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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Leonard Bernstein's Candide
Leonard Bernstein's Candide
Image // Unrated // May 17, 2005
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Bill Gibron | posted June 1, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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It may be hard to imagine, but there was a time when the Broadway musical dominated popular culture. It formed the basis for many of the earliest network variety programs. Original cast albums littered the Billboard charts, as well as the radio airwaves. The movie industry plundered the ranks of the talented and the tuneful to help craft their own song and dance fantasies. And every singer or dancer with a dream of fame longed to make it on the stages of the legendary New York street. But in 2005, this purely American invention has mostly fallen out of the public consciousness. The hit film Chicago aside, most people probably couldn't name a single show from the last 50 years. Others would merely spew the name of some long lasting artifact from the 80s (Les Miz, Cats) and feel vindicated.

So it's probably no surprise that Candide is such an unknown quantity. Even with a legacy that boasts, perhaps, the most important modern composer in American music, and a literary heritage of some equal heft, the show has never really had a meaningful post-70s revival. Instead, it's an entity shrouded in rumors, a failed folly on behalf of all involved that never really came together. It was never a hit...but it was far from a full-fledged flop as well. And with the lack of viable, vital new shows requiring longer and longer looks back over Broadway's jaded past, everything almost old can be reconfigured into something new – again. Indeed, as stated before, Candide had an initial 1973 makeover after its famous failing 17 years before.

But now, thanks to an infusion of new blood and a PBS friendly concert presentation performance, the musical may be finally ready to get its due...or once again die trying. Either way, this new DVD from Image is a testament the show's gifted creator – as well as its own rocky, re-imagined past.

The DVD:
Candide is a bastard – but he is a happy bastard. He lives in the kingdom of Westphalia, in the castle of the local Baron. Candide is cousin to Cunegonde, the Baron's beautiful daughter, and he deeply loves the young lady. She is also smitten by Candide's advances. This makes her equally attractive brother Maximillian very upset: he can't see Cunegonde being involved with someone so low in class and social stature as Candide. In addition to the children, the last member of the familial foursome is Paquette, a young servant girl who enjoys the favors of many of the older men in the castle – and Westphalia itself.

Under the tutelage of Dr. Pangloss, the eager adolescents are taught a perplexing personal philosophy of eternal optimism. Since, according to their instructor, this is the best of all possible worlds, everything that happens in it happens for a very good reason. And as the quartet ponders this possibility, they find themselves facing the torments of Job. Each one, together or separately, experiences the pain and humiliation of sudden separation, war, rape, private peril, slavery, crime, prostitution and persecution both religious and financial. Throughout their many travels and travails around the world, they also discover that happiness may not be a primary part of God's plan. Indeed, it may have been an invalid value system all along.

One could easily call Candide the musical version of that unapologetic new age tome that questions why bad things happen to good people – except, no one in Voltaire's volatile universe is really all that virtuous. As both a narrative and a musical, it's a road movie without the road – or the necessary elements of great cinema. As stark and stagy as the production often feels, it usually soars to unbridled levels of brilliance thanks to one of the greatest classical scores composer Leonard Bernstein ever crafted. Still, when people list the great works of this even greater man, Candide usually ranks low in the stack, stuck beneath On the Town, Wonderful Town and, naturally, West Side Story. Yet Candide floats on a willowy cloud of expert craftsmanship, as arias and sonnets sail between cast and audience in aural splendor so serene that listening to the music alone amounts to a kind of therapy for the soul.

So the question naturally becomes, why isn't this show so revered, praised at the same level as the man who created it. Well, the answer comes from the multitude of issues that make up the manner in which this 2004 adaptation of the piece has been put together. The version presented on this DVD, taken from a limited run production at the Lincoln Center, is a hybrid, in more than one way. Candide was originally conceived as a prestige piece, with Bernstein hiring noted playwright and author Lillian Hellman (The Children's Hour) to draft a theatrical 'book' that closely mimicked Voltaire's original vignette-oriented novella. He then used a team of lyricists, including John Latouche, Ms. Algonquin Round Table herself Dorothy Parker, and the celebrated American poet Richard Wilbur to bring the musical inner life of the characters to the fore. Its 1956 premiere was the buzz of Broadway, with expectations high and rewards anticipated.

The result, sadly, was a disappointing near-disaster. After a mere 73 performances, the original Candide closed. The production was slammed by the critics, and audiences stopped coming. Once the footlights faded, Candide would never again be seen in its original form. Ever. Indeed, the first revival of the show came in 1973, and it radically reworked the stogy, semi-serious work into an "experiment" in environmental theater production, ala the recent hit Hair. Director Hal Prince (a Broadway legend) and new librettist Hugh Wheeler – with the additional aid of a little lyrical tweaking by none other than Great White Way wunderkind Stephen Sondheim - accentuated the farcical elements of the play. They also, quite amazingly, chucked most of Bernstein's music, turning the often far too subtle satire into a blatant, ballsy audience pleaser. The retrofitting worked, as Candide went on to be a major critical and popular hit, running for almost two years and 740 performances.

Yet many saw the new, hip creation as a slap in Bernstein's face. While the composer himself was happy to see the show salvaged, he also fought for years after the fact to bring his initial vision of the show to the forefront again. So do those behind this version. What we have here then, in the 2005 Lincoln Center production, is a crazy quilt of old, new and some things unstuck in time. Most of Bernstein's music has been reinserted, yet Prince and Wheeler's freestyle contemporary concept has remained, fully embraced and even accentuated. Lonny Price, the latest individual to tackle Candide's baffling book, has updated much of the humor to reflect modern ideals. And as a director, he has decided to use the recent trend of taking difficult stage works (Sweeney Todd immediately comes to mind) and transforming them into part performance, part pantomime spectacles as his way of reintroducing the show to the public.

Thus, we face Candide's first real problem. You're not really witnessing the musical proper, with sets and staging able to fill in the blanks in the narrative and the characters. While the casting itself raises its own issues, it's a bit much to ask the stars to sell this musical's multifaceted, frenetically paced predicaments with just their voices and their verve. Though they almost succeed, we still feel we are missing much of Candide's comic potential. No one expects the production to evoke all the exotic locales and amazing adventures hinted at in the plot, but when you can't even convince us that we've left the logistics of the stage to carry on our saga, how are we supposed to care about what happens?

The talent is also guilty of goofing up some of the storyline themselves – especially the Grand Dame Diva herself, Patti LuPone and current Broadway babe Kristin Chenoweth. In LuPone's case, she plays a once minor character known as "The Old Lady" which has, here, been fleshed out into a full-blown co-starring gig. In the 1973 production, she has one song. Here, she sings as part of five. Yet LuPone blows it. Her thick as borsch Russian Jew accent is so Method in its mannerisms, so neo-authentic in its richness and rhythms that every other word gets lost in her varying vocal tricks. In Chenoweth's case, the issue is more problematic. No one can deny the woman's skill: she has a graceful, lilting soprano that explodes in octaves of absolute aural amazement. Notes ring like angelic bells from her mouth. But frankly, she has lousy diction. Her tremendous tone trounces wholesale over vowels and consonants, leaving a legacy of indecipherable lyrics in their wake.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in a resurrected Bernstein number, "We are Women". Between LuPone's loopy mimickery and Chenoweth's inarticulate envelope pushing, we get something that sounds intriguing, but with only rare snippets being comprehensible above the din. One gets the sense that this would be a Hell of a song, filled with wonderfully wicked sentiments about how the weaker sex is actually the stronger within the battle between man and woman. But you'd never know from the version offered here. It's important to note that neither LuPone nor Chenoweth are vocally bad. On the contrary, each one channels beatific choirs with their yin and yang variation on the showstopper style of song selling. But it's the garbled gags, the subtle phrases buried in vocal bravado that keeps us lost, distancing us even further from both the performers and the piece.

Thankfully, this is not a universal problem. In the lead role, Paul Groves has a great, basso voice, notes booming across the theater like the footsteps of giants. And he can deliver each and ev-er-y word with fully rounded regularity. Yet sadly, he appears far too old to play the naive youth. He's about 30 years past Candide's prime. And besides, he has a wrestler's build, which even further undermines the helpless nature of this 'hero'. Now this could be the main inside joke of Price's overall approach to the production. After all, the supposedly "beautiful" Maximillian is played by an awkward, angular beanpole named Jeff Blumenkrantz, who tends to amplify his effete elements to semi-comic effect.

The rest of the cast is made up of the chorus and various other noted vocal soloists. Price has them function in both a Greek and geek concept, handling all the technical and narrative facets of the performance that sets and props would normally provide. Some of the material here is visualized in very clever approaches (the fashion show signs, Candide's cardboard boat voyage through a sea of blue shirt wearing singers). But as with the entire concert as a whole, there is way too much pandering - too much audience interaction and cross-participation – and not enough attention to the tale being told. There are constant references to the cast and the circumstances of the show that seem to defeat the very purpose of the performance. Instead of milking the material, Price and company are merely modernizing and manipulating. Of course, the crowd just loves it. But one wonders how they'd react to the real musical, properly staged.

The answer is, probably not too well. As a show, Candide is crackpot philosophy taken to extremely, and mostly unsatisfying ends. When we reach our finale, optimism and pessimism are dismissed as viable life options, with only the tilling of the soil and the working of the land being celebrated as the true purpose for man's place on the planet. Sitting through two hours of song and dance just to learn that we should all really be farmers may have sounded sentient and noble in the 50s (or even the post-60s slumber of the early 70s). But today, it plays like much ado about roughing it, and no one wants to hear about how getting dingy in the dirt will solve all our problems. And WHAT problems they are. The operatic narrative devices – people just don't suffer, they SUFFER IN SHAME – also takes some getting used to. Ancient drama was not so much melodramatic as MEGAdramatic, and the Heaven shattering situations Candide et.al find themselves in really pushes the limits of believability.

But thank the Gods above for Leonard Bernstein. He single-handedly saves Candide, taking it from a troubled, tenuous entertainment to one of the most beautiful and moving musical experiences you will ever have, in or out of a theater. Bad diction, crazy comedy slapstick and scattershot storytelling just can't defeat his blissful sonic salutes. Again, Bernstein's muse is more opera than operetta. While there are several self-contained, sensational songs ("Best of all Possible Worlds", "Glitter and Be Gay", "Make Our Garden Grow") the composer uses those individual numbers as road markers. He then weaves several styles of auditory ambrosia in between and through them, combining couplets and melody lines that bounce back and forth off each other like butterflies lighting on a fresh crop of spring flowers. Harmonies move and blend, starting off dissonant and easing into delight within the single half step of a note.

Indeed, simply having the ability to listen to Candide in as complete a form as possible makes this DVD a must own musical companion to Bernstein's varied canon. The score sells Candide, more than the merriment or the muddled performances. And since the orchestration and the technical elements of its presentation are pure and flawless, it creates a universal good that overcomes the many minor bad components. It's interesting how, in 1973, the music was toned down in order to sell the comic surrealism injected into the production. In 2004, it's the exact opposite. It's now the sound that does the promotion.

Actually, a harmonizing almost occurs between the tuneful and the tacky. Several times throughout the concert, we witness the weird and the wonderful melding into a cohesive whole that does both words and music proud. And for some coming to Candide for the first time, none of the nitpicking above will matter. They will simply be moved by sonorous tones delivered debatably by a more or less adept cast. In some ways, this was the same reaction the show got in 1956. A half century later, Bernstein's brave attempt at mixing classical with commercial still has issues. Thankfully, they have nothing to do with the marvelous music here. And in the end, that may be all that matters.

The Video:
There is only one major problem with the video transfer of Candide's 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image. It's not the colors or the details. Both are handled with actual care and attention to proper correction and balance. No, the issue here is digital zoom. Several times in the performance, a camera angle will be artificially shifted, or pulled in, to accentuate a detail or avoid a certain side angle. The motion is very herky jerky, and will remind film fans of the hideous pan-and-scan transfers they occasionally have to suffer through. The action appears awkward and artificial, and its manipulated nature is unsettling. It doesn't add anything artistic or relevant to the staging, so its obviously being employed for the same reason adventurers climb mountains – because it's there. This strange technological tic aside, the visual presentation of Candide is solid.

The Audio:
In a very wise move, Image gives us three auditory options for enjoying Candide, and each one is a sonic sensation. The Dolby Digital Stereo is astounding, presenting an easy on the ears balance between words and music. But even better is the 5.1 Surround, as well as its DTS derivation. Both explode across the home theater speakers, providing an unreal amphitheater feel to the performance. Notes echo off the back channels and continue to the front. Applause and laughs build and ebb on waves that move from side to side. When characters traverse the stage, so does their aural equivalent across the room. This is a marvelous auditory offering, guaranteeing that the best part of the show – Bernstein's music – is managed flawlessly.

The Extras:
Sadly, nothing of substance is offered on the disc. There is an insert with a nice explanatory essay by Lonny Price, but that's it. Too bad, really. Some additional context would really help the Candide uninitiated get a handle on how the show came about, and why it stands as such a petulant piece, even today.

Final Thoughts:
In many ways, Candide can't help it. It suffers from ambition bolstered by its composer's reputation, as well as the other amazing musical works he created throughout his life. It's just impossible for people to see that the man behind "Somewhere" or "A Little Bit of Love" could create something that isn't instantly recognized as a classic, or at least an equal to his immense status. But just like its main character, Candide has always been a bit of a bastard, and this reinvention of the production may not help matters much. While it resurrects the only reason to consider the show seminal – that is Bernstein's sensational score and songs – it really doesn't fix the problems inherent in the narrative's nattering drive. In the end, our hero and his friends learn that this is not the best of all possible words. And no matter what the sounds or the showboating tells you, this is not the best of all possible Candides. And frankly, it's impossible to imagine one that would be. While Bernstein's legacy will always remain intact, Candide seems destined to always be cracked. While this particular DVD presentation will help you overlook the flaw, it won't make it go away.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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