Leonard Bernstein’s Candide is a coming-of-age story. The musical, and the Voltaire novel on which it is based, chronicles a loss of innocence and examines the philosophy of optimism and its breakdown. As a director, it’s always important for me to ask why we are telling this particular story right now, in 2019. What can Candide, as it traverses time periods and continents, teach us about growing up?
I wanted to find an overall conceit or structure through which to examine this rite of passage from ignorance to knowledge, from optimism to pessimism. I was born in 1977 and came of age during the 1980s and ’90s. Yannick and I both thought it would be fun (and instructive) to set Candide in the early 1990s, using our own teenage years as inspiration. Our story unfolds in a high school inspired by films and TV shows such as The Breakfast Club, Dazed and Confused, Wayne’s World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Our characters, played by an exciting young cast of actors, become the archetypes of early-1990s high school life. Cunegonde becomes the ambitious head cheerleader, Paquette the introverted goth, Maximilian the flamboyant drama club president. Candide himself is the naïve innocent who does not yet know who he is or what he believes. As the students learn about the Voltaire story, they become immersed in it.
The Breakfast Club
Specifically we arrived at the year 1992. There was a certain sense of “optimism” to the early 1990s in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union’s failed Communist experiment. When we meet our characters, the widespread disillusionment of the time—especially as depicted in the newly ubiquitous 24/7 news media—had yet to unfold. The Columbine shooting, the OJ Simpson trial, the Waco standoff, and the Oklahoma City bombing, not to mention the internet itself, had yet to capture our national attention, to say nothing of events playing out on the international stage. It was also, of course, the year of the Clinton/Perot/Bush election, and the Rodney King beating and subsequent verdict that led to the LA riots. The more I examined 1992, the more I realized it was the perfect year to tell the story of a journey from optimism to disillusionment.
The fall of the Berlin Wall
Hopefully this conceit will reveal the depths of Candide while providing us with many opportunities for humor. Laughs come from character and situation, not jokes, and a 1992 high school setting allows us to use universally familiar relics from our childhood to examine the origin story of the 1990s and Generation X. Overhead projectors, Sony CD Walkmans, and election posters and pamphlets populate the stage. Lockers are filled with posters of Madonna, Kris Kross, Nirvana, and New Kids on the Block. The Paris Waltz scene becomes a Paris-themed senior prom, the STD lecture becomes a sex education class, and the Spanish Inquisition becomes a humiliating game of dodge ball. The "adults" in our story become the disciplinarian principal, the wisecracking lunch lady, the eager helicopter father, and the head football coach who is still hanging on to his high school glory days.
Yannick and I, along with our wonderful cast and design team, are excited to trace how these characters all change from naive teenagers to expectant graduates. As the cast sings “Make Our Garden Grow,” they all throw their graduation caps in the air, forever changed by their high school adventures. Hopefully our approach will reveal new depths and highlight the humor of the piece, holding a mirror up for all of us to remember our own teenage years—when we ourselves sought to hold on to our optimism as we prepared to make the transition into the treacherous "real world."
In preparation for rehearsals I have been diving back into my own childhood. The CNN 1990s documentary series on Netflix has been particularly helpful. The movie Brick has also been inspiring as an example of a “genre” (in this case film noir) applied to a high school setting. It’s important to me that we take Candide at face value and play it seriously rather than comment on it. We begin rehearsals this week and are finalizing all elements of our design as I write this. Since our cast (including narrators Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan) all grew up in the 1990s, I suspect the rehearsal process will bring us all back to high school, inspiring a new take on Bernstein’s Candide that feels true to us.