Stage Preview: Uneasily Assimilated

Leonard Bernstein wrote a musical with a personality just as split as his own.

Leonard Bernstein died in 1990, but in some ways his Candide is still a work in progress. Created in 1956, it's had nearly as many revisions as productions, with scenes and songs shuffled and the text tweaked, constantly. Lyrics for the show have been written, at various times, by Bernstein himself, his wife Felicia, Stephen Sondheim, Dorothy Parker, and the original book author, Lillian Hellman. Candide's less a show, it seems, than a pile of theatrical Legos that directors use to build anything they like.Part of this is due to the source material—Voltaire's 1759 novel, which sends the title hero around the world on a string of arbitrary and optimism-testing adventures. The randomness of the hero's experience was precisely Voltaire's point, a sendup of a theology fashionable in his time: Since God is infallible, whatever is, is as it should be. Or as the title of one of Candide's songs puts it, we live in "The Best of All Possible Worlds." Thus directors have felt free to pick or discard from Voltaire whatever episodes suit their needs. For those keeping score, the 5th Avenue Theatre, whose production of Candide opens Thursday, chose John Caird's 1999 adaptation for London's Royal National Theatre. (Eric Hanson, longtime director of instrumental music at Seattle Pacific University, will discuss the links between the novel and the musical on Wed., May 26 at 6:30 p.m. at the 5th Avenue.)Candide is an ideal culmination for this spring's citywide "Seattle Celebrates Bernstein" festival—the emblematic work of a musician whose life was as complex and adventurous as his hero's. A prodigy, Bernstein was torn from the start between conducting and composing. His 1943 debut leading the New York Philharmonic, subbing on short notice for a radio broadcast, made headlines. He was 25. He later became the orchestra's music director, but in the meantime wrote his most enduring musicals: On the Town, Wonderful Town, Candide, and West Side Story. He also appeared frequently on TV, and occasionally showed off another skill, the piano, playing Mozart concertos or Rhapsody in Blue.His body of work is just as schizophrenic. In "Whatever Happened to That Great American Symphony?", a 1954 essay in dialogue form, he argues with himself about where he should direct his talents, symphony or musical comedy. He never did decide: In addition to those musicals, he wrote piano pieces, three symphonies, and a Serenade for violin and orchestra, perhaps his most convincing "classical" work. Sometimes Bernstein's worlds collide even within a piece, as in his Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs for jazz ensemble; his one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti, which spoofs B-movies with commentary from a scat-singing trio; and his trippily eclectic 1971 Mass, which dabbles in Godspell/Jesus Christ Superstar–style pop. Not to mention that among West Side Story's cha-chas and mambos he made room for a 12-tone fugue ("Cool").And then there was his personal life. He craved the spotlight (Tom Wolfe savaged his trendy political crusading in "Radical Chic"), yet the scutwork of composition requires solitude. He wore his Judaism on his sleeve in his concert music (selected titles: Jeremiah, Kaddish, Dybbuk, Halil), yet had to be careful not to discomfit skittish, WASPy orchestra boards and patrons. Most complicated was his sexuality. Was Bernstein gay or bi? Depends whom you ask. He married in 1951, had three children, and was by all accounts devoted to his family, but he nevertheless edged further and further out of the closet over the years. Always a man of expansive appetites, his indulgences included lots of sex, even into the era of AIDS—though it was his equally indulgent smoking that finally did him in.Of all his works, Candide most resists labeling. Bernstein didn't object to the retro term "operetta," though the piece was conceived as a commercial Broadway show. (Its initial run flopped after two months.) But unlike Bernstein's earlier shows, Candide owes next to nothing to Tin Pan Alley. Instead, he composed practically a catalogue of classical dance genres, darting among them as Candide does among nations, buffeted by circumstance from the Old World to the New and back again—waltz, tango, gavotte, the templates European but the brashness American. The showstopping aria "Glitter and Be Gay" is a sendup of grand-opera mannerisms, but the character who sings it, Cunegonde, has been played by both pop-identified singers (Barbara Cook, who created the role, and Kristin Chenoweth) and divas (June Anderson, in a composer-led recording, and Harolyn Blackwell). And the show's overture, more than any other Broadway overture, has become a concert-hall staple.If you argue, as I would, that the essence, the spine, of a musical is its book and of an opera its score, where does that leave Candide, which has never had a definitive version of either? Perhaps the only thing that makes it a musical is that right now it's playing at the 5th Avenue. At McCaw Hall, it'd be an opera. Comfortable (if anomalous) in both worlds, showy, snappy, sophisticated, yet with an overflowing love of humanity at its heart, Candide is Leonard Bernstein.gborchert@seattleweekly.com

 
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