Twenty years later, "Camelot" is still in trouble; not just the place, but the whole big gorgeous whooping crane of a show - half lovely, half dopey and ultimately a bore. Not that the Lerner-Loewe revival, which last night opened a seven-week engagement, preliminary to a year’s tour (it actually broke in last month in Toronto), will fail to pack them in wherever it goes. With Richard Burton an even more assured and engaging King Authur than in 1960, and with a large, well-drilled cast and scads of scenery and costumes, it is bound to be the thing to see, something along the lines of the Radio City Music Easter show minus the Rockettes.
“Camelot” was, except for a feeble effort or two for screen and stage (the movie “The Little Prince” and a couple of added songs for a stage version of “Gigi”), Loewe’s swan song. And it isn’t hard to see why. Though the score contains some characteristically lovely melodies admirably suited to the more conventional aspects of what is, at bottom, a very ordinary love triangle involving extraordinary-named people, it is unable to rise to the higher aspirations of Lerner’s book, which falls somewhere between “Parsifal” and “The Vagabond King,” falling most of the way.
Oddly, though the actual show has been trimmed somewhat - a couple of songs have been dropped, along with the character of Morgan Le Fay, and the ensemble is smaller than before, though still sizable - the production has been scaled up to fit the vast reaches of the State Theater and auditoriums to follow. And since the house’s acoustics are notoriously poor, all the performers are miked. Watching the show from the First Ring one finds it taking on something of the disembodied quality of a Jones Beach extravaganza. All that’s missing is the moat.
Set against Desmond Heeley’s massive and ever-changing Maxfield Parrish - like scenery, swirling with magnificent costumes, Lerner’s book seems excessively naïve in its serio-jokey way. How many times can the modest monarch surprise others - Guenevere, Lancelot, everybody - by suddenly revealing himself as King Arthur? And the offstage “Joust,” with the crown excitedly reporting Lancelot’s progress on track in “The Hottentot,” Lerner pulled it off infinitely better in the Ascot scene of “My Fair Lady.”
Lerner’s lyrics are something else again, smart and entertaining and touching most of the way, so that he can even be forgiving rhyming “pedestal” with “better still.” And some of the songs are, as you know, enchanting. Not just the Big Song, “If Ever I Would Leave You,” pleasingly floated by the baritone of Richard Muenz, who makes the most of that stick of a role, Lancelot, the prig who wins Guenevere away from Arthur. But such pieces as the quietly entrancing “How to Handle a Woman,” so beautifully expressed by Burton; Guenevere’s “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood” and “I Loved You Once in Silence,” entrusted to Christine Ebersole, who makes a very bright and winning blond queen; the haunting “Follow Me,” mostly used for background; the Guenevere-Arthur duets; and, it goes without saying, Arthur’s title song, with which Burton wraps up the audience at the beginning and the end of the evening.
These songs are the sole excuse for “Camelot.” Incidentally, the book has been rearranged, beginning as well as ending with the last gasp of Arthur’s ideal state. But whenever the book deals with that ideal state, or with the fate of Guenevere, saved from the stake in the nick of time to the monotonous choral number “Guenevere,” neither Lerner or Loewe - and here we must principally blame the music, which should be transporting - can rise to the occasion.
In addition to the three leads, Paxton Whitehead gives a warmly humorous performance as King Pellinore, that fuddy-duddy sort of medieval Dr. Watson to Burton’s Arthur. Merlyn’s part has been enlarged, and James Valentine does very nicely by it in an oratorical way. The entire cast, in fact, is admirable and has been put through its paces with great precision, if not overwhelming originality, by director Frank Dunlop and choreographer Buddy Schwab.
But “Camelot” is too long and too often too silly and pretentious. Eventually, Burton is the whole show, and I’d have gladly settled for a solo reading from Mallory or White by that distinctive, irresistible voice. But in a smaller, unmiked house in which so many of the words would not be garbled and lost. And, as you’ve probably already been informed, he looks just great, hardly a day over 1960.
The difficulty with the musical Camelot, which was restored to Broadway life at the New York State Theater last night, is that it is almost the same as ever. Not quite the same – there have been some improvements, but it remains a musical of uneasy vintage and uncertain taste. Twenty years ago Camelot was the necessary encore by composer Frederick Loewe and writer and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, to their fabulously successful My Fair Lady, then still running on Broadway. Everyone agrees that the original Camelot opened on Broadway half-baked, and had to be re-heated into success. This present version is simply half-baked.
There are some good things here. This is not simply a reproduction of the past – despite the renewed presence of Richard Burton playing once more the central role of King Arthur. The director, Frank Dunlop, seems to have completely rethought and, particularly in the second act, even reshaped the musical.
The sets and costumes by Desmond Heeley are new and glamorous, and while they don’t efface the old Oliver Smith scenery, they do give the show a new, more balletic look. At times one idly feels one is watching a Swan Lake bereft of swans.
Dunlop, accepting Lerner’s famous “optimistic” ending, added after the Broadway premiere, appears to have gone for the second act with something looking suspiciously like a carving knife. That deadly witch Morgan LeFey with her unfortunate penchant for chocolates, has been sensibly exorcised, and the whole musical has been given a trimmer look. Dunlop has worked miracles, but miracles do not always work.
The real problem about Camelot is that it is not, never was, nor never will be, a particular good musical. It was Loewe’s last score and it has a tentativeness about it that one would hardly associate with the assertive composer of My Fair Lady, or even Brigadoon. The title song is sweet, as are some of the other numbers, but that special surge needed by all truly great musicals remains resolutely unsurged.
Alan Jay Lerner, one of the few master craftsmen in our lyric theater, has done what he can with this story based on T.H. White’s novel, but it is still much more book than literature. The storytelling of this pseudo-Arthurian legend seems endless, even with such excisions that are the kindest cuts of all. Lerner’s lyrics however remain as nimble as un-leashed whippets.
Burton however, looks wan. Four years ago he appeared on Broadway in Equus, and I thought he was tremendous – it seemed like the happy resurgence of a once promising career. In Camelot he seems a little more than a burnt-out dummy. His face is leathery and unanimated, his arms droop to his side, and his hands are flaccid. Yes there are glints of greatness. The sonorous intonation has not entirely deserted him, and his final scene has a nobility and compassion that totally transcends everything that has gone before. But it is too little, too late.
The rest of the cast, apart from Robert Fox’ Waspish Mordred, is mostly adequate. Christine Ebersole is a sweet Guenevere, Richard Muenz a noble Lancelot, and Paxton Whitehead babbles conventionally enough as the dragon-hunting King Pellinore.
I see no reason for this revival but one. As I entered the theater there was a line at the box office buying tickets for a once and future Burton. So why not? No one told you that the theater was not out to make money. Perhaps the tragedy is that Burton could once have made magic.
Who says you can’t go home again? Last night Richard Burton returned to the kingdom of “Camelot,” and it was as if he had never abdicated his throne. True, Mr. Burton is order now – as are we, as is “Camelot” – but he remains every inch the King Arthur of our most majestic storybook dreams. This actor doesn’t merely command the stage; he seems to own it by divine right. Splendidly, outfitted in a black-and-gold robe, his blue eyes awash in melancholy, he takes over the show from the moment of his first entrance and doesn’t ever let go. By the time he sings for a final time of that “one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot,” the audience is ready to weep for every noble ideal that ever has been smashed on the hard rocks of history. Mr. Burton’s powerful yet vulnerable Welsh voice seems to slide a full, shattering octave on the word “moment” alone. At that instant, the New York State Theater is so hushed that nothing short of a prayer could serve as an encore.
Mr. Burton’s feat is all the more amazing because “Camelot” never was and still is not a great Broadway musical: even when in 1960, it received mixed reviews and was rightfully deemed a let-down after the previous Alan Jay Lerner - Frederick Loewe triumph, “My Fair Lady.” Mr. Lerner’s libretto, adapted from T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King,” is a witty, literate and passionate recounting of the highpoints of the Arthurian legend, but it also has a plodding, prosaic quality that one associates with musicals of much older vintage. Many of the crucial events – the invention of the Round Table, Guenevere’s sudden infatuation with Lancelot, the appearance of the villainous Mordred – spring up almost arbitrarily. Though Mr. Loewe’s music is rich with melody and graced by the composer’s characteristic Viennese lilt, the songs do not so much propel the show forward as bring it to periodic (if beguiling) halts.
Nonetheless, “Camelot” does occupy a special niche in the history of our popular culture – especially in retrospect. This show was the final stage collaboration of Broadway’s last great songwriting team, and it was also the last musical to be directed by that legendary man of the theater, Moss Hart. More moving still is “Camelot” opened a month after the 1960 Presidential election and was still touring in November 1963. When confronting the show today, it is all but impossible to forget that it was a favorite of John F. Kennedy’s.
The associations we bring to “Camelot” can give it an unearned, if still affecting, poignancy, but they don’t quite cover up its flaws. Perhaps mindful of the show’s initial weaknesses, Mr. Lerner has done some tinkering for the revival. The show is now framed within a flashback (which also helps account for Mr. Burton’s age) and is somewhat shorter; one character, Morgan Le Fey, has been dropped. These changes are generally for the better – though half the overture is regrettably lost – but they don’t remake “Camelot” into a seamless, light-footed entertainment. Without Mr. Burton, it might as well be a chore to sit through.
Even with him, there are some problems. Frank Dunlop, the revival’s director, is not an old hand at musicals, and his inexperience shows. His staging has an operatic heaviness that accents both the vast expanse of the State Theater’s stage and the windiness of the book. He is not helped much by Desmond Heeley’s sets, either. Mr. Heeley’s medieval vistas and royal dwellings are as opulent and gargantuan as Oliver Smith’s originals, but they could do with a little less guilt and a little more poetry. Much more too often they look under-inhabited. Buddy Schwab’s choreography adds a distracting tackiness in the big numbers: When the royal folk gambol about in “The Lusty Month of May,” this “Camelot” unintentionally recreates the ambience of Hollywood’s old-time Biblical spectaculars.
The casting of the supporting roles, though, is superb. Christine Ebersole, last seen as Ado Annie in the “Oklahoma!” revival, lacks the piquancy of Julie Andrews, but she is a charming, self-possessed Guenevere whose voice is more than up to the demands of “Before I Gaze at You Again” and “I Loved You Once in Silence.” It’s not her fault that the Queen is underwritten and sometimes seems a ninny. Paxton Whitehead gets everything there is to be had out of the shaggy, low-burlesque antics of King Pellinore, and Richard Muenz finds a way to make the pious Lancelot a most appealing hypotenuse to the love triangle. Mr. Muenz, who sang the definitive version of Frank Loesser’s “Joey, Joey, Joey” in the revival of “The Most Happy Fella,” performs the same chore here for “If Ever I Would Leave You.”
But it’s no use pretending that we pay much attention to the other performers, good as they may be, when Mr. Burton is on stage. Middle age suits him and King Arthur well. Though he is given every opportunity to ham up his familiar role, he shocks us by doing exactly the reverse. Despite the grandeur of the show and the theater, Mr. Burton performs on an intimate scale. He can do more with a downcast, far-away look or a deep-throated cry or a slight shift in posture than most actors can do with all their equipment operating at full throttle. One might debate Mr. Burton’s decision to recreate this old theatrical conquest – is he retreating into a safe showbiz haven or simply regrouping his artistic forces? – but his performance tends to render such questions moot. In “Camelot,” he is our once, our present and – who knows? – maybe even our future king.