The history of Leonard Bernstein's comic operetta Candide is nearly as involved as its plot. Originally conceived in 1956, the work underwent several layers of change to score and libretto before the creation of the composer's "final revised version," which Bernstein himself conducted in concert form in 1989. The plot, though altered rather substantially along the way by multiple librettists, still retained the basic shape of the story as originally adapted from Voltaire. The various versions tend alternately toward the hazy poles of "musical" and "operetta," with the final work leaning in the latter direction.
The underlying optimism of the story is conveyed musically through an eclectic collection of styles, whose diversity seems to reflect the myriad circumstances in which Candide finds himself. Often the musical numbers become stylized dance caricatures, lending the work as a whole a vaguely vaudevillian tone (somewhat comparable to -- but rather less darkly ironic than -- Kurt Weill's Love Life, from only eight years previous). At several points the work goes out of its way to spoof operatic conventions, but Bernstein and his collaborators are careful to make sure that the self-consciously melodramatic tone does not supplant entirely the underlying poignancy at the story's heart. (The original 1956 production was slightly more straight-faced, while a 1973 version, some say, emphasized the frivolous to a fault; the final version drew from both.) The overture to the work is one of the most familiar in American musical theater, with its rowdy motives and strident bursts of orchestrational and rhythmic color juxtaposed with its metrically odd but endearingly lyrical main theme.
Although Bernstein's compositional style is distinctive, his collaborators contributed indelibly to the tone of the work. The original libretto was adapted from Voltaire by Lillian Hellman and reworked extensively for subsequent productions by Hugh Wheeler (after Hellman retracted her version). Lyrics were penned by several different authors, including the esteemed American poet Richard Wilbur and, for the 1973 version, Stephen Sondheim. Some of the changes imposed at various stages were substantial: one character disappeared entirely in 1973, while Voltaire himself appeared as narrator. Several new songs supplanted old ones in that version, and some characters of little consequence in the original version took part in more substantial subplots in Wheeler's libretto as well. In 1988, under Bernstein's supervision, some of Wheeler's additions were affixed to Hellman's outline, and various numbers previously used only in particular revivals (as well as some music cut before opening night in 1956) were brought together to make the final and most comprehensive version.