Based on the Voltaire novella that lampooned 18th-century optimism, Leonard Bernstein’s Candide was written for Broadway in 1956 and ran a mere 76 performances. However, the magnificent original cast album and the emergence of the show’s overture as a perennial symphonic staple have kept the work musically popular, as have such songs as the torturous coloratura romp “Glitter and Be Gay,” the infectiously clever “The Best of All Possible Worlds,” and the spine-tingling and poignant “Make Our Garden Grow.”

Harold Prince oversaw revisions of the work in the early 1970s that replaced the original book, both a one-act Broadway version and a two-act “opera house” version that was further revised in 1982, which the Lyric Opera of Chicago presented with Prince as director in 1994. Prince thought the original Candide was too stuffy, so he sought to make it a bawdy comedy rather than the cerebral satire it originally was. (At the Ravinia Festival, The Knights will perform a full staging of Candide, directed by Alison Moritz and starring Met Auditions-winning tenor Miles Mykkanen in the title role, on Aug. 28.)

Bernstein himself had allowed but had nothing to do with these revisions, where half of his music ended up on the cutting-room floor and the rest was reordered. “In trying to eliminate what was admittedly a confusing book,” Bernstein told this writer in 1985, “the adapters also began tinkering with lyrics and where particular songs should be heard in the show, eliminating the over-all musical architecture of the work, at least as I imagined it, and also tipping the work in too comedic of a direction.” The composer set out to correct this with his own “final revised version” of Candide, which he completed in 1988 and recorded in 1989.

Given that Bernstein had already determined to use opera singers for that recording of Candide, which he had also done with West Side Story in 1984, that conversation turned to whether he considered Candide to be an opera/operetta rather than a musical. “Ha! Neither one!” he exclaimed. “It’s the one operetta I’ve written. That is to say, it is much closer in style to Die Fledermaus than it is to Guys and Dolls.” Bernstein gave similar consideration to West Side Story, which some would consider to be the great American opera rather than its greatest musical. (The Oscar-winning 1961 film version will be shown on July 12 with the CSO performing its score live, conducted by David Newman.)

“I have never written an opera,” Bernstein insisted. “I’ve always wanted to, but I’ve never done it. Somehow, everything I’ve done [of a vocal nature] has ended up leaning more toward musical theater, even though there are always strong operatic elements. Not that I haven’t tried. West Side Story came close. But ultimately, the most dramatic moment of the show — where Maria points the gun at all of the surviving Jets and Sharks who have shattered her love and her world — was left to be spoken. I tried and tried to make that speech an aria, but it just would not come off.”

Was there an opera in Leonard Bernstein? “Yes, but Bernstein the composer is held captive by Bernstein the conductor,” he said in 1985. “You have to set time aside to compose, and you can’t count on the fact that if you do set time aside, you’ll come up with something. Conducting is much more practical, especially for an old man. Plus, I love the instant joy that making music gives both me and an audience. Being a composer is the opposite of all that. It is a lonely existence. But before I pass from this earth … I would love to write an opera on the Holocaust. That is something that I must do, something that I feel ordained to do.”

Though Bernstein would pass on Oct. 14, 1990, not having met that calling, he nonetheless left a heavenly host of music theater.

Note: This is an excerpt from an article published in the Ravinia magazine. To read the full version, click here.

Award-winning journalist, critic, author, broadcaster and educator Dennis Polkow has been covering Chicago-based cultural institutions across local, national, and international media for more than 35 years.