"I'll tell you what the king is doing tonight--He's wishing he were in Scotland, fishing tonight."
- Music by Frederick Loewe
- Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
- Directed by Moss Hart (and an uncredited Alan Jay Lerner)
- Choreography by Hanya Holm
- Musical Direction: Franz Allers
- Opened 12/3/60 at the Majestic Theatre in New York. Closed 1/5/63 (873 performances).
Mary Sue Berry (only on the CD)
Morgan le Fey
Sir Lionel Bruce Yarnell Sir Sagramore James Gannon
- * = Does not appear on CD
This musical was based on The Once and Future King, a retelling of the King Arthur saga, by T. H. White.
King Arthur, of the idyllic kingdom of Camelot, enters into marriage with Guenevere, a young and rather flighty young woman. Despite losing his tutor, Merlin, to the spirit of Nimue, Arthur reigns wisely, setting up his Round Table of knights and establishing a reputation for tranquility and justice. This reputation brings the French knight Lancelot to the court. Although Lancelot is egotistical, he's also terribly competent, defeating the queen's three champions. Soon, his "strange power of purity and faith" wins over the court--especially Guenevere. The two soon fall in love, and in order not to betray his king, Lancelot asks Arthur to allow him to go a-questing. However, when he returns two years later, he resumes his dalliance with Guenevere. Arthur, aware of their feelings, keeps quiet to preserve the peace. However, his illegitimate son Mordred shows up and starts plotting against him in order to gain the throne. Contriving to keep the king away for a night, Mordred and a bunch of disgruntled Round Table knights surprise Lancelot and Guenevere in a compromising position. Lancelot escapes, but Guenevere is scheduled for burning under Arthur's law. Of course, Lancelot rescues her and spirits her off to France, forcing Arthur to make war on them. The king magnanimously forgives them just before the final battle. And he also knights a young stowaway and sends him back to England to "tell another generation of the noble ideals of Camelot."
- March (Parade)
- I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight
- The Simple Joys of Maidenhood
- Follow Me
- The Lusty Month of May
- C'est Moi
- Then You May Take Me to the Fair
- How to Handle a Woman
- Before I Gaze at You Again
- If Ever I Would Leave You
- The Seven Deadly Virtues
- What Do the Simple Folk Do?
- Fie on Goodness
- I Loved You Once in Silence
- Finale Ultimo (Camelot reprise)
Entries in red were winners. (Thanks to friendly reader Tommy Peter for pointing out that I had omitted the awards for Costume Designer and Scenic Designer, and Julie Andrews's nom.)
- Best Actor (Richard Burton)
- Best Actress (Julie Andrews)
- Best Musical Direction (Franz Allers)
- Best Costume Designer (Adrian and Tony Duquette)
- Best Scenic Designer (Oliver Smith)
- Outer Circle prize for Outstanding Achievement: Oliver Smith (scenic productions)
- Daniel Blum Theatre World Award for Promising Personalities: Robert Goulet
- Variety Drama Critics Poll for Scenic Design: Oliver Smith
- Variety Drama Critics Poll for Best Lyrics: Alan Jay Lerner
- 1999 Drama Desk Special Recognition Award
Camelot has the distinction of being one of the two cast albums I owned as a child (the other was My Fair Lady). I have a vague memory of performing with a bunch of other kids to "The Lusty Month of May," though I'm damned if I can remember why or where; it was probably when I attended Day Camp at the Toledo Jewish Community Center in the early 1970s. I also remember staring at the album some years later; it had been relegated to the basement (basement = unwanted) because I found one of the songs creepy--probably "Parade." (I also felt that way about the Beatles' "A Day in the Life," which suggests I was overly sensitive as a kid.)
Needless to say, I no longer find anything about the album creepy. I wouldn't call it one of my favorites, but long familiarity has made me fond of it. Some of the songs are really beautiful ("I Loved You Once in Silence," "If Ever I Would Leave You"); most of the others are "pleasant nonentities," good background music. The closest things to showstoppers are "C'est Moi" and "Fie on Goodness," the latter being the only truly lively song in the musical. Some of the songs ("Then You May Take Me to the Fair" and "Seven Deadly Virtues") are fun but would be more enjoyable if they didn't contain some cringe-inducing lyrics (see Really Crappy Lyrics). The rest of the lyrics aren't nearly that bad, though there are more low points than I'd like.
"Guenevere" is the ultimate "passive voice" song, with the company singing about how Lancelot rescued Guenevere. It makes for a terrible penultimate number--it was a kind of compromise song, as the show was way too long in previews; they cut the rescue scene and threw in this "look-what's-going-on-offstage" tune to cover themselves. If they'd cut or altered some of Guenevere's pointless early songs, they probably could have had some decent onstage action, but of course they had to feed their best singer and biggest Broadway name as much as she could handle.
The book is generally considered to be bad, with the first act being fun and the second act preachy, and with the Arthurian mythology hopelessly confused. Luckily, we don't have to suffer through it via the CD!
The ending... well, call me a cynic, but given how Camelot collapsed into total chaos over something as simple as the queen's unfaithfulness, how much good was it, that it should be remembered? (I'm now thinking of the Clinton/Lewinsky nonsense, which hardly brought the US down; but then, maybe we're too jaded these days to be torn apart over some screwing around. Or perhaps the real message is, a desirable Camelot can survive internal as well as external challenges.) But I shouldn't impress a 2000 viewpoint on a 1960s product.
Not having the book at hand, I can only guess at some things. It seems to me that Mordred was brought in awfully late. (Mark Kirkeby, who wrote the booklet for the remastered version of the CD, agrees that Mordred arrives "rather late in the evening.") Did they even bother with personalities for most of the knights? Why introduce Merlin only to get rid of him almost immediately?
The cast, anyway, is hard to fault:
- Burton made his musical debut in Camelot and proved that he has a credible Broadway-type voice. He doesn't act a whole lot on this CD; he always has a sort of sad-resigned air to his voice, as if he knows what's coming but is powerless to do anything about it. It doesn't help that he doesn't get any of the fun songs to sing. Still, he sounds appropriately regal.
- Was Julie Andrews ever bad in anything? (Well, yeah, but not this early in her career.) She's easily the most enjoyable performer here, turning her sweetsie-weetsie/brainless biddy tunes into listenable numbers. It's hardly her fault that she has to mouth some dumbass lyrics (again, see Really Crappy Lyrics). She also doesn't get to display much emotion in her songs; she's limited to cheer, cheery cattishness, and wistful love. I haven't seen the musical performed, but it strikes me that the role of Guenevere is not the most challenging one for a leading lady.
- Robert Goulet is, well, Robert Goulet. He only has two songs, but they're both good ones. "C'est Moi" is one of two interesting character songs in Camelot (the other being "The Seven Deadly Virtues"), and of course "If Ever I Would Leave You" is one of the genuine gems on this album. He's more of a singer than an actor, but he does a decent job of sounding pompous when required. He's certainly better here than he would be some years later in The Happy Time.
- Roddy McDowell, one of the few stars I've actually seen on stage (in the world's worst production of Dial M for Murder in Denver a few years before he died), is represented by one song, "The Seven Deadly Virtues." It's a simple song tailored for a limited range, but he acts it well, and he has exactly the right persona for a Mordred.
- Mary Sue Berry was not Nimue on stage; according to Kirkeby, she was an understudy to Marjorie Smith, who was too ill to sing at the recording session. Berry sings "Follow Me" credibly and probably felt incredibly lucky to do so. [*Just found this out--she sang harmony on the classic "Conjunction Junction"!]
- Listen carefully, and you'll hear a young John Cullum sing a handful of lyrics as the third knight Guenevere approaches to take her to the fair. He also sings some of the lines in "Fie on Goodness!" A wonderful reader has provided all kinds of interesting information (and corrected some mistakes I made) about Mr. Cullum's responsibilities anent Camelot--check out her letter (and website). He impressed Alan Jay Lerner enough in this show to earn the lead male role in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever--not exactly a reward, except he did get to sing the title song and got a Tony nom for Best Actor in that show.
The booklet from the non-remastered version sucks! There's no cast list; you have to read through the summary to find out who played what, and the minor players (notably the knights in "Then You May Take Me to the Fair" and "Fie On Goodness!") languish in anonymity. The only photos are three small ones of Burton, Andrews, and Goulet on the cover. The summary is good, and I appreciated the list of awards won, but there was little production history save a few basic details and a mention of the English production of Camelot (which refers to the movie, not a stage production). No lyrics, of course. And the summary was framed with some mindless adulatory dribble (e.g., "Camelot. A legend. A musical play glittering with wit, glowing with melody"). I've seen worse booklets, but not many.
The booklet from the remastered version is much better, though still flawed. At least it provides the show's history, a full cast list, info on the principals, a plot summary, the Hirschfeld poster for the show (behind the CD, unfortunately), and lots of blurry pictures. However, it omits the awards list and lyrics, and Mark Kirkeby's tone throughout is one of gentle snickering. I may agree with his view of the show, but I don't think this booklet is the place for him to express it. In particular, the plot summary is too opinionated.
My Fair Lady was an impossible musical to live up to, and one gets the sense that Lerner and Loewe didn't try very hard with Camelot. The story may have been too long and complex to lend itself to truly effective musicalization. Its main attractions are Julie Andrews and a few songs that have become standards, plus the cultural phenomenon of having lent its "atmosphere" to the Kennedy mythos. As a whole the musical is pleasant enough, but it's a classic more for its pedigree than for its inherent qualities. A necessity for Lerner & Loewe, Andrews, Burton, and Goulet fans; a very minor acquisition for Cullum fans. In general it belongs in comprehensive collections of musicals. But if you're just beginning to explore the glorious world of Broadway musicals, there are better classics to get first.
Friendly reader Mark Falconer disagrees with my assessment of Camelot. See what he has to say.
All non-lyric material copyright 2000, D. Aviva Rothschild. All rights reserved
I invite other reviews of this musical, or comments about the examples above. All submitted material will be properly credited and copyrighted to the submitters. Please see the submissions page for more information.
Or, if you're not in a mood to write an essay or review, just let me know your opinion of this page. If I like your letter, I'll post it unless you specifically request that I don't.
Return to Bursting with Song Return to Rational Magic current issue Go back to the Rational Magic home page