The Columbia Musical Theatre Society reverses Shakespeare’s old adage that “all the world’s a stage” in its new production of “Candide.” Working within the space constraints of the Austin E. Quigley Black Box, the stage will represent locations from all over the world, including Germany and Colombia, in its first performance Thursday.
“‘Candide’ is a sort of difficult show,” director Shelley Farmer, BC ’14, said. “There’s an inherent issue with the fact that there are so many characters and there are so many locales in which it takes place. It’s really difficult to do that on stage, but it’s still flowing smoothly.”
The creative team addressed this problem by using a bare set, according to Grant Gutierrez, CC ’15, who plays the narrator.
“It alleviates a lot of the problems because they travel through so many different countries in the script,” he said.
The crew’s only set piece is a chest. “It’s this general chest that we use for multiple purposes,” Gutierrez said. “It stores props ... we use it as a bench or a seat, but other than that, there really is no set.”
Farmer prefers the sparse aesthetic. “I don’t like having too many sets in a black box space,” she said. “I feel like it clutters it up, so I had this idea of using a trunk in which the troupe would be pulling out their various costume pieces and pulling out props out of the trunk and using that as their only set piece. The practical concerns necessitated the philosophical approach.”
Farmer also drew from Voltaire’s philosophical tone by constructing a metatheatrical frame for the production. The show will follow a theater troupe that is itself performing “Candide.”
“I had this idea of a theater troupe getting ready during the overture. Suddenly, that helped me make sense of the piece and how I put it on,” Farmer said. “Basically, the whole point of the show is that you follow this group of characters who blindly subscribe to this world view, to this philosophical system, that’s really incapable of addressing the randomness and the cruelty of the world around them,” she said. “I thought that it would be an interesting thing to suggest that maybe art is one of those systems that we use to make sense of the world, but in actuality, it sort of simplifies the way we see things and we can’t really comprehend the entirety of the world.”
Farmer hopes her concept will complement Voltaire’s satirical novella. “I feel like Voltaire is very self-aware in the novella, and he parodies this sort of hero’s journey narrative,” Farmer said. “So I liked the idea of the show, as well, being self-aware of its own medium.”
The black box’s limited space wasn’t the only challenge the creative team faced.
According to vocal director Michael Gildin, CC ’15, “Candide” presents “one of the more difficult scores” in musical theater. “You find a lot of really thick harmonies, you find counterpoint and different classical styles that are not really in your typical musical theater score. That in itself sort of presented a challenge, in terms of teaching it to the cast.”
Composer Leonard Bernstein inserted classical elements into the show, which is usually considered an operetta, Gildin said.
“It’s not insanely difficult, but it’s not just your old Rodgers and Hammerstein musical,” Gutierrez said. “There’s a little more complexity in the orchestration and how he uses the instruments.”
The female lead’s song “Glitter and Be Gay” is a particularly difficult piece, according to Gutierrez.
But Christine Rosenblatt, BC ’16, who performs the song, was “absolutely thrilled” to find out CMTS was going to put on “Candide.”
“I’m more of a classical singer and they knew it was more of a classical show,” she said. Rosenblatt plays Cunegonde, Candide’s love interest. The role of Cunegonde is a very high operatic soprano, “which you don’t find in most Broadway shows nowadays,” she said.
The show’s content also distinguishes it from other musicals.
“Because it’s a satire, it gets at something very true, something that anyone can relate to, and anyone can take a little lesson from it, which is something that a lot of current musicals may be missing, like ‘Bring It On: The Musical,’ [which is] about cheerleaders,” said Zach Small, CC ’15, who plays Candide.
Despite its profound themes, “Candide” is also filled with fun.
“It’s the funniest show I’ve ever listened to, and this is coming from someone who’s listened to far too many musicals for anyone’s own good,” Small added.
Performances are Nov. 29 through Dec. 1 at 8 p.m. in the Austin E. Quigley Black Box Theare.
Zoë Miller and Rachel Dunphy contributed reporting.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Michael Gildin's class year. Spectator regrets the error.