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We Must All Cultivate Our Musicals, In This the Best of All Philosophical Operettas

Ed Rampell: The conservative thesp’s selection to portray Voltaire and Pangloss is also inspired, in that Grammer’s most popular character, Dr. Frasier Crane, was a psychotherapist in the beloved Cheers sitcom, who went on to dispense psychological advice as a radio shrink on the air in TV’s Frasier spin-off series.
Kelsey Grammer

Kelsey Grammer

CANDIDE Opera Review

In the history of Western storytelling, along with Homer’s The Odyssey, Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Voltaire’s 1759 Candide ranks as one of the greatest saga’s ever told about protagonists embarking upon great travels. This is what mythologist Joseph Campbell called The Hero’s Journey, and the 18th century title character Candide’s (Minnesota tenor Jack Swanson) epic gallivanting takes him from Westphalia, in what is now Germany, around much of Europe to the New World, where he experiences Uruguay and the legendary golden realm of El Dorado, and beyond.

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire very explicitly imbued his novella with philosophical inquiry and insight. During his global peregrinations, Candide is joined from time to time by an entourage consisting of his would-be sweetheart Cunegonde (Utah coloratura soprano Erin Morley), her snobbish, elitist brother Maximilian (played by Donald Trump, Jr. - only kidding, rather by another New Yorker, Theo Hoffman), the sensuous servant Paquette (L.A.’s own Peabody Southwell), the Old Lady (Broadway veteran Christine Ebersole of Illinois) and Cacambo (Ohioan Joshua Wheeker), who is first encountered at Montevideo.

Jack Swanson, Christine Ebersole, and Erin Morley

Jack Swanson, Christine Ebersole, and Erin Morley

Doctor or Professor Pangloss, who tutored Candide, et al, in “metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-nigology” at the Baron’s castle in Thunder-ten-tronckh, is an intriguing, droll character through which Voltaire spoofs some of his fellow Age of Reason philosophers. Pangloss is mocked for his perpetually excessive optimism in what he calls “in this the best of all possible worlds.”

Born out-of-wedlock to the Baron’s sister, during his globetrotting Candide - so named because “His judgment was quite honest and he was extremely simple-minded” - seeks to find out the meaning of life. Is it to attain status, wealth, glory, sexual gratification, love or what? As such, this musical adaptation, which first appeared on Broadway in 1956, is one of the most philosophical operas and operettas ever staged. It is also extremely entertaining, with a bubbly “Overture” conducted by James Conlon so enrapturing and ebullient that it’s one of those rare pieces of music which makes one glad to be alive - if only to be able to hear such joyous sounds.

Casting Kelsey Grammer as the French philosophe Voltaire (1894-1778) and Professor Pangloss is a sly, canny choice. As one of left-leaning La La Land’s most outspoken Republicans, who endorsed wackadoodle Congresswoman Michele Bachmann for president in 2012 and also backed GOP contenders George W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Rudie-Doody Giuliani, Ben Carson and Trump, Grammer certainly has one of the finest minds of the 18th century. The conservative thesp’s selection to portray Voltaire and Pangloss is also inspired, in that Grammer’s most popular character, Dr. Frasier Crane, was a psychotherapist in the beloved Cheers sitcom, who went on to dispense psychological advice as a radio shrink on the air in TV’s Frasier spin-off series. To be fair, the multiple Emmy Award-winning actor who warbled Frasier’s closing theme song "Tossed Salads and Scrambled Eggs" acquits himself well as the preposterously pretentious optimist Pangloss. (Speaking of television theme songs, a snippet from Candide’s frothy “Overture” was played during Dick Cavett’s talk shows.)

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Interestingly, Candide had deep 20th century political implications. In 1951, playwright Lillian Hellman’s lover novelist Dashiell Hammet (The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man) refused to name the names of members of the Civil Rights Congress’ bail fund, and as the CRC’s president he was found guilty of contempt of court. Hammett, who’d volunteered for the Army at age 48 to serve during WWII, served time in a West Virginia federal prison where, according to Hellman, he was forced to scrub toilets. The creator of Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles testified before Senator Joe McCarthy’s “reds-under-the-beds” Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations on March 26, 1953.

Hellman herself was summoned to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and her letter to the witch-hunters was read during her hearing on May 21, 1952 by the Committee’s Chairman. (On Oct. 27, 2017, liberal pundit and TV/radio commentator Ellen Ratner, sister of the late Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, read Hellman’s letter during a reenactment commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Hollywood Blacklist at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, later broadcast on C-SPAN). Hellman’s defiant text contained one of the HUAC hearings’ immortal lines: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions…”

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As Voltaire’s novella contained scenes about the Inquisition in Lisbon (the Grand Inquisitor is played here by Brian Michael Moore), Hellman saw parallels between the auto-da-fé and the HUAC/McCarthy era, and proposed adapting Candide into a play, with Leonard Bernstein composing some incidental music. But according to LA Opera’s program notes, Bernstein became so enamored with the idea that “he persuaded her that it should be a ‘comic operetta.’”

In the late 1930s Bernstein staged a student production at Harvard of Marc Blitzstein’s radical musical The Cradle Will Rock, the pro-labor Federal Theatre Project play that had literally been suppressed on Broadway at bayonet point. Lenny’s first opera, 1952’s Trouble in Tahiti, was a critique of bourgeois American life. Red Channels, that compendium of anti-communist opprobrium, named Lenny. Similarly, in 1970, after Bernstein held a party for the Black Panther Party at his Park Avenue penthouse in Manhattan, Tom Wolfe mocked Leonard for being “radical chic” and “mau mauing.”

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Nevertheless, Bernstein also composed his only original movie score not adapted from another medium for 1954’s On the Waterfront. The music, which earned an Oscar nomination, is undeniably powerful - but directed and written by Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg, who both gave names to HUAC, Waterfront is a defense of informing. The protagonist, however brilliantly portrayed he may be by Marlon Brando, is an informer. Kazan was considered to be the Hollywood Blacklist’s “quintessential informer,” who even took out a full page rationalization of his naming names in The New York Times. Thus a character usually depicted as a “snitch” or “rat” becomes the hero in this symbolic justification of collaborating with the HUAC and McCarthy purges. So Lenny’s cooperation with Kazan and Schulberg’s homage to finking is, to say the least, eyebrow raising.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth and oddly enough, about 10 days ago I encountered an anecdote about the Massachusetts-born composer and conductor in, of all places, the Swiss Alps. Ski acrobat and instructor Art Furrer - who’d parlayed his fame and fortune into becoming a hotelier and restaurateur - told me a story about Lenny at his four star Hotel Royal in Riederalp, a picturesque village 6,315 feet high in the Swiss Alps near Aletsch Glacier. Wearing his trademark cowboy hat (presumably acquired while teaching skiing at America), I recognized the rootin’-tootin’ Furrer and asked the still spry 80-year-old about the celebrity clients he’d taught how to ski. According to Furrer, in addition to the Kennedys, they included Bernstein, who loved to hobnob with ordinary people at bars - and drink bourbon. (See: https://www.artfurrer.ch/en/.)

Although Bernstein and Hellman’s operetta is written and performed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in English, supertitles are projected during the numerous arias, etc., but not during the show’s spoken dialogue. This version of Candide, which opens LA Opera’s 2018 roster, is well-acted, sung and adroitly directed by the Kennedy Center’s Francesca Zambello, especially in the mass scenes’ complex mise-en-scène. Eric Sean Fogel’s choreography and costumes by Jennifer Moeller do the trick, as does the chorus directed by the redoubtable Grant Gershon. James Noone’s scenery - or lack of - is a completely missed opportunity. Wouldn’t you love to see the mythic El Dorado visualized? I assume that the mostly bare stages are due to budgetary concerns, but only Pangloss knows.

But this is a mere quibble, in this the best of all philosophical operettas, which includes, for example, plenty of ruminations on class divisions. Like Dorothy, Candide did not know both of his biological parents, which may explain their searching far and wide and why they reach similar conclusions: “There’s no place like home.” Perhaps expressing Voltaire’s credo, Candide’s final scene answers the Big Question: What’s it all about? What is the meaning of life? In any case, we must all cultivate our operas.

[dc]C[/dc]andide will be performed Feb. 8 and 15 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 11, 17 and 18 at 2:00 p.m. at L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012. See: https://www.laopera.org/season/1718-Season/candide/.

Ed Rampell

The third edition of“The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”co-authored by L.A.-based film historian/reviewer Rampell drops in March 2018.