Cabaret


The New York Philharmonic Presents
Camelot In Concert

by Matthew Murray

Wednesday through Saturday of this week - or, if you prefer, for "one brief, shining moment" - the New York Philharmonic will be presenting a concert production of the 1960 Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe musical Camelot.  The epic, tragic romance about King Arthur, his queen Guenevere, and her devastating affair with the knight Lancelot, will be directed by Lonny Price and conducted by Paul Gemignani.  Leading the impressive company of actors as Arthur is Gabriel Byrne, who most recently appeared on Broadway in 2005 in a revival of A Touch of the Poet; his Guenevere is Marin Mazzie, who originated the role of Mother in Ragtime and starred in the 1999 revival of Kiss Me, Kate; star opera baritone Nathan Gunn will appear as Lancelot. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit nyphil.org.

Just prior to the final days of rehearsals, I talked to Price, who originated the role of Charley Kringas in Merrily We Roll Along, and who has recently risen to prominence as a director with Broadway shows like A Class Act and 110 in the Shade, and the Philharmonic concerts of Sweeney Todd in 2000 and Candide in 2004.  He spoke about the show's legendary problems, its place in history past and present, and the all-star cast who will bringing it all to life.

Lonny Price
Lonny Price
Matthew Murray :   How are rehearsals going?

Lonny Price :  I think they're going very well.  We have such a short time.  [But] Paul Gemignani and I have done a lot of these.

MM:  Camelot is intimately associated with the John F. Kennedy presidency, and the T.H. White novel from which the show was adapted ("The Once and Future King") is full of political overtones.  What do you feel Camelot says to audiences today?

LP:  Forty-eight years ago, the country was a much more innocent place.  Now we're more cynical and less trusting, and what's happened to this country - certainly post-September 11, if not before - is a real awakening.  I think the piece can be looked at in a very different light in 2008, and with all the knowledge of the last 48 years.  Considering that the Arthur legend has a lot to do with ideas of violence and war, I believe the piece itself is very pertinent to our times.

MM:  When most people think about Lerner and Loewe's shows, the one that first springs to mind is usually My Fair Lady.  How well do you think Camelot stacks up to it?

LP:  There's no question My Fair Lady is a masterpiece, and this is a problematic show.  It was then.  I will say, though, it seems to be a show audiences like to see.  I think people forgive the moments that aren't so good, because when it's good it's just sensational.  I think comparing the two is [difficult].  But let's not forget:  My Fair Lady is based on one of the greatest plays ever written.  Lerner took a 600-page book, which is largely philosophical, and tried to craft a two-act musical out of it.  If maybe it's not as successful as one hopes it would be, "The Once and Future King" has a hard structure, and Lerner did a valiant job of it.

MM:  The characterizations of the shows' two leads, Henry Higgins and King Arthur, are in some ways similar, but achieve very different effects.

Camelot
Lonny Price works with (from left) Christopher Lloyd (Pellinore), Fran Drescher (Morgan la Fay), Christopher Sieber (Dinadan) and Will Swenson (Sagramore)
LP:  For some reason,  Higgins' emotions were better served by patter songs.  Arthur's are highly romantic.  Elevated.  The stakes are enormous - it's almost Shakespearean, it's almost Greek.  It's a tragedy, this show.  One would assume his songs to be almost operatic.  Whereas Higgins is all about not feeling.  The more patterny, rhymey, witty kind of material works so beautifully there, whereas Arthur is pure emotion in a lot of ways.

MM:  How will your staging of Camelot compare to what you did with your previous Philharmonic concerts?

LP:  In that the orchestra is onstage, it's the same idea.  They're very present, and we have ramps and platforms that go through the orchestra ... they are very much involved in the evening.  But the thing I felt very strongly about is not doing it strictly in period.  It kind of takes place anytime - now, then and tomorrow.  It's got a modernistic approach to it, very much because I believe its political aspirations and philosophical ideology are timeless.  Camelot is a kind of magical place, and therefore I think it gives us a lot of latitude to be able to play with metaphor and theatricality.

MM:  For better or worse, Camelot has always been dogged by the criticism that its spectacle is an important part - or perhaps too-important a part - of its overall experience.  Do you have any worries that in a stripped-down concert format, audiences might find Camelot less than completely satisfying?

LP:  It's perplexing.  I guess the original production was quite a spectacle, but it's odd to me for such a tuneful score that people remember it that way.  Maybe its original production overwhelmed what is some exquisite writing.  To me, the first 20 minutes are as good as the first 20 minutes of Carousel, and the last scene with the little boy I think is as good as anything.  [Arthur's speech at the end of the first act] is staggeringly beautiful.  [Camelot] is filled with absolutely spectacular writing, but it's still a very problematic evening, and I suspect it always will be.

MM:  What do you consider problematic?

LP:  The choices for the songs are odd in some ways.  The songs are beautiful within themselves, but they don't do a lot of heavy lifting.  They're philosophical, they reveal character, but they don't often take up a lot of plot, and therefore the book has the burden of doing much of the work.  The score is more decorative, but I'm not sure they function dramatically in the way we expect scores to function.  Which is deceiving, because they're such good songs - [Lerner and Loewe were] at the top of their craft.  But where they decided to put the songs, and what the songs are about, is not overly useful in telling the story they chose to tell.  All of Arthur's big moments are speeches.  I think they knew they had [original star Richard] Burton, and they wrote it around him, so they were very careful about not burdening him. But they saddled themselves with not making their lead characters' most emotional moments sung.  And that's an odd thing.  Paul and I were talking about how exquisite the underscoring is - it's very intricately scored and like a film at times.  Filled with emotion, just not sung emotion for that character.  Happily, though, [because] Lerner wrote some magnificent speeches, it holds well, but it's a little bit odd that they're not actually songs.

MM:  Lerner also considered the show troubled, and made many modifications to it over the years - most famously after its 1960 Broadway opening.  This has left a lot of incarnations of the script and score floating around.  What version will you be using?

LP:  It's very like [my] Candide.  I've culled from the Broadway script, from a script from the first day of rehearsal, from the London script, from a tour that Lerner's son Michael put together or adapted ...  I think there's even material from the movie.  But there's nothing in it that's not Lerner.

MM:  Who's making these changes?

LP:  I always like to do them myself.  I like it being one vision and one idea.  And then I don't have to argue with anybody.

MM:  What about the score?

LP:  We've put back "Then You May Take Me to the Fair" and we've taken out "Fie on Goodness," but I don't think there are any other surprises in it for people who know the work very well.  "The Persuasion" is present in a cut form.  "The Jousts" is not there in its sung form; it's now an orchestral and fight moment.  Surprisingly, there's a huge amount of dance music in the show; we're not using most of it.  But the big number is "The Lusty Month of May," and [choreographer Josh Prince] is just doing splendid work.

MM:  The music will probably sound especially good with the Philharmonic playing it.

LP:  I think you'll be blown away.  What a thrill it is to be doing the Broadway show with that orchestra.  Broadway shows [these days] are about smaller and smaller orchestras.  It sure is nice to hear music played by musicians and not by computers.  I'm kind of a musician whore.  I gave up members of my cast in 110 in the Shade to get 15 musicians, and now we'll have 60.  Not that [Camelot] needs 60, but I like doing shows with orchestras because I like to hear them played.  And Paul is the dean of all of it - he just makes the orchestra sound their best.

A Christmas Carol
Gabriel Byrne, Fran Drescher and Lonny Price
MM:  What can you tell us about your Arthur, Gabriel Byrne?

LP:   [Working with] Gabriel is just one of the joys of my directing career.  He's a superlative actor and such an incredible man.  He's never done a musical before, and he's thrown himself into this with such courage and tenacity.  I don't think I've ever respected anyone more.

MM:  Does he have any prior singing experience?

LP:  You'll be seeing Gabriel sing for the first time anywhere out of the shower.  I don't think he's ever sung anywhere publicly.

MM:  What about Marin Mazzie and Nathan Gunn?

LP:  Marin and I go back a long time, and she's just the ultimate pro.  She can do everything brilliantly, and is just a joy to have in the room.  Paul was very adamant about wanting a real legit baritone for Lancelot; because it's the Philharmonic, it made sense to go to the opera world.  We have Gabriel who's film and theatre, Marin who's from the Broadway world, and we have a guy from the opera world.  It's kind of an interesting amalgam of styles.  [But] Nathan opens his mouth and sings the hits and you know why you've paid the money.

MM:  And everyone else?

LP:  Christopher Lloyd is hilarious, and I feel we're so lucky just to get him to play [Pellinore] - I think he's going to town.  Stacy Keach is playing Merlyn - he came in late.  We worked together on a reading earlier this year, and I asked him to come in and do this cameo, and he said yes.  I think he's bringing enormous color to the character.  Bobby Steggert and I have worked together a lot; he was the understudy in the production of "MASTER HAROLD" ... and the boys [I directed on Broadway], and I just thought he gave one of the best performances I'd seen in a long time in 110 [last season].  He's never played a villain before, and I think he's relishing the opportunity.  We sort of have a different take to Mordred, and he's committing to it one thousand percent.  And then there's Fran Drescher.  She's playing Morgan la Fay, and it's a part that's usually cut.  When the idea of Fran came up, I thought, "If we can get Fran, we'll keep Morgan."  So we got her, and we kept her.  I think she brings a very unique sensibility  to the show.  She's a trip - she's terrific.  It's just been no trouble.  Every single aspect, every person involved in the show.  It's just been a complete and utter joy with the people we've got.  There's no problem anywhere.

MM:  What's next for you?

LP:  Camelot will be a DVD, so I'm going to be editing it for the next few weeks after [the concert].  It's being broadcast on Live From Lincoln Center on Thursday, and then the DVD will be for sale in the fall.


Photo: Chris Lee