Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Monday, June 25, 2018

Goodspeed's production of "Camelot" features Erin Davie as Guenevere, Maxime de Toledo as Lancelot, left; and Knights of the Round Table Allan Snyder and Brandon Andrus (kneeling). Click  here  to enlarge.  (Photo by Diane Sobolewski)

NEW YORK – If you are of a certain age, you probably have the date Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, engraved in your memory. You probably recall where you were when you heard the news. In the weeks following the tragedy, there were lots of newspaper stories about Kennedy’s presidency cut short and frequent allusions to his brief time in office as the "Camelot" era of American history.

The "Camelot" reference is to the 1960 Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical retelling of the King Arthur legend. Goodspeed Musicals' upcoming production of  "Camelot" will begin July 10 and run through Sept. 19 at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam.

The Camelot myth came into being about a week after the Kennedy assassination, when historian Theodore H. White, a Harvard classmate of the President, on assignment from Life magazine, traveled to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., to interview Jacqueline Kennedy. The following week, Mr. White’s story appeared in Life as a splashy, two-page centerfold spread. Mrs. Kennedy had told Mr. White: "When Jack quoted something, it was usually classical," she said, "but I am so ashamed of myself – all I keep thinking of is this line from a musical comedy.

"At night, before we’d go to bed Jack liked to play some records; and the song he loved most came at the very end of the recording of ‘Camelot.’ The lines he loved to hear were: ‘Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.’"

Mr. Lerner, who had attended Choate with the President, points out in his memoir The Street Where I Live (Norton) that "it was then that the show ‘Camelot’ became the symbol of the thousand days of the Kennedy administration when people the world over saw a bright new light of hope shining from the White House."

By the time the Life piece appeared, "Camelot" had finished its Broadway run of 857 performances and was on tour in Chicago. A London production was preparing to open.

Even with its top-flight artistic staff, lovely songs and romantic story, "Camelot" was far from an overnight success when it opened its pre-Broadway tryout in Toronto in 1960. In fact, it had one of the most tumultuous births of any Broadway musical within memory.

Mr. Lerner had taken the story from English writer T. H. White’s magnificent novel about King Arthur, The Once and Future King. Following Mr. White’s story, writing in the same light style, keeping it bright and merry most of the time, he would tell of Arthur’s love for Guinevere and the arrival of Lancelot in Camelot. Into this exquisite love story he would integrate an account of the founding of the roundtable and celebrate King Arthur’s attempt to woo men away from brutality to chivalry and peace.

As librettist, Mr. Lerner felt that he could carry his story of love and idealism, disaster and hope through two acts with songs, dances and proper pageantry. He could suggest that the legend of King Arthur is the story of humanity, which loves and aspires toward high goals only to go down in defeat, yet not without hope. There is always a new generation ready to pick up the dream.

Mr. Lerner put all these ideas into his libretto, which turned out to be much too long. He planned to cut and shape it when the show got onstage in Toronto. His plans were thwarted, though, when Mr. Lerner landed in a Toronto hospital with bleeding ulcers. Before he was discharged, his director, the great Moss Hart, was admitted to the same hospital with a heart condition so severe that he never fully recovered. To make the situation more difficult, composer Frederick Loewe had a massive heart attack a year earlier and still was in less than perfect health.

When Mr. Lerner finally got back to work on the show in Toronto and subsequently in Boston, he cut it and tried his best to make it work. Yet, audiences never found it as good as Lerner and Loewe’s last show, "My Fair Lady." "Camelot" seemed to break down in Act II.

The magician Merlin turned out to be a clumsy intruder; and later, when the wicked Mordred and the even wickeder Morgan Le Fay appear to advance the plot, a lot of the "Camelot" charm vanished into juvenile nonsense. The show’s dazzling original cast (Richard Burton in the role of the idealistic Arthur, Julie Andrews as Queen Guinevere and newcomer Robert Goulet as the knight Lancelot) contributed to its initial popularity, as did some of the most melodious music ever written by Frederick Loewe, including the title song; Lancelot’s "If Ever I Would Leave You" and the touching love song, "Before I Gaze at You Again," as well as early scenes that catch the wonder of the magnificent love story on which Mr. Lerner based his libretto.

However, I still suspect that the musical’s longevity is the result of the Kennedy era it symbolizes. Ironically, Mr. Lerner notes in his book, "From that moment on the first act became the weak act and the second act the stronger. God knows, I would have preferred that history had not become my collaborator."

Information on the Goodspeed Musicals’ production is available at http://www.goodspeed.org.

Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.