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by Mary Zimmerman

I’ve always been drawn to adapt thorny, difficult, epic old texts. Voltaire’s Candide has that epic sweep and broad range of feeling that I like, and it is full of difficult things to stage, which I like as well. And then Bernstein’s music is so glorious.

It’s the story of a young man named Candide, who is the illegitimate nephew of a Baron in a small province called Westphalia. Along with the Baron’s daughter, he is tutored by a professor named Doctor Pangloss, who claims that Westphalia is “the best possible place in all the world.” When Candide falls in love with Cunegonde, his benefactors kick him out of the kingdom without a penny. The rest of the story follows Candide making his way in the world, having adventure after adventure. He is candid and honest and innocent, and he is mistreated and swindled over and over again. Cunegonde and her family also meet great misfortune in a war, so some of Candide’s adventures involve reuniting with her.

I read all the previous adaptations—the scripts for the musical—about three or four years ago, and then I stopped reading because I wanted to go back to Voltaire’s original novel.  Some of the versions have big changes from the original structure of the novel, and the primary challenge for me in adapting it anew is that some of the songs have lyrics that are tied to events or circumstances that don’t exist in the novel. We want to preserve these songs in a context that makes sense, while trying to be as trusting as possible of Voltaire’s original structure and story.

Finding the tone is the most difficult key to Candide because terrible things happen to the characters, yet the novel is hilarious. What makes the play funny and absurd, I hope, is the way in which chance and mischance pile up so fast and furious, while the characters’ views of the world as “all for the best” remain absolutely unchanged in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

Candide is a tougher text than people realize. It challenges some of our most cherished ideas—ideas about one’s own virtue and the virtues of one’s own home. I think this play is challenging in whichever country it is performed, because every country thinks it is the best in the best of all possible worlds. The novel and the play ask people to think about the fact that life is really complicated and that random, tragic things happen all the time. It suggests that blind optimism, or the idea that everything is part of a grand plan and that all is for the best, is not only absurd but also an excuse for inaction in the face of social injustice. Yet it also rejects blind pessimism, through the figure of Martin, the scholar who is as consistently cynical and depressed as Pangloss is buoyant.

I am hoping that audiences are swept away by the production, that they are extremely entertained and enchanted, but also attentive to Voltaire’s satire. Candide has gorgeous music and it is incredibly witty, both lyrically and musically. Voltaire’s and Bernstein’s works are both achievements of such high order that when combined, they remind us what people are capable of at their best at the very same moment they are showing us what is worst. And in this way, the work manages to be affirmative—even transcendent—in the face of its own cynicism and satiric edge.

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