At the New York State Theater tonight for a performance Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. This production returned to the New York City Opera repertoire for fourteen performances in April after a three-year hiatus.
Candide’s journey from page to stage was famously bumpy. Bernstein himself never seemed completely satisfied with the work, which he envisioned as an American version of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. (It’s billed at the NYC Opera as “The Great American Opera.”) He and playwright Lillian Hellman began collaborating on the musical adaptation of Voltaire’s satirical novel in 1954, united in their indignation over the anti-Communist McCarthy hearings. The heavily revised work, which also featured contributions from poet Richard Wilbur and Hellman’s friend Dorothy Parker — opened on Broadway in 1956, and closed after an abysmal 73 performances.
When Hellman refused to work on a rewrite, additional collaborators were brought in; over the next twenty years, six writers contributed lyrics, characters were modified and redrafted, and segments of the operetta edited in and out. Distinguished director-producer Harold “Hal” Prince (West Side Story, Cabaret) revived the operetta in one form for Broadway in 1974, where it enjoyed a 740 performance run, and won that year’s Tony for Hugh Wheeler’s new book.
Yet another Prince production — known as “the opera house version” – debuted at the State Theater in 1982 with lyrics by Wilbur, and additional lyrics by Bernstein, John Latouche and Stephen Sondheim. It restored numerous sections of music that had been previously discarded, in response to requests from opera companies for a more legitimate version of Bernstein’s vision.
Audiences are often conflicted over their response to Candide, unsure of whether to approach it as a musical or as an opera. Although the score is almost universally admired — the original 1956 Broadway cast recording has something of a cult following — as a dramatic work, it loses momentum in the filler-heavy second half before settling into its final, improbably happy ending – banishments, betrayals, beatings, murders, rapes, shipwreck, plague and earthquake all forgotten. (Did I mention that it’s a comedy?)
Stage and screen star Richard Kind led the cast in the dual roles of Dr. Pangloss/Voltaire. Daniel Reichard, who created the role of Bob Gaudio in Jersey Boys on Broadway, was set to star as the ever-optimistic protagonist, but shortly before curtain it was announced that he was battling a stomach flu and would be unable to perform that night. His understudy Shonn Wiley stepped into the lead, performing with confident ease, offering not a hint that this was his debut of the role. For his efforts, Wiley received cheers and a standing ovation – the most enthusiastic reception of the night.
And let us try,
Before we die,
To make some sense of life.
We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We’ll do the best we know.
— Candide, “Make Our Garden Grow”
Visits to the American Museum of Natural History always bring back memories of my elementary school field trips, and the anticipation I’d feel — still feel — upon entering the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda with its towering Barosaurus, the world’s tallest freestanding mount of a dinosaur.
Herd of African elephants inside the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, and the start of our walk through the museum’s 28 meticulously detailed dioramas:
The refurbished Milstein Hall of Ocean Life:
Below, the 94-foot blue whale, under which I remember gathering with my young classmates for lunches of whale-shaped nuggets and french fries. Chicken, not fish, nuggets — though I suppose the latter wouldn’t necessarily make more sense… since as any fifth grader can tell you: whales are mammals.
These days, the area beneath the iconic life-size fiberglass model is fitted with benches for screening films. And on some nights, lucky 8-12 years olds set up sleeping bags on the floor here, as part of the AMNH’s sleepover program, which was reinstated last year after a two-decade hiatus in response to the renewed interest generated by the otherwise unredeemable 2006 film, A Night at the Museum.
The adjacent Hall of Biodiversity, which opened in 1998, features my favorite diorama in the museum: the walk-through Dzanga-Sangha Rainforest. We spent a few minutes there, but with time running short — we even had to skip the popular Saurischian dinosaur hall — there was time for just a peek inside the Planetarium.
Every longtime couple seems to have a sweet story of how they met, though most of the time the reality, like life, is slightly imperfect. At AP and SH’s home later that night for a cocktail fundraiser to benefit the Sunnyside CSA — yes, Sunnyside again! — I was reminded once more of the importance of having people in our lives who have known us through the years. In addition to providing considerable comforts and joys, they serve as a collective memory bank… and keep us honest in front of others and with ourselves.
Happy Earth Day!
Since January, the New-York Historical Society has been hosting “Let Them Eat Cake Fridays” with free admission on Friday evenings from 6-8PM. On select Fridays there have been musical performances with chocolates and French pastries available for purchase from Upper West Side purveyors like Godiva Chocolatier, Grandaisy and Magnolia bakeries.
The events are organized around the Society’s French Founding Father exhibit: “Lafayette’s Return to Washington’s America” on view through August 10, 2008 to mark the 250th birthday of Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier (better known as the Marquis de Lafayette). The exhibit focuses on Lafayette’s 13-month journey through all 24 states that then formed the United States, which began in 1824 at Castle Clinton in The Battery. (Similar commemorations were scheduled in France.)
Tonight’s cakes and hot chocolate were from Soutine on West 70th Street, one of my favorite bakeries in the neighborhood. (And while we’re on the subject, Levain Bakery on West 74th Street makes a mean cookie.) In addition to the sweets was a program in the Auditorium featuring internationally acclaimed soprano Juliana Janes-Yaffé, who performed songs by French and American (New York) composers. Yaffé, who is on the faculty of Mannes College at The New School for Music, sang a program of Charles Ives, Elliott Carter, Gabriel Fauré, Francis Poulenc, Lee Hoiby and Richard Hundley (who was in attendance this evening). Tony Bellomy, pianist for Brooklyn’s Encompass New Opera Theatre, accompanied the singer and performed a solo of Claude Debussy’s lovely “Rêverie.”
Upstairs, the New-York Historical Society reading room:
After the musical program, there was little time to explore the other exhibits, though I did catch one final glimpse of “Here Is New York: Remembering 9/11,” which closed on April 13. The exhibit drew from “here is new york,” a tribute to the victims of 9/11 by professional and amateur photographers, which became an international exhibition and inspired a BBC documentary. The New-York Historical Society’s exhibit consisted of 1500 inkjet-printed photos — I recognized my home and office blocks in several — mounted simply with binder clips on wires strung throughout two stark white galleries. The photos, without credits, titles or dates, were culled from 790 contributors and formed an overwhelming mosaic of the shock, horror and daze of that dark time.
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