The original production of Candide is the stuff of legend: mixed reviews and a 73 performance failure. A comic operetta adaptation of Voltaire’s satire, the critics praised Leonard Bernstein’s lively score, but found Lillian Hellman’s libretto far too serious. (Hellman has banned any production using her original text). However, the score (with brilliant lyrics from Richard Wilbur as well as Dorothy Parker, John LaTouche, Hellman and Bernstein himself) has lived on thanks to its original cast album, recorded by Goddard Lieberson for Columbia.
The operetta has had an incredible afterlife, with two Broadway revivals and countless mountings by opera companies world wide. (Most recently, Mary Zimmerman’s new production has played Chicago and Washington, D.C. and from what I’ve heard it could also come to New York). The score’s two most famous pieces are its acclaimed overture, orchestrated by Bernstein himself and the aria “Glitter and Be Gay” for leading lady Cunegonde. The role of Cunegonde is without a doubt one of, if not, the most challenging soprano roles in musical theatre, requiring an agile coloratura who can sing ridiculously florid passages, hit 21 high Cs (to say nothing of the Dbs and Ebs) and also be funny. Eight times a week. “Glitter and Be Gay” is her showcase, which has been a showstopper since first introduced in the original production by Barbara Cook.
(Other renditions I’ve heard: Mary Costa, Madeline Kahn, Renee Fleming, Maureen Brennan, Erie Mills, June Anderson, Kristin Chenoweth, Harolyn Blackwell, Maureen McGovern, Dawn Upshaw, Christiane Noll, Roberta Peters, Diana Damrau, Sumi Jo and Natalie Dessay. I find the aria that fascinating and like to hear each rendition. Natalie Dessay’s impressed me most, technically, with interpolated F6. I find Kahn’s riotous rendition is the funniest. But I think Cook’s original is my favorite).
Seth Rudetsky, for Masterworks Broadway, analyzes Cook’s original rendition. Cook was not an opera singer but Bernstein allegedly wrote “Glitter and Be Gay” after she sang an aria from Madame Butterfly for her audition. On opening night, Bernstein came into her dressing room at the Martin Beck and offered his congratulations. Then he added, “Oh, and Maria Callas is out front.” Cook responded with sarcastic thanks, to which Bernstein countered, “Relax. She’d kill for your Eb’s.”