This was written for one of the later, Opera-house productions of Leonard Bernstein’s musicalization of Voltaire, and features lyrics by Bernstein himself (although there’s reason to believe a portion of the lyrics may have been cribbed from the show’s primary lyricist, Richard Wilbur). This is widely considered, along with “Quiet” and “Sheep Song”, to be one of the few duds in the score of Candide, and I would actually debate that label in all three cases. This particular song was added primarily to provide a solo number for the pessimist philosopher Martin, who serves as the counterpart to Candide’s optimist mentor Pangloss (and indeed, was originally supposed to be played by the same actor until the decision was made not to kill him off when Pangloss reappears). It mostly seems to be regarded as a ‘dud’ because the lyrics are loaded with exceptionally ugly, even disgusting imagery, but I must ask the show’s fans what exactly they expected the antithesis to Pangloss’ candy-coated “The Best of All Possible Worlds” to sound like. Despite the degree of graphic detail provided about Martin’s job as a sweeper in the song, the lyrics are on the same ultra-literate and immensely sophisticated level as all of the lyrics written for this show, and become especially penetrating on the final verse, set to the tune of “The Best of All Possible Worlds”, where he catalogues all the disgusting forms of garbage and excrement he’s forced to clean up in a bitter litany (“every sort of residue/in process of reduction to/the final state of dust”), which he turns into a surprisingly potent and strikingly bitter metaphor for his view of life as a whole (and yes, that particular section was, evidently, really written by Bernstein on his own…the man really was a splendid lyricist, and the only reason he didn’t provide his own words more often was that his heavy workload as composer, conductor, orchestrator and dance arranger left him so little time for it). So, I’d argue the song’s disgusting imagery, which is really the only substantial complaint against it, is a feature rather than a flaw, and in any case, if you have a weak stomach, this show…which let’s recall contains two different songs about syphilis…is probably not the show for you in the first place.
Verdict: As good as most of the rest of the Candide score, which is no small honor.