Several of George Bernard Shaw’s plays have been turned into musicals, with greater or lesser degrees of success. Arms and the Man became A Chocolate Soldier, Caesar and Cleopatra was resurrected as Her First Roman, and Pygmalion was converted into one of the greatest musicals of all time, My Fair Lady. Now, Shaw’s Candida has joined the pantheon as A Minister’s Wife, currently being staged at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, with book by Austin Pendleton, music by Joshua Schmidt and lyrics by Jan Levy Tranen. In sum, it provides a pleasant evening’s entertainment. But this sure ain’t no My Fair Lady.
The story line of A Minister’s Wife, which is relatively simple and straightforward, doesn’t stray much from that of Candida, although the musical is somewhat shorter than the straight play was and it does eliminate one of the six characters in the original production: Candida’s father, Mr. Burgess. In both Candida and A Minister’s Wife, the plot revolves around the Christian Socialist Reverend James Mavor Morell (Marc Kudisch), his wife Candida (Kate Fry), and Eugene Marchbanks (Bobby Steggert), a young poet who becomes enamored of Candida, ultimately demanding that she choose between him and her husband. The other two characters in A Minister’s Wife are Miss Proserpine Garnett (Liz Baltes), Morell’s secretary who is in love with her employer and Reverend Alexander Miller (Drew Gehling), Morell’s Curate. Mr. Burgess, the character from Candida left out of A Minister’s Wife, was Shaw’s amusing caricature of a greedy capitalist and eliminating him from this musical version of the play doesn’t necessarily work to the musical’s advantage and may have been a mistake.
The book by Pendleton is satisfactory but adds nothing to Shaw’s original work. The score by Schmidt is good, more opera than musical theatre; one of my companions at the production I saw (whose taste in music I much respect) liked it even more than I did, considering it truly terrific. The lyrics by Tranen, however, we all agreed were uninspired and readily forgettable.
Both the acting and singing performances were acceptable but far from outstanding and the small orchestra (piano, violin, cello and bass clarinet) stationed behind the stage were more of a distraction than an enhancement. All in all, turning Candida into a musical didn’t really add to the production and I much prefer the original straight play.