Catching up with two of the stars from Candide
Over the years, you see a lot of them, and sometimes you wonder.
You know, the backup singer, the understudy, the impossibly young and good looking men and women, singing, dancing, mike in hand, hoofing like mad, handsome lads, pretty girls who always look like they just belong up there, doing what they do, they’re in your ticket stubs, in the curtain’s texture, in the echoes of songs just sung, they’ve got so much energy they leave you a little breathless and please you.
I used to think of them as Broadway Babies, in the sense that the theater was made for them, even if they become movie stars, pop rockers, or, god help us, celebrities of the kind that cause heavy breathing by Billy Bush.
I think Lauren Molina and Geoff Packard ARE Broadway babies, even though they’re already in the last months of being 20 somethings; even though they’ve done all the studying, and understudying, even though they’ve cut albums, sung in clubs, hit the road. They fit the bill, and now they’re here in town headlining the Leonard Bernstein’s musical Candide, which has been re-envisioned and directed by the iconoclastic Mary Zimmerman at the Shakespeare Theater Company’s Harman Theater.
They’ve got the leads, by gosh: Geoff has the title role of the classic Voltairian naïf who remains eternally optimistic in spite of what the world does to him – which is plenty awful – and Molina as Cunegonde with similar stars in her eyes, no matter to what depths she might fall.
They pop by for an interview at the theater’s atrium, from where you can see crowds out on the streets in a busy Friday night scene, a Broadway kind of scene complete with the lights at the Verizon Center, and the sparkling holiday tents of the Downtown Christmas Bazaar.
Packard, a tallish, lanky young man with boyish looks shows up first followed by Molina, who’s all energy and frizzy hair, the kind that if you touched it, you might get shocked. It’s about an hour or so before a preview performance, but the two don’t seem a bit anxious. They just look happy to be here.
Doing Candide isn’t new to them, since they’ve been doing the show at Chicago’s nationally renowned Goodman Theater and so they’re used to carrying what might seem like a heavy responsibility. They have performed in one way at the highest level—both were in Rock of Ages, the popular and loud Broadway rock musical. Molina performed with Patti Lupone in the John Doyle-directed revival of Sweeney Todd, and Packard was in the road company of Wicked.
“We know the history of the musical, we’re pretty aware of all the people who’ve worked on it in the past,” Packard says. He seems thoughtful and serious, very much in the manner of Candide trying to figure things out. He looks a little like Richard Thomas when he was playing John Boy on “The Waltons”, only much cooler.
“It’s not the traditional sort of musical,” Molina says. “ It’s about something basically serious, although it’s also high-energy and fun. I love singing “Glitter and Be Gay”, it’s hugely challenging. Leonard Bernstein’s score is lush, rich, complicated, intricate, you end up doing more than you thought you could. “
While both insist they’re “actors”, most if not all of their experience has been in music, singing, in musicals. “We’re always actors first is the way I see myself,” Molina says. “In musicals, the songs mean something to the story, you have to convey emotion, you create character and personality, you … well, you act.”
Still, music is in their bloodstream, Packard being trained at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Molina enjoying a nice side gig as a pop singer (sort of folk, sort of jazz, as she describes her music), with a new CD out—which is conveniently on sale in the lobby. “I did an album too,” Packard says, “It’s just not in the lobby. No room, I guess”.
You can find them on YouTube, Packard singing with Chelsea Kronbach , his fiancée, with whom he toured in Wicked, and Molina and fellow Candide cast member Joey Stone doing a rendition of “Glitter and Be Gay” and “Words, Words, Words.”
Candide has a history, and not just the very, very thin novel written by the great French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire about a young man raised in comfort, taught to be optimistic because he was living in “The Best of All Possible Worlds”, then kicked out into the cold, violent, raw world because he falls in love with Cunegonde. The original musical Candide, had a book by Lillian Hellman, with lyrics by many wordsmiths, including poet Richard Wilbur and Dorothy Parker.
Candide opened on Broadway in 1956, at the Martin Beck Theatre with a production everyone was optimistic about. Unfortunately, audiences were not drawn to it, and the show closed after two months. But the cast recording lived on and sold well. Many attempts to mount Candide followed with a new book by Hugh Wheeler (A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd) and more lyricists joining the fold including Stephen Sondheim —a Harold Prince production (twice), a National Theater of London production. Regional theaters—including locally Arena Stage’s memorable production in 1996 —found it a challenging and attractive project.
And then came Mary Zimmerman, who loves big subjects even if they’re between the covers of a thin book.
“Weighs hardly anything at all,” Molina said “It’s a very thin book which gives you a lot to think about,” Packard said. “I know it did that for me. The whole experience did. With my engagement, it makes you think about the things that can happen to you in the world. You approach something like that with a real sense of commitment.”
Zimmerman, who directed the mind-boggling Argonautica here at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2008, and who’s directing The Arabian Nights at Arena Stage in 2011, has returned to the writings of Voltaire to make Candide very much her own.
“I think it’s closer to the book, and some of the satire has returned to the show,” Packard said. “She is awesome,” Molina said of Zimmerman. “We had rehearsals, and we never knew what would happen. We would have the day’s pages, not the whole script, and that was exciting. It gave you room to move around in, to be even more creative.”
For a pair of Broadway babies, actors and musical performers, it sounds like the best of all possible worlds.