By Linda Smith,
Dee Donasco was met with naysayers and doubters when she told colleagues outside of the University of Dallas that “Candide” was coming to the Margaret Jonsson Theater this semester. She was told that the rarely-performed piece had music that was too challenging, and that they would never be able to pull it off.
However, Donasco, associate drama professor Stefan Novinski, and the cast, crew and orchestra of “Candide” are pulling it off, bringing the first collaboration between the drama and music departments in over two decades to the Mainstage this spring. Donasco, who is UD’s vocal coach and lyric theater director, and music department director Kristin Van Cleve had toyed with the idea of collaborating with the drama department for over a year. Indeed, Donasco believes that “anything that doesn’t have music is empty, and anything that doesn’t have emotions and acting is dry,” so a collaboration seemed natural.
When Novinski approached them with a similar interest in a joint project, one of their first choices was The Royal National Theatre Version of “Candide.”
“‘Candide’ is rarely done, mostly because the music is extremely challenging,” Donasco said. “We all thought, though, that we could pull it off. Bernstein is an extremely amazing composer and we said, ‘We’re going to take the challenge.’”
A couple days after the spring semester started, auditions were held and the cast of 20 was assembled. While most theater productions see non-drama majors in many roles, the combination of theater and music backgrounds among the cast members has proved rewarding for Novinski. According to him, it brings “more people into the conversation.” Some, like ensemble member and sophomore Paulina Martín, are totally new to these art forms, but have gained experience through their involvement in ‘Candide.’
“I’ve never done drama, and I have very little voice training,” Martín said. “This made me more disciplined, and I had to bring myself up to speed with everyone else. I’ve really enjoyed the family I have here.”
The first six weeks of rehearsals were dedicated to learning the music and simple blocking, and cast members who have been in previous productions said that they were expected to know their lines much earlier than usual.
“Part of what makes ‘Candide’ so fun is the technical sides of it,” junior Simon Lemaire, who will perform the role of Candide, said. “Music, as beautiful as it is, is also technical. And you have to time your emotional journey with the song, with an orchestra, with lighting. We have had to focus a lot on these different aspects and tweak that before we could really get to the acting. This show has a lot of us finding our own acting within the technical region of this show. It’s been a community effort.”
When considering the choreography, acting, music, singing, set, lights and costumes, Novinski said it can seem to be “complicated undertaking.” But he also said that working hard on such a complex project is “what’s expected of anyone who works on anything at UD.”
This adaptation features music from Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Richard Wilbur with additions from Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche, Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker. A book by Hugh Wheeler adapted from Voltaire’s novella is the inspiration for the play. Voltaire’s degree of influence has sparked several discussions on the play, and was explored in multiple articles of The University News. However, those working on the musical believe that students of the University of Dallas need to learn about, and from, the events in the play.
“It’s so important not to forget history, not to forget what’s happened,” senior Annie Zwerneman, who performs as Paquette, said. “We can’t live without it. It’s silly to pretend like it didn’t happen or to ignore it. I think it’s important to know what happened.”
Junior Esther Sequeira, who will perform as The Old Woman, said that she feels that it is relevant for a Catholic university to tackle this play and its potential issues.
“The Church that survives and is the true Church of Christ, the universal Catholic Church, is the teachings and dogmas that have never changed, no matter what corrupt pope we had, no matter what bad people did bad things in the name of the Catholic Church,” Sequeira said. “And who better to address this darkness that is in our history than a Catholic university, not just Catholic in name, but in practice, than a secular university that would try and play it up as what they believe. We can take it and put it in context.”
Many working on the play also said that they feel that it is relevant to those in a university community, because Candide and many of the other main characters, including Paquette, Maximilian (played by junior James McGregor), and Candide’s love interest Cunegonde (played by senior Mary Fougerousse), are young adults. These four are students of Dr. Pangloss (played by sophomore Edward Houser), who teaches them a branch of philosophy called Optimism. Through Optimism, the students learn that everything on earth is the best possible thing it can be, and that the best possible actions always occur. However, terrible things happen throughout the play, bringing injustice especially to Candide and other innocent people. In fact, ensemble member senior Joseph Dodd described the musical as “a satirical catalyst of self-awareness in society.”
“A lot of the play is Candide figuring out how to bring all of these things that he is told and reconcile them with these things that he is experiencing,” ensemble member and freshman Ellen Rogers said. “It is almost a warning of solely relying on the things that you are told, which is interesting for an independent thinking university, and Candide has to decide for himself and not completely be influenced by all these other people.”
Novinski said he believes that the play can even teach us audiences to examine present-day injustice, citing violence in the Middle East and India as examples of things that some may not know how to address, though they need to be addressed.
“It’s asking many of the questions that our students ask, which is (sic) ‘What is my place in the world?’ ‘What is the proper place of many institutions?’ ‘What is the nature of love, of education, of government?’ All the questions are asked in this piece, and it doesn’t solve any of them,”
Novinski said. “But it holds them up to a light and lets us address them. I don’t know how you address that, and yet somehow they are addressed in ‘Auto-da-fé,’ they’re addressed when they go to The New World, and they give us the opportunity to look at many aspects of humanity that we don’t know about.”
Novinski describes the musical as a “Monty Python-esque farce.” Ensemble member senior Bebe Bloch pointed out that while we should not laugh “at things that are bad and offensive…we need to find joy [in what the play can teach us].”
“I feel like the students at UD deserve the opportunity to experience something like that because we have a lot of talent in this school that people don’t know about,” Donasco said. “If we don’t take the challenge and we don’t take the risk, we’re just stuck in mediocrity. We want to aim for excellence. I think that’s what these students see. I see that giving them a challenge to do something as difficult as ‘Candide’ would be really rewarding if we’re able to do it. And we’re doing it.”