School of Music, Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film collaborate to present "Candide"

"Candide" will be presented Feb. 21-23 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 24 at 3 p.m. in Kimball Recital Hall.
"Candide" will be presented Feb. 21-23 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 24 at 3 p.m. in Kimball Recital Hall.

Every four years the School of Music and Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film collaborate to put on a musical theatre production sponsored by the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts. This year, it is a new adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” rewritten by Nebraska native Mary Zimmerman.

Director Alisa Belflower, coordinator of musical theatre studies, spent six months working to secure the rights to produce Zimmerman’s “Candide,” featuring a full orchestra playing orchestrations created by the composer Bernstein.

Belflower said Zimmerman was enthusiastic in promoting UNL in negotiations to produce the first full production of her adaptation of the musical because Lincoln is where she first saw live theatre. Zimmerman’s parents were both professors at UNL.

“I was honored that she wanted us to do it,” Belflower said.

Zimmerman’s new libretto for Bernstein’s “Candide” is not the first. While Bernstein was alive, he attempted numerous times to create a more successful version of the musical based on Voltaire’s 1759 novella “Candide, ou l”Optimisme.” Zimmerman gained the Bernstein estate’s permission to create a new libretto based on Voltaire’s novella, which would feature music selected from the multiple pre-existing “Candide” scores, all composed by Bernstein before his death in 1990.

After receiving permission, Zimmerman refined her new libretto in a series of developmental productions in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Boston during the 2010-2011 theatre season.

“I find that Zimmerman made the dialogue in Candide more accessible to modern audiences,” said Nathan Sullivan, junior vocal performance major from Bettendorf, Iowa. Sullivan plays the role of the musical’s resident pessimist, Martin.

As part of her research, Belflower has studied many of the adaptations of “Candide.” Comparing the adaptation she chose to others, Belflower said that Zimmerman was able to find a balance between the poignant and comedic elements in Voltaire’s story. Other adaptations tended to exaggerate the elements of satire, according to Belflower.

One example of Zimmerman’s approach is how she portrays the disasters the title character of Candide faces. There isn’t a literal representation of any of the life-altering disasters.

“I think it’s rather brilliant,” Belflower said. “Zimmerman allows the audience to engage their imaginations rather than our having to use huge sets based on a literal portrayal of an earthquake or storm at sea. Our goal is to have the audience aware they are in a theatre, but still be transported into the world of Candide. We’re not going for so much cinematic reality, but a sense of theatre, engaging the audience’s imagination and putting our hearts on the stage.”

Other than this being the first fully orchestrated stage production of Zimmerman’s adaptation of “Candide,” another unique aspect is the array of students working on the production.

To cast the production of “Candide,” Belflower attended both the School of Music’s and the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film’s auditions at the beginning of the academic year. From there she held callback auditions and selected a cast featuring students from both schools.

“It’s a huge deal when we collaborate; it’s an exciting challenge,” Belflower said.

One of the biggest challenges for Belflower has been working out the rehearsal schedule to accommodate the unique schedules of the 44 cast members. Combining theatre and music students in the cast gives students the opportunity to learn from one another.

“It’s great to get everybody in a room together and for us to be inspired with what they [theatre majors] do with their dialogue and hopefully for them to be inspired by us [music majors] with what we’re doing with our music,” said Adam Fieldson, a graduate student in vocal performance from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who is playing the role of Candide. “I love it, and I wish there were more projects like it.”

For senior vocal performance major Kendall Reimer from Carrollton, Mo., who plays the romantic leading role of Cunégonde, having a main focus in opera, there is a group of people with whom she usually works. Including the theatre majors in that pool has been beneficial for her.

“It’s a different group of people, but it’s nice because it’s a little more varied than the norm, so it’s also getting to know new people,” Reimer said. “It’s really cool to get their perspective on something. Sometimes everyone can have a very narrow perspective and view of something, and so it’s really great to learn something from a different area.”

During rehearsals, majors from both disciplines work together as a unified cast.

“We’re all on the same cast, so I don’t notice them picking up things faster than we are or vice versa,” said Sullivan, who plays Martin. “We’re all kind of in the same boat. The difference is how they approach it in their own time.”

Fieldson, Reimer and Sullivan all said they approached the musical differently than they believe a theatre major would.

“My first instinct [as a vocal performance major] is to jump into music first and get familiar with the music and then from that can spring the dialogue,” Sullivan said.

Another large part of the collaboration is the costume design. Graduate student Mallory Prucha, from Omaha, Neb., is using her work on this production of “Candide” as the basis for her master’s thesis.

“The costuming is perhaps some of the most beautiful costuming I’ve seen in my 13 years here (at UNL),” Belflower said.

One of ways Prucha prepared herself for the design process was reading the original novella of “Candide” by Voltaire, as well as the script/libretto written by Zimmerman.

“I felt it was the best place to understand the whole story,” Prucha said. “Knowing the Voltaire text is important. Zimmerman latches on to certain elements of the story, so it’s imperative to be familiar with it.”

Prucha took a specific color and uses it in the costumes for a specific character; she called it a color story. For example, many of Cunégonde’s costumes are shades of purple.

“I felt like it would be imperative to create a cohesive world for those characters to be in so you can see the dynamic shift in them as they go throughout their lives,” Prucha said.

A lot of the performers are not just one character throughout the production. With more than 209 named characters played by 44 actors and more than 2,013 pieces of costuming required, Prucha made a chart to let the actors know which costume will be worn during what scene as what character.

“For this show, relying on the paperwork is huge. I need to know who’s playing what and I need to have pieces that are more versatile that they can wear the whole show that nobody will notice and how I can build on top of that to create a new look,” Prucha said.

Prucha has found working with both the theatre school and the music school’s opera program refreshing in comparison to her past experiences working primarily in theatre departments.

“For me it’s a natural fit,” she said. “I have a natural interest in doing more operatic style musicals and so I was really excited to get to jump over a little bit.”

Prucha said she was thrilled to be able to work the theatrical side of costuming as well as the musical side. With the two different kind of performers, she has to put each performer’s trade into their costuming.

“It’s about adjusting and knowing the fit might be severe, it’s trying to meet the different performance style,” Prucha said.

“Candide” will have two acts with an intermission. There are more than 100 students working both behind the scenes and onstage to create the new production.

Belflower cautions that the audience should expect some adult subject matter and brief violence as is found in Voltaire’s novella. She gives the musical a PG rating.

Throughout the performance, the audience will witness the character Candide go through a journey of disaster around a world filled with wonders and challenges. Fieldson’s advice to the audience is to “just sit down and enjoy the ride.”

Fieldson also explained that there are certain shows that are appreciated by those with more of a music background and others appreciated by theatre’s fans. He believes this production of “Candide” is different.

“It’s not done that often, and it’s an amazing show because it’s loved by theatre people and loved by music people,” he said. “This is a beautiful middle ground where the audience enjoys it along with the performers.”

“Candide” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 21-23 and 3 p.m. Feb. 24 at Kimball Recital Hall. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for students and seniors and are available at the Lied Center Box Office at (402) 472-4747 or (800) 432-3231 or at the door one hour prior to the performance.

A pre-performance talk will be presented by Belflower in the lower level of Kimball Recital Hall 45 minutes before each performance.

—Ally Phillips, College of Journalism and Mass Communications