BWW Preview: Choreographer Pat Birch is Candid on New CANDIDE at City Opera, Opening January 6 at the Rose Theatre
Leonard Bernstein's CANDIDE has had more lives than that proverbial cat--the latest being New York City Opera's new take on it, opening on January 6 for a ten-performance run at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Theatre. It is, once again, helmed by director Hal Prince and choreographer Pat Birch, who were responsible--with librettist Hugh Wheeler and conductor John Mauceri--for the resuscitation and renovation of the once-considered unproducible work, more than 40 years ago.
Indeed, if "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds"--Voltaire's satiric quip in his novella CANDIDE taken from a more serious quote by a German philosopher--then the original production of the musical/operetta might have sunk politely, but firmly, on the horizon. Closing after a run of 73 performances on February 1, 1957, it might never have been heard from again (except maybe as a City Center Encores! production of 6 performances or so).
Fast forward 15 years or so to the Chelsea Theatre Company in Brooklyn: Prince was ready to rescue Bernstein's great score from Broadway hell. He brought in Wheeler to replace Lillian Hellman's deadly earnest book with something closer to Voltaire's satire, John Mauceri to cut the score down to fit the new concept and Stephen Sondheim to add some new lyrics. Prince also said "You're the one that I want" to choreographer Birch. The new CANDIDE changed the characters from "madcap adults to wide-eyed teenagers" (according to producer/director Craig Zadan in "Sondheim & Company")--and who else better to make the foibles of the teenage years dance than Birch?
She had the bona fides for the project through a trifecta of shows--YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN, THE ME NOBODY KNOWS and, most famously, GREASE--as well as from years on The Electric Company on PBS. (She later worked for eight years with those perennial teenagers of Saturday Night Live.) Of course, don't put this baby in a corner: She also did Prince's elegant original production of Sondheim's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC and came up through Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and the School of American Ballet.
Birch even had a Bernstein credit as a performer, having been WEST SIDE STORY's tomboy, Anybodys, on the road and as a Broadway replacement in the original production, which Prince co-produced. (She told me that during a run-through of WEST SIDE STORY, when the sextet came and she ran in to sing, Bernstein famously told her, "My God you dance well--but pretend you're singing and don't.")
"Our first take on CANDIDE"--created in some loft space at BAM in downtown Brooklyn--"was almost like a bunk show in summer camp," Birch told me during a break in rehearsals for the new production. "While it was always about the characters and understanding what it was about, it was also about the fun of doing it. And it worked. And then we moved it to Broadway, made it bigger"--installed in one of Broadway's largest theatres, which was torn apart to fit the production's needs--"and it still worked. On Broadway, and in all those productions afterwards, we tried to keep some of that original feeling. I'm still a teenager at heart--I don't think we ever graduate from high school--and, for me, there's something about these young characters, with life both wonderful and agonizing."
How does one describe Birch's choreography? Think of her as "the Queen of Simple"--how to make a show like CANDIDE move, even though there's not a lot of dancing in it. "We can't throw a little ballet in it and have it work. This is not that kind of piece," she says. "I have to look for the story-telling to work with--and, again, it's always about the relationships and character. The big dance number, really, is 'Easily Assimilated,'" a show-stopper in the hands of that show-stopper, Linda Lavin, as the Old Lady with One Buttock (a character if ever there was one), but not exactly chorus line material...which is just fine with Birch.
"Let's put it this way, I'm not a good girl with beach balls and tap shoes," she says, though her great dance numbers in the film of GREASE might belie the fact. "I don't have my bag of moves--I wasn't trained with 'steps,' though there are some I make up and use--but I don't have a 'Fosse.' People always say to me, 'I can always tell that you did a show, but I can't tell you why.' That's okay with me. I'm known for intention and fun--and knowing 'how to do it'."
Part of knowing 'how to do it' on a Prince production--and they've worked together many times after CANDIDE, on such notable shows as the original PACIFIC OVERTURES and PARADE, among others--is their close relationship. "From the time we started working together, we spoke the same language; now, we barely have to talk. Hal has a firm vision of what he wants and then he lets you do it. That's the way we collaborate.
"Even after all this time working with this material --and that first CANDIDE opened in 1973, the first City Opera production in 1982-- I'm always having new ideas about how to change something, to make things better, more interesting, and, of course, I run it past him. He's very collaborative, taking a look at what's on my mind and maybe making a suggestion."
When that first version of the show moved to Broadway in 1973--an environmental production without a proscenium--the critics loved it but it was ruled ineligible for the Tony Award as Best Musical because it was deemed a revival. That CANDIDE was many things--call it a reconstruction or a rehabilitation--but it wasn't a revival, performed without an intermission, with quite a bit of Bernstein's score jettisoned. (Prince and Wheeler, among others, got their Tonys, though.)
Even this new City Opera production isn't exactly a revival, even if Prince and Birch are involved again. It's a slightly pared down version, with some minor cuts and changes in mood, though it's the official "opera house" CANDIDE. That's the one Wheeler wrote for the old City Opera back in 1982, with Mauceri, who had been the original conductor from Brooklyn through the move to Broadway, reinstituting much of the music that had been cut. It has been done from here to La Scala in Milan--and even in concert by the NY Philharmonic, where the head of the Spanish Inquisition was based on Donald Trump.
"It's exciting to go back to something like this because I get new ideas. Your point of view changes and I've gotten better at what I do," she says without a trace of irony. "In some ways I see the point better." For instance, the score's big showpiece, "Glitter and Be Gay," is "a little edgier, a little darker," thanks to her work with soprano Meghan Picerno, who is "amazing," according to Birch. "Make Our Garden Grow" is different too, "because we live in odd times--our garden is not as easily grown and we have more weeds. We don't have sunflowers popping up anymore--we're not playing that game.
"This piece is about story telling--not showy air turns. They're not needed here," Birch avers. And she should know--since she's been around it long enough to know what's for the best in this best of all possible CANDIDEs.
CANDIDE, a comic operetta in two acts by Leonard Bernstein, book by Hugh Wheeler (after Voltaire), lyrics by Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche and Leonard Bernstein.
Directed by Harold Prince with choreography by Patricia Birch. Conducted by Charles Prince.
The cast mixes the worlds of Broadway and opera: Gregg Edelman as Voltaire and Dr. Pangloss, Jay Armstrong Johnson as Candide, Meghan Picerno as Cunegonde, Keith Phares as Maximilian, Jessica Tyler Wright as Paquette, with Chip Zien and Brooks Ashmanskas in multiple roles and Linda Lavin as the Old Lady.
Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater, Broadway at 60th Street, New York, NY.
Performance schedule: January 6@7:30pm, 7@2 and 8pm, 8@4pm, 11@7:30pm, 12@7:30pm, 13@7:30pm, 14@2pm, January 15@4pm. For ticket information.
 Of course, "You're the One that I Want" didn't come from the original stage version of GREASE but from the 1978 film, also choreographed by Birch.