Maureen Brennan as Cunegonde, 1974 (click to go to online gallery)Maureen Brennan was nominated for a Tony Award and won a Theatre World Award for her professional debut as Cunegonde in the 1974 revival of Leonard Bernstein's Candide (IBDB), directed by Harold Prince. She has since appeared on Broadway as Madeleine Manners in Going Up, Tina in Knickerbocker Holiday, Goldie Gates in Little Johnny Jones, and Stardust. I sent her the following questions about playing Cunegonde:
AB: What are your thoughts on Cunegonde as a character? She's more present in Bernstein's musical than she is in Voltaire's story, as she changes from a two-dimensional character to a comic foil in the operetta.
MB: I love Cunegonde. Resilient, practical, ever hopeful and smart, she is a survivor. Like her lover Candide, she begins the play as an optimist but shortly thereafter life deals her some terrible blows. After this she becomes a pragmatist and finds some very creative ways to adapt and ultimately survive.
AB: How did you think about interpreting Cunegonde in the revival?
MB: I tried to be careful to observe Voltaire's point of view. I read Candide several times before I started rehearsing and referred to the novel often throughout. Since a portion of the novel is omitted in Mr. Wheeler's script, Cunegonde's arc is quite different. In this version, the characters are just barely three dimensional, almost cartoonlike. I relied heavily on the lyrics and score as well as the new libretto to give me what I needed to make her live I love the humor in Hugh Wheeler's script. Every terrible thing that happens is done with humor, much like the novel.
In our production, Cunegonde does not turn into an ugly hag at the end of the play. Instead we discover her in the harem of a noble man of Constantinople. She happens to be doing a particularly awful belly dance when Candide finds her with most of her beauty still intact, though quite bedraggled at this point. Mr. Prince was of tremendous help in interpretation. He felt that Cunegonde should be simple and innocent and as the play progresses becomes wise to the ways of the world but retains her simple forthrightness. She never loses hope of seeing her true love again. That is the key to her survival. It keeps her from becoming too jaded. Hal wanted the words and behavior to reflect the hardness that Cunegonde acquires through the play. He guided me to steer clear of being too knowing and stay with simplicity.
AB: What was your experience racing around on the elaborate set?
MB: In general, I enjoyed it. Our environmental set was circular and consisted of five larger platforms and two elevated smaller platforms. It was laid out in clocklike fashion. All of these platforms were connected by ramps, steps and drawbridges. The audience sat within the circle as well as around and above the circle. Traveling from one stage to the other on the series of ramps was not only fun but also helped us as actors to have the actual feeling of being swept along by life like the characters. Interacting with the audience was very interesting. You never knew what would happen.
When we first tried out the show, we were located at the Chelsea Theater Center—a small theater atop the Brooklyn Academy of Music—but when the show moved to the Broadway Theater, the scale of the set (and consequently all of the distances traveled) doubled, maybe tripled. The first rehearsal we had on the Broadway set, I had an exit from one scene on the platform at 6:00 and I had to travel through mazes backstage to the 9:00 platform which was three times the distance it had been in Brooklyn and climb up a step ladder on to the stage for "Glitter and Be Gay." I then pulled up a trap door for the 'harpsichord player' who was wearing all the jewels to get into place before we started the scene. I was huffing and puffing before I started singing. I joined a gym that afternoon and started pacing myself to walk at the slowest tempo I could that would get me to the next stage on time. It took about two weeks to adjust. Thank goodness, we had that rehearsal time, so I was ready when we opened! I was also very young and the 'natural ebullience of youth' was on my side.
AB: Do you have favorite scenes or moments?
MB: I always loved performing the "Oh Happy We" scene. Working with Mark Baker, who played Candide, was a joy. During the course of the song, we disrobed to our matching underwear and gave our clothes to the audience members sitting around us to hold. I looked forward to the reactions we would get.
Of course I loved singing "Glitter and Be Gay." I hadn't realized until I started performing the show what a cult following Candide (and that song in particular) had. It surprised me the first time I saw members of the audience actually mouthing the words along with me. I especially loved plucking the jewels off my fake harpsichordist's wig. At one performance during previews in Brooklyn, I actually kicked the wig right off her head and the brilliant actress playing her, Mary Pat Green, gave the audience and me such a look and smashed the wig back on her head and kept playing. All I could do was laugh!! Thank God the lyric at that point was ' Ha, Ha Ha, Ha, Ha,'
I also loved the end of the play and singing "Make Our Garden Grow." Having run, danced, crawled and sung through the play and gotten to that moment where we stood still on stage as a group and sang that beautiful anthem was very moving.
AB: What kind of preparation does it take to sing "Glitter and Be Gay" as a coloratura soprano? From a technical standpoint, can you describe the difficulties (and pleasures!) of the aria, phrasing, voice and breath control, and how you practiced it?
MB: Well, when I first learned "Glitter and Be Gay," I was as a musical theatre student at The University of Cincinnati's College Conservatory of Music. I heard the wonderful original recording of Candide, fell in love with it and decided to learn "Glitter and be Gay." This meant going to the piano and learning the music phrase by phrase.
Then, I got together with accompanists to sing through the piece under tempo, noting all the places I got lost and going back to the practice room to work on them. I would sometimes listen to Ms. [Barbara] Cook's recording and follow along with the score so that I would know where I needed to be in terms of tempo and also listened for examples of how to attack a run or a coloratura passage. Then it was back to work with my voice teacher and an accompanist and eventually I got it up to the correct tempo. Finally I felt ready to start looking at interpretation. The vocal coloring and interpretive choices change breathing, dynamics and can also affect one's energy and ability to accomplish the technical demands of the piece. I compare singing "Glitter and Be Gay" to walking a tight rope. You need great balance!
The most difficult part of this song is that you sing strenuously for almost five minutes and the sustained highest notes are at the end of the piece. You also have to hit numerous high C's and D's before you get there. This takes a great deal of energy and stamina. It also requires pacing yourself through the song, and always being careful not to allow your attack on lower notes to get too heavy, thereby making it more difficult to easily float up to those stratospheric notes. One must think light and high at all times. I do thank Mr. Bernstein for his perfect placement of "Glitter and Be Gay" in the score. He gives you a couple of songs to warm up and then while you are warm and energized you sing the aria. It is such a brilliantly constructed piece. I looked forward to singing it each performance and I am grateful that I got the wonderful opportunity to do so!