“Voltaire is a relatively recent writer for me to adapt,” says Tony Award-winning Director Mary Zimmerman.
She was having lunch on the tiny outdoor balcony on the fourth floor of the Goodman Theatre during a rehearsal break for Goodman’s production of Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway musical “Candide,” based on the novella by Voltaire. The show opens Sept. 27 and runs through Oct. 31.
Voltaire’s satirical novel “Candide” was written in 1759, but Zimmerman is serious about the time frame. Her award-winning adaptations go much farther back, including “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” who lived from 1452 to 1519, “The Odyssey” by Homer from 8th century BC, “Arabian Nights,” derived from 10th century Persian tales, and “Pericles” from the 5th century BC.
The Nebraska native, who is single, makes her home in Evanston. She is on the performing arts faculty at Northwestern, where she earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. Her profile began to rise in 1998 when she won the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. In 2002, she became the first American woman to win a Tony for Best Director of a Drama for her play “Metamorphoses.”
Zimmerman is laden with hometown laurels as well, collecting more than 20 Joseph Jefferson awards for her work in Chicago theater.
Four seasons ago Zimmerman was asked to prepare three new productions at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City: Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” Bellini’s “La Sonnambula,” and Rossini’s “Armida,” starring the great American soprano Renée Fleming.
Despite her daunting schedule, Zimmerman has found time for what she modestly calls “good deeds.” During the summer of 2009, she and a group from the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in San Francisco went to the United Arab Emirates. She and her Lookingglass colleague Heidi Stillman taught a two-week workshop on stagecraft to “heavily veiled girls, on ‘Arabian Nights,’ ” she explains, adding that “it resulted in a little performance, which was‚ their first appearance on stage, and for many of them, their first time speaking in front of non-related men.”
This summer the university professor went back to Voltaire and is writing the “Candide” script as she goes along. “I work on the script at night after rehearsal. That’s always how I’ve done it,” she declares. As for the actors, she says, “They often inspire me.”
Bernstein’s musical, which he called a “comic operetta” could be called a send-up of the power of positive thinking, written in response to the 1950s, when there was in this country what Zimmerman calls a “triumphal view of America and the American way.” Goodman will present Zimmerman’s adaptation, written with the permission of the Bernstein estate.
Her 19-member cast includes Geoffrey Packard in the title role, with Lauren Molina as Cunegonde, who has the show’s most challenging number, “Glitter and be Gay,” a vocal tour-de-force with intricate rhythms and shifting moods. A dozen musicians will accompany the singers.
Zimmerman considers “Candide” her first musical, and she has no plans to change anything about Bernstein’s music. “I love every single song in this show and all the witty, wonderful lyrics,” she says. She does admit a favorite, however.
“ ‘Make Our Garden Grow’ is possibly the most beautiful song ever written for the theater,” she adds, revealing a clue that there may be more musicals in her future, perhaps even some with books more recent than the 18th century!
Tickets for “Candide” are available at the Goodman Theatre box office at 170 N. Dearborn, or by calling 312-443-3800 or visiting goodmantheatre.org. Discounted parking is available for $17 with voucher at Government Center Self Park at Dearborn and Lake Streets.