Mercoledi Musicale

Yesterday I mentioned that the late Richard Wilbur wrote the lyrics for at least two of the musical numbers in Leonard Bernstein‘s operetta Candide. Further investigation revealed that the smorgasbord of lyricists who worked on this enigmatic work he was the entrée with John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman (who also wrote the libretto) and Bernstein himself providing side dishes, and the odd garnish.  At one point James Agate contributed material which went unused.   In subsequent metamorphoses additional lyrics have been provided by Stephen Sondheim, John Mauceri, and John Wells.

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The Playbill from then 1978 production I saw at the Broadway Theatre.  A very free-flow production as I recall.

After it’s initial Broadway failure in 1956 – a failure attributed in large part to Hellman’s libretto – the piece underwent a rewrite for off-Broadway by Hugh Wheeler in the 1970s.  This was later expanded for use by opera companies – including a production at Stratford in 1978.   A further adaptation was made under Bernstein’s supervision for what he considered the “final version” in 1989.  However Wheeler’s book was to be rewritten once again by John Caird for the National Theatre in 1999.  And so it continues – more than 60 years after it’s premiere is seems that Candide is still a work in progress.

Notably little of what Wilbur contributed has been altered in any of these versions including the two numbers I mentioned yesterday.

Any coloratura soprano worth her high E-flat (there are three of them) from Edita Guberova to Madeline Kahn (yes my dear our beloved Madeline was a trained opera singer) has sung – and in some cases recorded – “Glitter and Be Gay”.  However wonderful they may have been nothing can beat the lady for whom it was written.  Here’s the late Barbara Cook as Cunegonde bemoaning her very well-kept state!

Voltaire’s novelette ends with Candide rejecting his tutor Pangloss’s insistence that all the trials and tribulations have turned out for the best by necessity. Instead he simply insists that “we must cultivate our garden” (il faut cultiver notre jardin). From this phrase Wilbur and Bernstein build an inspiring and inspirted choral finale that just avoids being maudlin – strangely the only performance I have ever heard where the scales are tipped in that direction is conducted by Bernstein at his most sanctimonious. There are several performances out there but I think this one from the BBC Proms manages to capture all the words and avoid any hint of sentimentality.

We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We’ll do the best we know.
We’ll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow…
And make our garden grow.

Richard Wilbur (1921-2017)

On this day in 1648: Boston Shoemakers form the first North American labor organization.

Mercoledi Musicale

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Barbara Cook and Stephen Douglas in the 1966 revival of Showboat.  The only time I saw her on stage.

It seems that almost weekly I’m reading of the passing of  a performer who helped define my youth and taste in theatre, music, and the arts.  Yesterday it was the remarkable Barbara Cook – one of the greats of musical comedies in the 1950-60s.  After a troubled period fighting depression, obesity, and alcoholism, during which her career waned, she return to the spotlight in a landmark concert at Carnegie Hall 1975 with Wally Harper.  It was the beginning of a partnership that was to last until his death in 2004.  And it also relaunched her as a premier cabaret and concert singer.  She was to continue to perform until into her 80s and made her last Broadway appearance singing the songs of Stephen Sondheim in 2010.

Here she is in one of her most famous role – Marion the Librarian in one of the most delightful musicals in the canon, Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man.

I was fortunate to see her on stage back in 1966 when the Lincoln Center brought it’s magnificent revival of Showboat to the stage of the O’Keefe Centre.  It was one of the largest shows to tour with a full size showboat sailing on to the levee with a dream cast of the time:  Constance Towers, Stephen Douglas, William Warfield, David Wayne, Margaret Hamilton, Rosetta LaNoire, and Barbara Cook.  It was probably one of her last “ingenue” roles, her subsequent appearance in book shows were in more mature roles.

But in her concert career she both twitted and celebrated her years as Broadway’s leading ingenue.  And no where was it more celebrated than in her version of “Ice Cream” from She Loves Me. Here she almost 40 years after she created the role of Amelia and she hits that last high B with the same panache and accuracy as she did back in 1963.

Tonight the lights on Broadway will dim in tribute to her and perhaps, if you believe in that sort of thing, the stars in heaven will gleam a little brighter.

On this day in 1173:  construction of the campanile of the Cathedral of Pisa (now known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa) begins; it will take two centuries to complete.