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In a Baron's castle in Westphalia lived, in extreme happiness, four young people: Cunegonde, the Baron's beautiful daughter; Maximilian, his equally beautiful son; Paquette, a very obliging serving girl; and Candide, an obscure bastard cousin (Life is Happiness Indeed). They had the great fortune to be instructed by that legendary philosopher Dr. Pangloss, who taught them that this is the best of all possible worlds and that everything that happens in it is for the best (Best of All Possible Worlds). There is, however, one slight flaw in this idyll: The humble Candide and the exalted Cunegonde fall very unsuitably in love (Oh Happy We). Their love discovered, Candide is summarily thrown out of the castle (It Must Be So). Forced to fend for himself, Candide, on the eve of war with the neighboring Bulgarians, is tricked into enlisting in the enemy army, and endures many other mishaps. These ordeals sorely try but do not destroy his faith in Dr. Pangloss's philosophy. Cunegonde too has her problems. After she is abducted during Mass by a sergeant in the envading Bulgarian army, her sufferings come to a halt in a Lisbon brothel. Her beauty inflames the amorous attentions not only of an extremely rich Jew but also of the Grand Inquisitor himself. These two gentlemen, sharing her, lavish rich gifts upon her, which more than make up for her lost innocence, even though, of course, her love for Candide remains totally untouched (Glitter and Be Gay).
Meanwhile, Candide, also eternally faithful to his beloved, is washed up, more dead than alive, in a Portuguese fishing village at the height of a tremendous earthquake. In the ruins he sees only one beggar, who turns out to be none other than Dr. Pangloss, who has survived the Westphalian holocaust. Candide and Pangloss, both good Westphalian Protestants, are arrested by the Inquisition and dragged to a great gala auto-da-fe, which the Holy Mother Church believes will, by burning heretics, discourage future earthquakes (Auto-da-fe). Cunegonde happens to attend this celebration where, to her horror, she sees her master hanged and her beloved Candide flogged. Candide, abandoned, bemoans his lot (Candide's Lament). Unexpectedly, an unknown Old Lady leads him away, tends to his wounds, and eventually presents him to her mistress, who turns out to be--rapture!--Cunegonde (You Were Dead You Know).
Disaster now strikes lightning blows. As Cunegonde and Candide embrace, the Jew breaks in. Inadvertantly, Candide kills him; then the Grand Inquisitor appears, and Candide (advertantly) kills him too. Candide, Cunegonde, and the Old Lady are forced to flee to Cadiz where, having lost their money, the Old Lady tries to repair their fortunes by offering her body to the elderly Dons in the city square (I Am Easily Assimilated). Her success is minimal, but an imposing Businessman appears and miraculously offers Candide the job of leading a military mission to relieve the Jesuits of Montevideo, who are sorely beset by the neighboring heathen. The three can leave their troubles behind and enjoy a fresh start in the New World (Quartet Finale).
Candide, full of hope, sets sail with Cunegonde and the Old Lady for the New World (Ballad of the New World). Meanwhile, in the slave market of Cartagena, Colombia, Maximilian, disguised through mischance as a female slave, has an unexpected reunion with Paquette, who has also survived the Westphalian armageddon. Embarrassingly, the lecherous Governor falls in love with Maximilian (My Love). His true sex discovered, Maximilian is sold to the Jesuits of Montevideo. At the same time, on the ship, the Old Lady regales her companions with tales of her many tribulations. Suddenly, marauding pirates attack the ship and carry off Cunegonde and the Old Lady.
Candide arrives alone at the Jesuit convent in Montevideo. Among those who greet him are Maximilian and Paquette. In a family tiff, Candide unintentionally kills Maximilian and has to flee with Paquette into the jungle. Eventually they stumble upon the legendary country of Eldorado, where the streets are paved with gold, eternal harmony reigns, and even the animals are eloquent (Sheep Song). Soon, however, Eldorado bores them, and loading gold onto some singing sheep, they fight their way through the jungle until they reach Cartagena, where the lecherous Governor, who now has the Old Lady employed as a Madam, is giving a ball (The Governor's Waltz). The Old Lady informs Candide that the pirates have taken Cunegonde to Constantinople. The Governor, coveting the Eldorado gold, tries to steal the sheep and tricks the eager Candide into setting off for Constantinople in a leaky ship (Bon Voyage) with Paquette and the Old Lady. The ship sinks, stranding the party on a desert island, where the two ladies squabble (Quiet). The sheep, still burdened with the Eldorado gold, swim to the island and arrive on-shore to their delight.
Meanwhile, in Constantinople, Cunegonde has become an odalisque of a very rich Turk, who is entertaining his jaded associates in a private casino (What's the Use). The indomitable, ever-faithful Candide, arriving with Paquette and the Old Lady, manages with all his remaining gold to buy Cunegonde (and Maximilian, who, miraculously restored from the dead, happens to be there as a house slave). The Westphalian friends are reunited at last, but they are also penniless. The Old Lady suggests that they visit the Wisest Man in the World, who also happens to live nearby, to ask his advice. When they arrive, the Wisest Man has stepped out, leaving in charge of his wisdom an assistant who turns out to be none other than a now rather senile and muddleheaded Dr. Pangloss, the group manages to learn the Wisest Man's recipe for a happy and tranquil life. It is to return from the far-from-best-possible world to a simple bucolic farm and there cultivate the earth (Make Our Garden Grow).