Earthquakes on Broadway

The best people I know tend to avoid being Debbie Downers. (If you’re unfamiliar with this instructional character, do a little googling of Saturday Night Live history.) Occasionally though, there is some value in looking at what’s happening in the world without rose-coloured glasses. George Bernard Shaw said, “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.” Unfortunately, he seems to have been onto something.


On All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1755, the city of Lisbon was all but destroyed by one of the most powerful earthquakes in European history. Records from this time are understandably dodgy, but it’s estimated that as many as 60,000 people died. Heavy stuff, to be sure. But aside from the emerging imperative of the need for sturdier buildings, what’s most instructive for us is who got blamed. There were several named causes, but chief among them were foreigners. Because the disaster occurred on an important religious holiday, people of many varied stripes assumed that higher powers must be mad at them. In this case, the presence of a large number of British and other foreign Protestants seemed an obvious explanation for such a display of wrath from on high. It strikes me as food for thought in these anxious times.


The earthquake and people’s reactions to it became a hot topic for two great thinkers separated by two hundred years: Voltaire, the grandfather of satire, and Leonard Bernstein, the man who arguably has done the most to date to make classical music cool. Both men saw with striking clarity the danger in this line of thinking. Only four years after the calamitous Lisbon disaster, Voltaire wrote about it in Candide, which may be today’s most-read novel of the 1750’s. Candide, the novel, reads as astoundingly contemporary, with laugh-out-loud audacity. Leonard Bernstein believed there was something in this story that twentieth-century (and now twenty-first century) audiences needed to hear. So Candide, the opera, was born. Bernstein, working in the 1950s, was fighting his own battle with the dark reaches of the McCarthy Era. The troubling questions raised by Bernstein and crew still ought to be asked in light of executive orders, border walls and travel bans.


Politics aside for a moment at least, Candide is a masterpiece. To be technically accurate, it is more an operetta than an opera. The music, despite its underlying warning, is light and sparkling. Bernstein firmly believed that the way forward for music drama was no longer opera, but musical theatre. The Broadway musical possessed greater appeal and was a more inviting vehicle for a modern audience. His wild successes with West Side Story and Candide proved that he had read his public correctly. He brought an unmatched sophistication to music on Broadway without losing the toe-tapping, supremely hummable tunes that have always been the requisites of a good Broadway show.


Importantly, Bernstein was, by all accounts, no Debbie Downer. He saw the wrongs that needed righting, and he knew how to make us see them, all the while making sure we leave the hall smiling and humming a tune.