Camelot was inspired by T. H. White's novel "The Once and Future King," which is a retelling of the Arthurian legends. The book is over 600 pages, and Lerner had a hard time deciding what to leave out, so the first preview in Toronto ran four and a half hours. During the rest of the previews in Toronto and Boston, he kept hacking away at the show, then rewrote almost all of the second act, then revised some of the first act, then had to add songs to cover for what had been dropped, and so on until the last two previews in New York. According to Lerner, the show was still not in the shape he thought it should be in, but they were obligated to open. I think this explains some of the musical's dramaturgical problems.
The first act still seems to me about ten minutes too long. You think it has ended, and then it goes on for another scene which exists mainly so that King Arthur (originally, Richard Burton) can have a soliloquy just before intermission. The part of the story that we're most involved with is the love triangle of Arthur, his wife Guinevere, and the French knight Lancelot. At the end of the first act, Arthur already knows that Guinevere and Lancelot are in love, but is conflicted over what to do about it. The second act opens with Lancelot's famous song to Guinevere, "If Ever I Would Leave You." You would think that the resolution of this impossible situation among the three main characters would be the focus of the rest of the show. Instead, the dastardly Mordred, who is Arthur's illegitimate son, is introduced. Then, there is a tranquil domestic scene between Arthur and Guinevere in which they wonder "What Would the Simple Folk Do" and dance around as if there were nothing coming between them at all, when everyone, including Arthur and Guinevere, knows that this marriage is doomed. The play turns into a disquisition about civil society under the rule of law (Arthur and the Round Table) versus the recidivism to feudal barbarism by the knights spurred on by Mordred. Finally we get back to Guinevere and Lancelot, but only briefly. Maybe the show really did need to be an hour longer to accommodate all its ambitions. The ending, though, is effective: Camelot is remembered as the once and future ideal kingdom--peaceable, equitable, just, civilized--the perfect state to which succeeding generations can aspire.
The word Camelot and this musical are so inextricably linked in America to the Kennedy administration that it's surprising to learn from Lerner how this came to be. Even though the opening of Camelot in late 1960 coincided almost exactly with the election of John Kennedy to the presidency, the association with the Kennedy era did not occur until after the assassination. About a week later, Jacqueline Kennedy gave an interview in which she said that her late husband often used to play records before going to bed, and his favorite track was the final song on the cast album of Camelot. She quoted the lyric that he loved: "Don't let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief shining moment/That was known as Camelot." That "one brief shining moment" has ever since symbolized the youthfulness, vigor, and optimism of America in the early 1960san idealization that, like Arthur's Camelot, was fated not to last, or maybe never was totally real in the first place.
Despite my quibbling about the structure of the play, there is no doubt that it has some wonderful songs and music (by Frederick Loewe), and it might be the last of the great American musicals with wide appeal. (Not to say that the musical is a dead form: Sondheim has kept it alive in America, Lloyd Webber in Britain, Elton John contributes, Wicked is super-popular, etc. But does any musical since Camelot have as many memorable songs in one score? Maybe Hair, but that's the only one I can think of at the moment, and its appeal was never to the masses.)
This Musical Theater Southwest production fully does Camelot justice. Matt Naegeli has directed a traditional production with artistry and professionalism (even though everyone on stage is a volunteer). He also designed the clever and fluid sets (constructed by Vic Browder). There is not much dancing in the show, but the movement of the set elements during scene changes is in itself balletic, and I give a lot of credit to the stage crew for pulling off this complicated choreography flawlessly. Together with the lighting by Deron Yevoli and the beautiful costumes by Sarah Sayles, this really becomes a top-notch presentation.
Arthur is a reluctant king. He is a simple man who is forced by fate to be king, since he is the only one who can pull the sword Excalibur out of the stone. He is at first uncomfortable in the role of monarch, and even more ill at ease about his arranged marriage to Guinevere, whom he has never even met. Rick Huff, although he looks the part, somewhat underplays the role, which at the beginning is appropriate since it reflects Arthur's ambivalence. But as years go by, Arthur should become more regal, until he declaims the rousing finale (the part that JFK liked so much). Mr. Huff acts very well, but his singing voice is not strong enough, and as a result he is sometimes overpowered by the music, thus muting the dramatic effect of some scenes.
Paul Bower, on the other hand, has a beautiful operatic baritone. His Lancelot sounds wonderful when he sings but I was never really sure whether he sounded French or not in the dialogue scenes. His effectiveness in the role is hampered a little by not having a commanding stage presence, as you would expect Lancelot to have, but I could listen to him sing all day.
The real standout here is Erin Warden as Guinevere. She could have easily stepped in for the original, Julie Andrews, if she had been performing back in 1960. She has a terrific voice, is a fine actor, and looks as queenly as could be. She has been doing excellent work here in Albuquerque over the past few years, and I hope we will see her more often in years to come.
The supporting roles are all well filled. Hal Simons is fun as Pellinore, but poor Hal has the misfortune to have to share the stage with one of the most beautiful and well-behaved dogs I have ever seen. Rick Wiles is unrecognizable as Merlyn beneath his wild hair and beard, but the voice is distinctive, and it's always good to see him on stage. Too bad he disappears within the first 15 minutes. He is taken away by the nymph Nimue, for unexplained reasons, to a cave where he will live for hundreds of years. Nimue is a minor character, but I think she has the most beautiful song in the entire show, "Follow Me," sung well by Julie Barnes.
There are nineteen other people in the cast and they give it everything they've got. This Camelot is a wonderful way to end one year and bring in the next. We can all hope for that "one brief shining moment" in our lives to come.
Camelot is presented by Musical Theatre Southwest at the African American Performing Arts Center, at San Pedro and Copper in Albuquerque. It runs through January 1, 2012, at 7:30 on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 on Sundays, except for a 2:00 matinee on December 24 and 6:00 on December 25. Tickets are $20, students and seniors $18, and children $16. Call 505-265-9119 for tickets and information, or musicaltheatresw.com.