How did Co-artistic Director James Valcq Choose CANDIDE (running now through September 2) for the Summer/Fall Season?

Read his article from the Key to the Door to find out!

At Third Avenue Playhouse we’re becoming known for our eclectic and unpredictable repertoire. I am often asked just how we go about choosing what shows we’re going to produce. The answer for each play would be unique. As a case in point, I herewith offer the unusual genesis of our current production.

Following a performance of THE GIN GAME last summer, actor Drew Brhel and I were enjoying a libation at the Brick Lot next door when suddenly (for reasons lost in the mists of time) I began to conjugate a Latin verb (as one sometimes does): “amo, amas, amat, amamus.” Without missing a beat, Drew began merrily singing those same conjugations… as they are heard in the irresistible song “The Best of All Possible Worlds” from Leonard Bernstein’s CANDIDE.

Drew and I looked at each other for a moment, both simultaneously having the same thought: what a madcap lark it would be to do CANDIDE at Third Avenue Playhouse! Drew was born to play Dr. Pangloss! Kaleigh Rae Gamaché (who had just closed in our MADAME SHERRY) would be the ideal Cunegonde (the ingénue role with spectacular coloratura demands)! The score is great! Our audience would love it!

But hold! CANDIDE is an unwieldy picaresque adventure spanning half the globe and counting literally hundreds of characters in its dramatis personae. TAP does ‘intimate theatre in an intimate setting’. How shall the twain e’er meet? After re-reading the libretto, I wondered if a somewhat more modest kind of production could succeed by embracing and exploiting the already-present ‘Story Theatre’ aspect inherent in CANDIDE.

The personage of Voltaire (historical author of the original novella upon which the operetta is based) serves as a kind of narrator/guide and assumes multiple characters in the musical version. What if we were to have virtually the entire cast (not just Voltaire) don a veritable gaggle of guises to tell this tale? And why attempt to realistically portray the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake or a white-water ride on the Amazon? Why not have our cast ‘suggest’ the proper environments with a minimum of accoutrements and let the audience’s collective imagination do the rest?

The pieces began to fall into place and I started contacting versatile singing actors who could do justice to both the theatrical conceit and the thrilling score. Drew Brhel, of course, was on board from the beginning. The aforementioned Kaleigh Rae Gamaché was eager to do the show… if I agreed to excuse her from our first rehearsal because she was singing Zerbinetta at Carnegie Hall that night. (I agreed.) Virtually everyone I asked responded with an enthusiastic “yes”, reminding me that actors thrill at the opportunity – and the challenge – of bringing CANDIDE to life.

Voltaire’s 1759 novella was at heart a farcical satire of the “best of all possible worlds” optimism of 17th-century philosopher Gottfried Leibniz. The 1956 musical adaptation was the brainchild of playwright and blacklist-victim Lillian Hellman who saw it as an acerbic indictment of the Communist “Witch Hunts” of the 1950’s. Composer Leonard Bernstein managed to capture in music not only the farcical and the acerbic, but also an abundance of genuinely human expression coming from someplace deep within (he often said that CANDIDE contained more of ‘himself’ than any of his other works).

CANDIDE has had a troubled and convoluted production history. The original Broadway production ran for only two months, an unqualified disaster. The recording of that production, however, was an instant best seller and has never gone out of print. A completely revised libretto was devised in 1973 for a very hip ‘environmental’ production that became a huge hit (but which unfortunately gave short shrift indeed to the piece’s raison d’étre: its glorious score). The music was better served in the 1982 New York City Opera production, a sort of expansion of the 1973 text and the first major push of CANDIDE into the opera house, where it has been steadily gravitating ever since. Other incarnations followed: The ‘Scottish Opera’ version, the ‘Final Revised’ (sic) version, and its successor (!) the ‘Royal National Theatre’ version, among many others. With so many recensions, does a “best of all possible Candides” even exist?

And what of genre? Is CANDIDE a Broadway musical? A ‘comic operetta’ (its original subtitle)? An opera? Broadway musicals are famously entertaining – and funny. CANDIDE fits the bill on both counts. Operettas feature lavish singing in frothy, improbable stories. So does CANDIDE. As far as opera goes, the ultimate truth of such works is found not in the libretto, but rather in the music. By this measure, I have approached CANDIDE as an opera: my challenge as director has been (while honoring all in the piece that is Voltairean and farcical) to let Bernstein’s music guide me in finding the proper balance of the absurd and the profound.

In choosing shows for TAP, questions about genre and performing style have never deterred us. We’ve done everything from contemporary drama to 18th-century opera. As long as we can squeeze it into our intimate Studio Theatre space, it’s fair game. TAP’s Mission Statement is “to entertain and educate while provoking thought, laughter, and tears.” Well, our current show is derived from an all-time literary classic that is laugh-out-loud funny and features some of the most heart-stopping music ever written for the stage. Mission Statement covered.

So I guess CANDIDE is the best of all possible shows for us to do. Drew Brhel and I often exchange glances after a performance as if to say “it looks like we’re actually pulling this off!” I’m so glad I conjugated that Latin verb last summer at the Brick Lot. You never know where a conjugation may lead.

James Valcq is the co-Artistic Director of Third Avenue Playhouse and the director of CANDIDE, running now through September 3rd at TAP in historic downtown Sturgeon Bay.