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A ‘Candide’ that has a lot to say

Voltaire’s words, Bernstein’s music come together

Members of the Huntington Theatre Company rehearse a scene from “Candide,’’ directed by Mary Zimmerman. Members of the Huntington Theatre Company rehearse a scene from “Candide,’’ directed by Mary Zimmerman. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / September 9, 2011

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It was a revelation, but the kind of revelation that might easily have gotten in the way.

Perusing the manuscripts in the Leonard Bernstein Collection at the Library of Congress late last year, Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman suddenly grasped the sheer multitude of possibilities the composer had left behind for adapters of his 1956 musical “Candide.’’

“It was thrilling to find just, like, on a piece of scrap paper the first handwritten lyrics of very famous songs, but also versions of music with entirely different sets of lyrics, different characters singing them,’’ says Zimmerman, whose acclaimed take on the musical - with a book she penned from Voltaire’s 18th-century satire - was by then having its second production, at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre.

“It was already done, thank God,’’ she says, looking briefly alarmed at the idea of what might have been. She thrusts a hand out, palm first, as if to push away the thought. “I honestly am really happy that we did not plunge into that before we did our show, because I think it just would have been overwhelming and too intimidating and just too much to choose from.’’

Bernstein kept coming back to “Candide’’ over the decades, reworking and adding to his score. Zimmerman’s “Candide,’’ which premiered last fall at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and begins previews tomorrow at the Huntington Theatre Company, isn’t quite done, either - mostly, but not entirely.

As Zimmerman speaks, in a tiny room down the hall from the Huntington rehearsal space, she has not yet finished tinkering with it. She’s mainly been cutting the book, jettisoning redundancies and even bits she loves that don’t advance the plot, which follows the wide-eyed young Candide and his beloved Cunegonde through misadventures in a brutal world. Her version, she says, is something of a hybrid form, with plenty of Bernstein’s music but more dialogue than most musicals.

“There are patches in ‘Candide’ where we go eight, nine, 10 minutes between songs, which apparently is not really standard for musicals,’’ says Zimmerman, her own expertise being in straight plays and opera. “It’s more like three. Which I didn’t really know.’’

A breakout star of the Chicago theater scene, Zimmerman won a Tony for best director in 2002 for “Metamorphoses,’’ an episodic play she also wrote, adapting the text from Ovid. In 1998, she won a MacArthur “genius’’ grant, an accolade that does not appear to have gotten in the way of her evident Midwestern modesty.

At the Huntington, where she directed “Journey to the West’’ and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ in the 1990s, her quietly watchful dog, Beary, sticks close to her. She got him at the pound eight years ago, she explains, and his name came with him.

“I think most people think it’s B-A-R-R-Y, which I like,’’ she says, briskly playful, “but he’s not a happy-go-lucky Barry in that way. You think of a guy named Barry, he’s sort of a bowler and, you know, jolly at the barbecue, and Beary isn’t really that way. He’s more timid. Lower self-esteem. But he’s a good boy.’’

Raised largely in Nebraska, Zimmerman was just learning to read when her parents, both professors, moved the family to England while her father did a Rhodes Scholarship at Cambridge. Thus began her enchantment with classic texts, adaptations of which - such as “The Odyssey’’ and “Arabian Nights’’ - have been among her best-known work.

“We had a teacher who read ‘The Odyssey’ to us in the afternoons and ‘The Tales of King Arthur,’ and I think that was just very, very captivating to me. And I think I’ve just been mining that the rest of my life,’’ she says.

Voltaire’s 1759 narrative is “a modern text for me. It’s almost contemporary,’’ she adds, laughing.

“Sometimes those original texts, like this one, the structure’s there, the plot’s there. It’s not infinite,’’ she says. “Something like ‘The Odyssey’ has the most beautiful structure already given to you. So . . . really what you’re figuring out is what to highlight and what to compress and what to bring forth, what you can lose or have to lose in order for it to make an evening of theater.’’

But “Candide,’’ she says, is unique among the works she’s adapted - partly because it’s a musical, and partly because it has gone through so many iterations.

“You cannot perform the original version,’’ says Doug Peck, Zimmerman’s music director, explaining that Lillian Hellman, who wrote the book in 1956, withdrew permission for anyone to use her much-lambasted text. Hugh Wheeler wrote the book for the two Broadway revivals, in 1974 and 1997, both directed by Harold Prince.

Hellman “had a huge falling-out with Bernstein when he did the Hal Prince version,’’ Zimmerman says. “I actually read some of those letters in the Library of Congress when we were in D.C., and they’re really heartbreaking.’’

“I feel bad for her, actually,’’ she adds. “She’s very, very unhappy in those letters. And he writes little comments in the margins of her letters to him that are really not very nice.’’

Stephen Sondheim, in his book “Finishing the Hat,’’ called Bernstein’s score and Richard Wilbur’s lyrics “the most scintillating set of songs yet written for the musical theater’’ - but Sondheim, too, has penned lyrics for the piece, which were used in the most recent Broadway revival. While Wilbur is the musical’s principal lyricist, John La Touche, Dorothy Parker, and Bernstein himself also contributed.

“I’m neither knowledgeable enough nor brave enough to name a single other musical that I would feel comfortable rewriting the book of,’’ Zimmerman says. “But ‘Candide’ - it’s this very fluid thing, and lots of people have thrown their hat in the ring. So it feels open. And the Bernsteins gave me permission. None of these versions precludes doing another version. They don’t replace each other. They all just sort of exist in the world. That’s why there’s this accumulating line of credits.’’

And then there’s Bernstein’s score, several hours long in total.

“There’s this set of songs, except it’s not actually a set - it’s multiple sets, overlapping sets of music, multiple, multiple versions that have traveled through, gosh, going on 60 years, 50 years of different reworkings,’’ Zimmerman says. “And there are songs that are mutually exclusive because of the way different versions are structured.’’

“If you’re doing ‘Hello, Dolly!,’ it’s very clear what the score is,’’ says Peck, one of whose primary tasks was to educate Zimmerman about the different versions of the show. “Bernstein never stopped working.’’

Zimmerman, like any other “Candide’’ adapter, has had to pick and choose from the available music. She’s done likewise with the Voltaire text, rewriting the dialogue and fitting it to the songs. In her rendition, she says, Bernstein’s voice and Voltaire’s voice have equal weight.

“The whole trick of ‘Candide,’ ’’ she says, “not just for me but for anyone who’s put their mind to it, is how to merge that very strong Voltaire voice and the voice of the music. And what’s the best way to try and have those things hold hands most intimately?’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes

CANDIDE Presented by Huntington Theatre Company

At: Boston University Theatre, Boston, Saturday through Oct. 16. 617-266-0800,