Sunday, July 23, 2017

We Throne Folk

Today’s formative-album replay: Camelot (Original Broadway Cast Recording). Some musicals aren’t just better on record than onstage--some may have found their ideal form on their Broadway or London cast album. I’ve often felt this about a few Sondheim scores, which I grew to love only after repeated rotations and still have yet to see staged satisfactorily, and any number of Weill shows I’m not sure I ever need to see staged (Johnny Johnson, looking at you). I have to guess in this case, since I’ve never seen Lerner & Leowe’s Arthurian variation onstage (and I’m not sure the film, which I once half-watched, counts), but the received wisdom about Camelot is that it just doesn’t work as well onstage as their other biggie, My Fair Lady.

Thing is, though, while I heartily gobbled that record up too, it never captured my heart like this faux-medieval fantasy of royal romance and mild mischief, with its heraldic trumpets and sweeping strings. And this replay made it clear why, apart from those assets: the retiring, self-effacing lead, Arthur, as conveyed indelibly in the dry but warm whisky baritone of Richard Burton. Even after all these years, his unique Welsh bemusement, at once regal and relaxed, starch-stiff yet welcoming as a toasty hearth, taps a rich seam of emotion (for me, at least) that anchors and elevates even the show’s more eye-rollingly twee moments (particularly the grating doggerel of the title song, in which L&L have taken a playful metaphor--weather as a gauge of a nation’s health--and somehow forgot to flesh out its underlying meanings, not to mention committed such lyrical crimes as “that’s how conditions are” and “those are the legal laws”).

A fixation on climate and seasons impressed me anew on this replay: not just the title song but the prim hoedown “The Merry Month of May” and the calendar-flipping swoon of “If Ever I Would Leave You,” even the seductive mists of “Follow Me.” Along those lines, I also clocked the way the impish merriment and bravado--the spring and summer--of Side One closes with the pivotal autumnal rumination “How to Handle a Woman,” and then Side Two opens with a pair of sincere if wintry love ballads, “If Ever” and the chastened “Before I Gaze at You Again,” the latter registering a striking change of tune as Guenevere’s laughing coquetry is all but silenced by the complications of true love.

I blush a bit now at how much my younger self thrilled to the needlingly cynical, punny “The Seven Deadly Virtues” and the mild bloody-mindedness and/or bawdiness of “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” and “Fie on Goodness.” But I returned with unchecked enthusiasm to the climactic “Guenevere,” a galumphing, modal march that hands the show's storytelling finale over to the chorus. That seems like it must have been a bold move, and I’m sure it raises (and/or solves) some interesting staging questions. Thankfully I don’t have to know the answer, though, to cherish this round-table roundelay in the only form I’ve ever known it.


  1. *I* saw it, in the round, with Richard Harris, at Valley Forge, when I was in 8th grade, and absolutely loved it. Word on the street has it that Camelot is one of those shows that went through such a trying development, with Moss Hart falling out due to health conditions for an extended period during development and previews, that it actually improved considerably after opening--after Hart returned--and received a boost from President and Mrs Kennedy. Ethan Mordden writes that it was in its most perfect, complex, elegant, and thought-provoking state at this point, and that subsequent revivals have peeled its complexity and sophistication away in a bid to make the show more accessible.

    Anyway, I loved it, and I loved the incredible scenes that survive from the love-triangle (Lancelot is a self-absorbed, superstar, truly holy knight--despite his outrageous pride--and the confident, suffer-no-fools Guenevere cannot stand him, until he prays over the body of the dead knight he has just killed in a joust, raising him from the dead, and she kneels, abashed, before him. Amazing); and who couldn't love Andrews and the early number, "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood," in which the casually bloodthirsty Guenevere rebukes St Genevieve, saying that if the saint doesn't save her from the unwanted marriage to this stranger, Arthur, she'll pray to someone else instead and later daydreamingly muses on the romantic prospect of being the cause of a "little war," which is exactly what ends up happening. Just great stuff.

    Yes, the all-choral climax, "Guenevere," is thrilling onstage, believe it or not, and the delightful, "Then You May Take Me to the Fair," with the wonderfully-and-unlikely-named Sir Dividend, alas, was cut in previews for length, but made it onto the cast album, recorded pre-opening in the expectation that Camelot would be a big, fat hit out of the gate, with the blue ribbon creative team and cast. It wasn't a big, fat hit out of the gate. But it became one.

  2. Oh thank you for adding this! I could write a longer post about nearly all the songs and their particular genius (except the title one--argh!). I tried to indicate here how much Guenevere's arc impressed me this time, from casual tease playing at love to a woman at sixes and sevens when faced with actual love. I also wish I'd written more about how Burton's retiring performance moves me specifically because of the resigned way he handles his wife's infidelity--I've always heard the "love her, love her, love her" of "How to Handle a Woman" as really meaning "if you love her, you have to let her go." He makes being cuckolded, being a loser, sound strangely ennobling. And his game revels in the song above, as he tries to keep his and his wife's spirits up in the face of the collapse of his marriage and his government, give this otherwise twee song almost unbearable pathos for me.