Candide is a show with a classy pedigree. Voltaire wrote the 1759 novella. It became an operetta in 1956 with a libretto by Lillian Hellman, contributions from Dorothy Parker and Richard Wilbur, the noted poet — and some gorgeous music by Leonard Bernstein. The original production lasted just two months on Broadway, but the score is still a popular favorite — and the show has been revived many times over the years, with Stephen Sondheim, Hugh Wheeler, John Mauceri, and Bernstein himself adding material.
Like the psychiatrist he spent two decades portraying on Frasier and Cheers, Kelsey Grammer loves Bernstein. In this year of the composer's centennial, the Los Angeles Opera has mounted a new production of Candide, starring the Emmy winner in a dual role — as Dr. Pangloss, the bullheaded optimist and subject of much of the story's satire, and as Voltaire himself. While far from his first singing performance, the show is Grammer's first time on the opera stage.
In a conversation with NPR's Scott Simon, Grammer explains how acting and music pulled him out of his childhood shyness, and why personal hardships such as divorce and the early loss of his father and sister ultimately came to brighten his outlook on life.
Click the audio link to hear the full interview with NPR's Scott Simon.
On how he came to perform in his first opera
About eight months ago I got a call from the famously charming Placido Domingo, who basically said, "So we'd like you to be with us for this Candide." So it's not a particularly complex set of reasons ... but what was funny was, I've never done an opera. So being the kind of hairpin I am, you know, I just try different things anyway. It seemed very appealing to me to go ahead and just give it a shot.
On his lifelong appreciation of Leonard Bernstein's music
When I was a young man, when I was 6, 7, and 8 years old, I used to go to Leonard Bernstein's concerts for children in New York City, so I have a specific connection with him there. I've always loved his music, but of course in those cases he sort of did a comparative music lesson; basically, during the concerts he would play several different things, even covered the Beatles. He was so affable and, sort of, available — and at the same time, very heady and a musical genius. So he was he was really at the top of his game and the top of the hierarchy, in terms of the culture world, throughout his career.
To get to know the music on a more intimate level has been a great privilege, by rehearsing it and being involved in it. And Francesca's staging of this piece is pretty terrific. I know that she's cut it liberally, and I imagine Bernstein would probably look to that as a favor in many ways. I mean, more than three hours in the theater under anyone's sort of genius is challenging. I think she's done a hell of a job, and I think he would have applauded it as well.
On his musical background
My mom and dad were musicians, and they met in music school. They didn't have a terrific marriage or a long-lived one, but I did play drums for my dad's band ... when I was 12, and my mom continued to sing and appear in local productions of different musicals and plays throughout my childhood, and it was always something that she loved doing. So I had a background in it. I saw Hello, Dolly! when I was 8 years old.
Web intern Stefanie Fernández contributed to this story.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
"Candide" is a show with a classy pedigree. Voltaire wrote the 1759 novella that became an operetta in 1956 with a libretto by Lillian Hellman and contributions from Dorothy Parker and Richard Wilbur, the noted poet, and, of course, a gorgeous score by Leonard Bernstein.
(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF LEONARD BERNSTEIN'S "CANDIDE")
SIMON: The overture is still a popular favorite. But the show itself lasted just two months on Broadway. Yet the operetta has been revived many times over the years with Stephen Sondheim, Hugh Wheeler, John Mauceri and Bernstein himself adding material. In this year of the Bernstein centennial, the Los Angeles Opera has a new production of "Candide." It's directed by Francesca Zambello. And it stars Christine Ebersole, the Tony-winning musical star. And in a dual role as Voltaire himself and Dr. Pangloss, Kelsey Grammer, the winner of Emmys and Golden Globes, best known still for embodying the role of Dr. Frasier Crane in "Cheers" and "Frasier." Kelsey Grammer joins us from Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us.
KELSEY GRAMMER: It's a pleasure.
SIMON: Why did you want to appear in this operetta or musical or whatever it is? There's some debate, as you know...
SIMON: ...That's still considered, even after 62 years, a kind of work in progress.
GRAMMER: (Laughter) Well, I guess that's one of the reasons you try it. To be quite honest, about eight months ago, I got a call from the famously charming Placido Domingo, who basically said, so we'd like you to be with us for this "Candide." And I said sure (laughter). So it was not particularly a complex set of reasons.
SIMON: You don't say no to Placido Domingo, do you?
GRAMMER: You just don't. This is what I've been told the world over.
SIMON: When "Candide" premiered in 1956 - and because Lillian Hellman was such an important part of the creative team - it was considered a pointed denunciation of McCarthyism at the time. Do...
GRAMMER: Yeah, well, you know, honestly, I think art's wonderful to - oh, to make a political statement. But often, I find you abrupt the real flow of the piece itself by trying so hard, you know? I mean, I think this piece originally was designed by Voltaire himself as a kind of a statement about the Christianity versus philosophy or nihilism. But oddly enough, it's a great arguing point for a kind of sense of faith about the world, if not fatalism.
But at least, you know, by doing good and by living through whatever lens of virtue you decide to live by, life can work out OK. And so maybe even in spite of himself, Voltaire managed to say something that was very positive about the human experience and about our relationship with whatever you want to call the creator or not creator or whatever you want, you know? (Laughter) I throw my hands up in the air. It's an entertaining evening.
SIMON: You have a musical background, which, maybe, a lot of people didn't know...
SIMON: Important to you growing up, yeah.
GRAMMER: Yeah, my mom and dad were musicians. And they didn't have a terrific marriage or a long-lived one. But I did play drums for my dad's band. And my mom continued to sing and appear in sort of local productions of different musicals and plays throughout my childhood. So I had a background in it. I saw "Hello, Dolly!" when I was 8 years old on Broadway. And then when I was 14, a guy came to our school - Richard Mitten (ph) was his name - and he walked into every classroom the first day of school and said, all the boys in here are going to come and sing for me. You're all going to be in the choir. And we all sort of laughed him out of the room. And then his determination - we all ended up in the choir. He was really something and was instrumental in getting me - well, out of myself and into - onto the stage.
SIMON: May I ask, when you say getting yourself out of yourself and onto the stage, what was going on in your life that...
GRAMMER: Oh, I was just particularly shy because, you know, I didn't know my dad. My dad got killed. And my grandfather, who raised me, died when I was 12. And so I didn't have any male figures in my life. And I was busy at home kind of looking after the - my grandmother, mother and my sister. And I was busy and shy, you know, and going through puberty (laughter). It's a whole bunch of stuff that happens.
SIMON: Boy, that's a triple whammy, isn't it?
GRAMMER: Yeah, you know? (Laughter) So I had some obstacles.
GRAMMER: And these were great days when Richard came into my life and helped me, you know, come out of that world and start to perform and stuff. It was a great gift. And that was followed by another gentleman named Ron Cracackin (ph). He was the acting end of it. And so another year or two later, he came to school and said, you're going to be in a play, which ironically was Lillian Hellman's "Little Foxes."
SIMON: Oh, my.
SIMON: And may I ask, were they around long enough to know how successful you became?
GRAMMER: Yeah, Ron's still alive. Ron's still alive. And Diana Spradling is the gal that gave me voice lessons. She gave them to me for free because she believed in my voice.
GRAMMER: And she actually thought I might be an opera singer. And I said, well, Diana, that is a really, really tough row to hoe...
GRAMMER: ...Thinking that somehow the acting career was a much easier option (laughter).
GRAMMER: So - but I still think that was the right choice.
SIMON: I'd like to ask you about Pangloss. He is a famous optimist with that credo - all is for the best in this best of all...
GRAMMER: Best of all possible worlds, yeah.
SIMON: Yeah. You've enjoyed a lot of success. But you have known a lot of sadness in your life...
SIMON: ...Death of people close to you, divorce, personal problems. How do you feel about what Dr. Pangloss says?
GRAMMER: Well, I'm sort of with him in a funny way. But I guess only an optimist could say such a thing (laughter). The endgame is quitting. And that's not an option because you have to quit eventually anyway, and that's not in our hands. So I'd rather not do it unless I have to (laughter). So I stick around. And I love my life here. I haven't loved the days of fame. But I've loved the moments when I felt that I was climbing out of it. There's a great sense of rejoicing in that and a great sense of peace.
SIMON: Kelsey Grammer - he stars with Christine Ebersole in the Los Angeles Opera production of "Candide." Thanks so much for being with us.
GRAMMER: It's been my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.