Had a great time at the University of Cincinnati-Conservatory of Music, where I saw a nifty production of Candide. Despite its amazing Leonard Bernstein music, this is not one of my favorite musicals, for I do get weary of its making the same point over and over and over again--that the more faith you have, the more you'll be tested, as catastrophes incessantly come your way.
That said, the students really gave it their all. As Candide, Nicholas Belton had the right quantities of idealism, thoughtfulness, fear and faith. As Maximillian, Josh Dazel gave a reading of the word "dreamy" in "Life is Happiness Indeed" that made it his own and owed nothing to the umpteen recordings of this delicious song. As the Old Lady, Tory Ross beautifully sustained both the accent and the limp. And, as odd as it may sound, Cunegonde wound up reminding me of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. You may that its author, Cameron Crowe, was a young-looking 27 who pretended to be 17 so that he could enroll as a senior at a high school and research his book. Similarly, I can't begin to believe that Ashley Brown could really be a sophomore, not with what she did with "Glitter and Be Gay," getting the most laughs out of it than any Cunegonde I've seen in seven previous productions. Come on, Brown--admit it. You're really in your late 20s or 30s with a wealth of experience. No sophomore could possibly conquer Cunegonde the way you did.
Despite my reservations about Candide as a musical, I did tell the students that it was an apt show for them to do; for Lord knows that they all at one time believed that a career in musical theater was the best of all possible worlds, and they entered it with a blind optimism that equaled Candide's. But now, still in the beginnings of their careers, they'd already experienced setbacks, disappointments, perhaps even disasters. They'd learned that musical theater is a world where they can be on top one day (just as Maximillian and Cunegonde are at the beginning of the piece) and down in the dumps the next. Nevertheless, these kids still plan to make their gardens grow.
Such has been the story of Candide, too--a flop in the '50s, an out-of-town closing in the early '70s, but then a hit and a hot ticket in Hal Prince's legendary 1974 production. Of course, to accomplish that, the show had to be revised quite a bit (and having Stephen Sondheim join the team didn't hurt). But long before anyone ever thought of the word "revisal" or played fast 'n' easy with scripts and scores of musicals of yore, Candide endured the process and came out a better show for it. That led to my telling the students about Barbara Cook's reinventing herself as well. The original Cunegonde, after suffering through a number of flops (and, to be frank, a great weight gain), decided to concentrate on a cabaret and concert career which turned out to give her greater fame and fortune than Broadway ever afforded her. "So," I told the kids, "look for opportunities in the upcoming years where you can reinvent yourselves."
It's one of my favorite things to do with the students: point out what happened to the people who once played the roles they're currently playing and see if they can learn any lessons from them. I mentioned that Robert Rounseville, the original Candide, in 1965 was promised by the powers that be at the brand new Goodspeed Opera House that he'd play the lead in a new musical called Purple Dust if he'd take supporting roles in two other tryouts the playhouse was mounting that summer. One was Man of La Mancha and, while Rounseville's big-break show didn't happen, he did get a number of years of employment as The Padre in the long-running Mitch Leigh-Joe Darion-Dale Wasserman smash. (Moral of the Story: While breakthrough roles may not occur, some good consolation prizes can result.)
I, of course, stressed that those who play bit parts can eventually become rich and famous as well--such as Conrad Bain, who was The Inquisitor in the original Candide. He may very well have wound up the most successful member of that entire original cast, given that he got a smash sitcom salary for eight years and residuals for many more for his role of the father on Different Strokes (not to mention his role on Maude). I also mentioned, that when I met Bain in 1967, he was about to do an Off-Broadway play called Scuba Duba. That one turned out to be a hit and brought even more attention to its leading man, Jerry Orbach, whose understudy was one Judd Hirsch. (Moral of the Story: It's not where you start, it's where you finish.)
Through the years I traveled, talking about Mark Baker, who was so brilliant as the 1974 Candide but then fooled around during a performance of a Berkshire production of Let 'Em Eat Cake, was fired, and was unable to get his career back on track. (Moral: Don't improvise on stage and infuriate your director.) I then mentioned Maureen Brennan, who left this very school in Cincinnati to take the role of Cunegonde in 1974, never returned, and now regrets it. (Moral: Stay in school.) I told the sad story of David Eisler, who was Candide in the 1982 New York City Opera production but not long thereafter was dead from AIDS. (Moral: Please be careful!).
Then I mentioned Brent Barrett, who was Maximillian in the 1997 Broadway revival but whose big break had already come seven years earlier when he assumed the role of The Baron in Grand Hotel after David Carroll had to leave because he had AIDS. (Moral: Pretty please be careful--and be ready when opportunity strikes.) Before I got to him, I did ask the kids "Have you ever heard of Brent Barrett?" and had the pleasure of seeing 36 heads energetically bob up and down to let me know they had, indeed. Still, I wasn't prepared for one kid to raise her hand and say, "I'm a little disappointed you didn't say anything about Irra Petina."
Irra Petina! Who'd think that a twentyish kid would want to know something about this erstwhile star of operas and operettas! Granted, the young woman asking the question was Tory Ross, who in the CCM production played the same character that Petina originated. I also thought it was terrific when Ross mentioned that she'd read Lillian Hellman's original book for Candide and thought it was "great."
No wonder Cincinnati's kids do so well. Right now, you can see Faith Prince in Noises Off, Adam Monley in Mamma Mia!, Kent Zimmerman in Thou Shalt Not, Matt Bogart in Aida (when he goes on as Adam Pascal's standby), Kurt Domoney in Roadside, Jim Walton and Michael Gruber in Red, Hot and Blue at Paper Mill, and Karen Olivo in Kevin McCollum's co-production of Rent. Pretty soon, you'll see Lauren Kennedy in The Next Five Years, Eric Sciotto in Sweet Smell of Success, Aaron Lazar in Dirty Dancing, Sara Gettelfinger in Lone Star Love, Jessica Boevers and Justin Bohan in Oklahoma!, and you'll hear Steve Flaherty's music for A Man of No Importance. Tom Viola, meanwhile, continues to head Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
I concluded my talk to the Candide cast by saying, "I wish every kid in the country were like you." And I do.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]