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Bernstein’s Candide Opens Huntington Season

New, lavish Zimmerman adaptation truer to Voltaire

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Legendary composer and maestro Leonard Bernstein once said that there was more of himself in his musical Candide than in any of his other celebrated works. That includes the Lawrence, Mass., native’s enduring West Side Story and On the Town, as well as his famed Mass and Symphony No. 3, Kaddish. Based on Voltaire’s classic 18th-century satire of a hapless optimist who plods forth, Mr. Magoo–like, through one calamity after another, the musical Candide digs into some grim subject matter. In this, the “best of all possible worlds,” Candide and his cohorts grapple with blood-lusty marauders, pirates, and Inquisitors, as well as impalings, the ravages of syphilis, leaking ships, and more.

In this newest adaptation, the first play of the Huntington Theatre Company’s 2011–2012 season, Tony Award–winning director and writer Mary Zimmerman has reordered the sequence of events to be more faithful to the novel’s original structure.

Running on the Boston University Theatre mainstage through October 16, Candide features Geoff Packard as Candide, Larry Yando as Pangloss, Lauren Molina as Cunegonde, and McCaela Donovan as Paquette, under the musical direction of Doug Peck, one of Chicago’s leading musical directors. The production kicks off the 30th season of the Huntington, in residence at BU.

Zimmerman, whose Candide premiered at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre a year ago to admiring reviews, has made a career out of staging adaptations, among them The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, The Odyssey, The Arabian Nights, and Metamorphoses, based on Ovid’s classic poem of the same name. In addition to winning a Tony for best director for Metamorphoses, Zimmerman was nominated for a Tony for best play. She has directed classical opera and created a new opera, Galileo Galilei, with composer Philip Glass. A 1998 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, Zimmerman is a professor of performance studies at Northwestern University, a member of Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company, and an associate director of the Goodman Theatre and Seattle Repertory Theatre. She previously directed the Huntington’s productions of Journey to the West and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

BU Today recently asked Zimmerman about her new adaptation of Candide, her views on the darkly comic musical’s appeal to today’s audiences, and the charms of the BU Theatre.

Mary Zimmerman, Director of Candide, Huntington Theatre

Director and writer Mary Zimmerman’s Candide is faithful to Voltaire. Photo by Liz Lauren

BU Today: Why did you feel it was important to make the book truer to Voltaire, and how does this adaptation differ from previous ones?

Zimmerman: I don’t necessarily feel that it is important, but it is my own proclivity. Almost everything I’ve done in the theater has been an adaptation of an old nondramatic text. It felt natural to me, when approaching Candide, to do my own adaptation of the novel.

All of the past iterations of Candide have great things in them, great solutions and approaches to the story. I think what we tried to do was make an evening that had a kind of structural integrity relative to the novel: we let the novel guide us all the way through.

How does Candide’s story resonate with audiences today?

Well, one of the things Voltaire is responding to, and arguing against, in Candide is the idea that “everything is for the best,” that everything is “part of a plan” that we can’t understand and shouldn’t try to understand, that all random violence and tragedy can be whisked away by these platitudes—and social injustice as well. I think that these blanket assertions in the face of real injustice are just as current now—if not more so—than in Voltaire’s day.

You’ve said that you love fairy tales. What do you find most compelling about Voltaire’s dark fantasy?

I think, oddly, I’m always attracted to stories with sea voyages, with travel to foreign parts. I love big, sweeping, epic journeys, the idea of being lost in the world and then finding one’s way home.

Charles Isherwood’s New York Times review of the Goodman production points out the risk that the book cannot compete with Bernstein’s score. With celebrated writers from Lillian Hellman to Hugh Wheeler, why has the book invited so much reinvention?

You know, music works through what is best in people: cooperation, harmony, blending together, all of that. The novel emphasizes what can be the worst in people. I think there is an inherent tension between the glorious beauty of the music and the almost relentlessly hard picture of the world the story presents—and a kind of natural tension between that picture of the world and what we expect from musical comedy. But I actually love that tension. I think it is dynamic.

What’s distinctive about the Huntington production? What appeals to you about the venue?

I think that is one pretty little theater. I really do: I just love its proportions, its old-fashioned-ness. With each new remounting we are trying to refine, trying to trim down our show. And as we go along, all the performances deepen both musically and emotionally, I think. And I’m looking forward to hearing the pit musicians in this production, as they will all be Bostonians, and Boston is such a music town. Also, we have a couple of additional musicians in the pit this time around.

How has directing opera influenced your direction of musicals?

This is my first musical. I know for a fact that had I directed it before doing any opera I would undoubtedly have staged the overture. But in opera, my maestros never wanted me to stage any overture, and I came to see the sense in that and it became the natural choice for me. So we do the entire very famous Candide overture just in front of the show curtain. No staging. And I think that opera taught me everything it could about the demand of singing on a singer. I’m so grateful to my musical cast—that they are willing and even expecting to move, to be “on the run” as they sing.

What makes an ancient or classical story particularly amenable to stage adaptation?

For me, these old works I stage all the time belong on the stage; they are coming home to roost. The Arabian Nights, the myths of Greece and Rome, fairy and folk tales, The Odyssey, the Chinese epic Journey to the West—these all lived as told—and therefore performed—stories. They settled into accepted print versions eventually, but they belong to the air. Candide is a little different: it is a literary work, a modern work by my standards. But the music of course…that is meant to be heard, communally heard.

When you bring a story to the stage, who are your most important collaborators and how much input do they have?

My designers and I have a very close relationship, and they are of extreme importance. I don’t write my scripts in advance of being in rehearsal, but the set has to be designed by then and the costumes well on their way. These things come before the script, and they influence the script. I write into the environment that we create. My actors also play a huge part. I write for them; I write towards their strengths.

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Susan Seligson

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

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