Voltaire's 18th century satirical novella takes the central character through a tumultuous series of adventures in a parody of the classic adventure-romance plot, all testing the philosophy of optimism he's been taught.
Leonard Bernstein's 20th century musical had its own calamitous episodes and multiple revisions but survives in the repertoire to this day.
In the 1950's, with the success of Rodgers and Hammerstein, attitudes to toward the musical were changing. Could something serious be done with the form? Without lowering the entertainment content, couldn’t the world of tragedy and thought be explored? With South Pacific, a hit on Broadway and Stravinsky’s Rake's Progress a failure at the Met, the scope was great. With Kurt Weil’s Street Scene and The Threepenny Opera and Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle will Rock already on the boards, departures from the boy-meets-girl formula of the musical was more than a possibility.
Perhaps as early as 1950, Lillian Hellman, the playwright responsible for Children’s Hour and The Little Foxes, had suggested that she and Bernstein cooperate on a musicalisation of Voltaire’s Candide. But Bernstein was in full flush of his many talents as conductor, composer, and performer. Late in 1953, when Bernstein was conducting Maria Callas in Cherubini’s Medea in Vienna, Lillian Hellman was re-reading Candide in bed in New York and laughing. She immediately telegraphed him proposing the show. Bernstein replied enthusiastically.