When the ‘Musical Play’ was first introduced as a genre, in works like Show Boat and the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, while it proved musicals could be serious, deep and even profound, it still dealt with relatively straightforward themes and concepts compared to much of the so-called ‘legitimate’ theater it shared the stage with. But with the emergence of My Fair Lady, an unprecedented success and instant classic based on a play by the densest of all theater writers, George Bernard Shaw, musicals of the late Fifties and early Sixties gradually began to deal with more complicated philosophical themes, such as the passing of longstanding cultural traditions in the wake of social change (Fiddler on the Roof), the moral compromises necessary to effect historical change (1776), or the very nature and definition of sanity vs. insanity (Man of La Mancha). These progressions would later be picked up and carried even further by auteurs like Sondheim, proving that the Musical Play was capable of everything the ‘straight’ play was and more.
Camelot, the follow-up show by the authors of My Fair Lady, fell squarely into the middle of that progress. Like another hit show from around that time, Lionel Bart’s Oliver, it is based on a lengthy, complex English novel from the high literary canon, and as a result, is so stuffed full of plot, character and content that it seems to be bursting at the seams. T.H. White’s The Once and Future King is loaded with dozens of secondary characters and subplots relating to them, but the musical has so much to deal with just regarding the central story of Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and Mordred, and conveying the show’s high-minded ideals about civilization, that it was initially four hours long during its first tryouts.
To be able to tell T.H. White’s story in a reasonable time frame, more than just the subplots had to be sacrificed. In the musical, Arthur and Guenivere’s characters are more or less the same as they are in the novel…Guenivere even gets to keep her rather violent and sexual streak from the book, in songs like the twisted gloss on a standard Wanting Song “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood”, the merrily carnal “The Lusty Month of May”, and the scheming, playfully sadistic “Then You May Take Me to the Fair”. Unfortunately, Lancelot and Mordred are not so lucky, as both are significantly flattened out in the musical. For one thing, the Lancelot in the novel is extremely complex, a kind of self-loathing living saint (not the mention the ugliest man in the kingdom), and the character of the same name in the musical, a handsome braggart who happens to be unusually pious, would be almost unrecognizable to anyone who had actually read the book.
Meanwhile, Mordred, while still an entertaining villain, is little more than a stereotypical moustache-twirler in Camelot, complete with a villain song, “The Seven Deadly Virtues”, where he philosophizes on just how evil he is. The Mordred of the novel, on the other hand, is more of an avenging angel, at least at first. He’s the villain only because he’s willing to tear down a civilization to get revenge on one person: he has every justifiable reason to hate his father (who, in the novel, point-blank tried to murder him when he was a baby). It’s only when his half-brothers, whom he clearly loves in spite of his brusque behavior toward them, start getting killed as a result of his plans that he begins to go genuinely insane. By the end of the novel, he is something of a midieval Hitler analogue, but it’s also made clear by that point that he no longer comprehends the reality of his actions.
Even more irksome, in a way, is Arthur’s comment in the musical that “He is my son, and yet I feel nothing for him”. On the contrary, in the novel Arthur has a crippling Absolom Complex regarding Mordred, and that, combined with Arthur’s keenly developed sense of justice and his full knowledge that he does in fact deserve what he’s getting, leads him to essentially craft his own doom. In fact, the entire final tragedy could have been avoided if Lancelot had just killed Mordred when he was ambushed in Guenivere’s chambers, but Arthur had asked Lancelot not to hurt his son and Lancelot honored his request, even though it ultimately doomed them all.
I understand that these were necessary concessions…no musical, even if it was four hours long, could have contained even the four central characters of White’s novel and their story in a stage production. But it can be frustrating to fans of the book to see so much of Lancelot and Mordred’s very selves stripped away, especially when so many audience know these characters primarily through the musical alone. It also strips several layers of moral ambiguity from a show that is entirely about moral gray areas to begin with, which is especiall regrettable.
The show is an odd mix of genre elements that plays like something of an extremely intellectual Romantic Operetta (as opposed to the extremely intellectual Comic Operetta represented by something like Candide). While the book is certainly flawed, with some rather stodgy attempts at ceremony, some pacing issues, and some of the attempted humor falling flat (not to mention the tone radically shifting between the two acts), the show still plays wonderfully in performance, immensely charming and with a monumental emotional impact.
It certainly helps that the score is one of the all-time classic ones, and does a great deal to carry the show. There are a few duds among the minor numbers, particularly “The Persuasion”, an idiotic duet for Mordred and Morgan le Fay, a character from the novel brought on here purely as a plot device, where he bribes her with candy to build an invisible wall around Arthur so the plot-necessary ambush of Lancelot and Guenivere can happen without his interference (the movie, for all its problems, improved this part greatly by eliminating Morgan and the song altogether, and having Mordred instead trap the King with his own moral convictions as he does throughout the rest of the show).
But the major songs are all magnificent, especially the hilarious opening, “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight”, the ravishing siren call “Follow Me”, Lancelot’s introductory showstopper “C’est Moi” and his soaring hit ballad “If Ever I Would Leave You”, Arthur’s deeply touching “How To Handle a Woman”, the quirkily brilliant villain song “Fie on Goodness”, and the title-song, which receives a memorable reprise at one of the most moving final curtains in Musical Theater history.
The score also has an oversized richness that almost rivals that of Candide, with even several of a minor numbers being extremely ambitious. For example, the aforementioned “Follow Me”, while generally featured very prominently on recordings, is little more than glorified underscoring as used in the actual show. And there is a brief but exquisite madrigal in the scene leading up to “If Ever I Would Leave You” that could easily have been expanded into a hit ballad itself, and probably would have been in any other show.
There is endless debate among the show’s fans about whether the stage draft of the material or the movie version represents the ultimate fufillment of the show’s concept. The stage version is musically richer (the film adaptation cuts almost half the score), and the Broadway production was certainly better performed than the movie (although that hardly seems relevant to the question today, as the original Broadway leads are all dead or retired and their performance was never formally filmed). But the movie screenplay is tighter and more consistent in tone, and it makes several improvements to the story like the one I mentioned earlier. For my part, I think the film, and especially Richard Harris’ interpretation of the leading role, are both rather underrated, but I also hate to lose all of that wonderful music (even if many stage productions, including the Broadway one by the time it closed, already cut two fairly key songs, “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” and “Fie on Goodness”, the latter of which is actually quite crucial to the show’s message).
As for the show’s historical associations, such as they are, with the John F. Kennedy administration, I’m not concerned with them (even if they’ve managed to dominate the show’s legacy to a rather ridiculous degree). For one thing, while I certainly have nothing against President Kennedy, comparing him with King Arthur just because of his status as a martyr frankly seems to be a considerable reach. In any case, Alan Jay Lerner certainly never intended this show to be an ode to the then-current President (even if they did know each other in College), and I find the way nostalgic baby boomers have hijacked this show’s entire perceived meaning by conflating the “Camelot” the title speaks of with their speculations on what Kennedy might have done as President if he had lived rather annoying, to be honest.
But as for the show itself, it walked an impressive balancing act. A show this flawed and unwieldy could easily have ended up as just another Heartbreaker Flop in spite of all its glorious qualities, but between the charming comedy of the first act, the emotional and inspirational impact of its second, and its enthralling score, it managed to outweigh all its problems and emerge as one of the foremost classic titles of its era. Given al the shows I’ve covered that simply collapsed under this level of ambition, that almost seems like a miracle. I suppose Arthur’s speech at the end of the show was right…some of the drops do sparkle.