competence were all that mattered, the play would be a success.
Although uneven, Leonard Bernstein's music is one of the nicest things about the show. With few singable melodies, the music is ingenious and often surprising.
Despite the polish of the production, Candide is no success. Probably too many people have worked on it, for no individual, certainly not Voltaire, has been allowed to put its parts together in a consistent and funny way. It is never clear whether Candide is burlesquing itself, the audience, nobody, or Voltaire. Mostly it seems a weak caricature of Voltaire, who was better at it than the whole crew.