Carousel, The Music Man and Camelot all have the same problem for revival at this time: they deal with subject matter that is currently unacceptable. Carousel is about a wife beater; The Music Man is about a con artist planning to take a whole town; and Camelot has an adulterous affair that affects the stability of a monarchy. As a result, all have had to be reworked in recent years to the point that the question arises: why bother to revive them at all at this time rather than something more acceptable? Lincoln Center Theater’s answer to this problem was to commission a new book for the notoriously troubled Lerner and Loewe classic from Aaron Sorkin, most famous for his political television series The West Wing.
Camelot was conceived by lyricist/librettist Alan Jay Lerner after his fabulous successes to music by composer Frederick Loewe with My Fair Lady on Broadway and Gigi in the movies. Unfortunately, Camelot which was based on T.H. White’s 654 page novel, The Once and Future King, was not as easy to adapt to the stage as Shaw’s Pygmalion which was already a stage worthy property. On opening night of the Toronto pre-Broadway tour, the show ran either three and a half or four and a half hours depending on whether you believe the New York Times reporter who witnessed it or Lerner in his later autobiography. The problems with the production sent Lerner to the hospital with a bleeding ulcer and director Moss Hart his second heart attack, which led to Lerner taking over the direction for the rest of the tour. The hard-working cast included many famous British stars of stage and screen: Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, Robert Coote, Roddy McDowall and upcoming future stars and Tony Award winners, the Canadian Robert Goulet and the American John Cullum. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy revealed that Camelot had been the president’s favorite musical and his 1,000 days in office has been ever after identified with the founding of the Round Table and the story of this musical.
Unfortunately, though Sorkin may have made this Camelot more politically correct, scientifically accurate and less supernatural, it is much less entertaining and magical than earlier productions and certainly much darker as well as less funny. Whereas the original 1960 Broadway production billed itself as “the most beautiful show in the world,” Bartlett Sher’s revival has a nearly empty grey stage most of the time (designed by Michael Yeargan) and drab costumes from Jennifer Moeller. Although the cast has 25 performers, the court scenes always look underpopulated as though not enough courtiers have shown up and there is almost no pageantry which one expects for a royal court of the Dark Ages or the Middle Ages.
While the cast is generally younger than in previous revivals, they do not bring more energy to the glum and humorless proceedings. As King Arthur, Andrew Burnap (The Inheritance) has a very light tenor which is less suitable for his songs previously sung by baritones (Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Robert Goulet) and his age counts against him as the ruler of a troubled nation trying to keep things together. Phillipa Soo is somewhat older than both Julie Andrews (original Broadway cast) and Vanessa Redgrave (film version) but her continually sarcastic delivery undercuts her performance. Initially the sound design by Marc Salzberg & Beth Lake or the famously difficult acoustics at the Vivian Beaumont Theater is not flattering to her voice but eventually during the course of the evening this becomes less of a problem. Rising star Jordan Donica (Freddy Eynsford-Hill in LCT’s My Fair Lady also directed by Sher) as Lancelot has the magnificent baritone required for such songs as “C’est Moi,” “If Ever I Would Leave You” and “I Loved You Once in Silence” (now assigned to Lancelot rather than Guenevere), but is unable to overcome the stiffness in this character’s makeup.
Sorkin’s new book eliminates all of the magical aspects to the story: Merlyn is now Arthur’s teacher and not a wizard. He does not follow the voice of the water nymph Nimue when he disappears at age 104, the song “Follow Me” having been eliminated. Missing from the 1980 and 1982 revivals, Morgan Le Fey (played by Marilee Talkington) is now a scientist and a prophet, not the sorceress of the original, and predicts all kinds of advances in centuries to come. While the new book establishes the silent love between Guenevere and Lancelot, this Camelot is much less romantic than before. In discussing the new order of the Round Table with “might for right” and “justice for all,” Sorkin has the knights say things like “Tell me, when we’re all equal, will peasants live like knights or will knights live like peasants?”
The biggest laugh of the evening comes with Morgan Le Fay’s response to Arthur’s assertion that no one will follow their illegitimate son Mordred who is stirring up trouble in Camelot as he has no leadership skills when she retorts, “Oh you’d be amazed at who people will follow.” Sorkin has restored two songs which appear on the original cast album but were cut after the opening as the original production was thought to be too long: the witty “Take Me to the Fair” sung by Queen Guenevere and her three leading knights, and “Fie on Goodness” sung by Mordred and the knights, establishing how far things have deteriorated among the members of the Round Table. However, unaccountably in this production Arthur takes the place of Sir Lionel in the jousting match and is himself initially slain by Launcelot whose faith brings him back to life. It makes one wonder if kings put themselves in such danger of making their kingdoms headless if they lost their lives.
Sher’s work with his company of actors is consistent but his staging only comes alive two times: when Lancelot arrives from France about halfway through the first act and the last 15 minutes of Act Two when the stakes are raised and it becomes obvious that Mordred’s devious plotting will bring down the Round Table and destroy Arthur, Guenevere and Lancelot. The fencing scenes overseen by fight director B.H. Barry are vigorous though they all end rather quickly. However, the new sequence by Sorkin for Arthur’s visit to Morgan Le Fay, which is intercut with Lancelot’s visit to Guenevere’s bed chamber and the knights plotting with Mordred, is more than a mess with scenery being pushed on and off stage continually to get the three scenes in quick rotation.
Visually, the production is disappointing considering high expectations (Sher’s production of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady was quite beautiful as were the previous New York revivals of Camelot.) Yeargan’s grey settings makes the entire stage visible to the audience, a huge space originally designed and built for storing scenery for the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center of yore. As a result, the stage looks empty and there are not enough actors to fill it up. Mainly using projections by 59 Productions on the back wall and occasional grill work, the sparse sets have no atmosphere, unless this was intended to show how drafty castles were in the fifth and sixth centuries. However, the lighting design by Lap Chi Chu does not follow through on this idea making the outdoor scenes darker than the interior ones in the castle.
Moeller’s costumes are equally devoid of color except on the few occasions when Guenevere wears a red gown and Lancelot wears a blue tunic. Unaccountably, she puts Princess Guenevere in leather pants in her first appearance when historically women did not start wearing pants until about the 1960’s which is a thousand years later. Music director Kimberly Grigsby does a fine job with Loewe’s lush score but the sound design makes the music sound tinny and disembodied. The show offers few opportunities for dances but what there are (“The Lusty Month of May” production number in Act I and the fiery dance to back up “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” in the second) is the work of Byron Easley.
Camelot still offers the famously gorgeous score with its witty lyrics by Lerner and its lush music by Loewe. It is always a pleasure to hear “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” “The Lusty Month of May,” “Take Me to the Fair,” and “Before I Gaze at You Again,” sung by Guenevere, and Arthur’s “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight?,” “How to Handle a Woman,” the title song, and the duet “What do the Simple Folk Do?” sung by Arthur and Guenevere, though the last verse which completes its message has been removed. Mordred has much fun with his two songs, “The Seven Deadly Virtues” and “Fie on Goodness,” both bad boy statements of intent. It is to be hoped that future musical revivals of golden age shows will either trust the original material or their audiences to know that things were different in earlier decades. However, if there had been more pageantry and décor this Camelot like the original would have wowed the audience more.
Camelot (through July 23, 2023)
Lincoln Center Theater
Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 W. 65th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.lct.org
Running time: two hours and 55 minutes including one intermission