Book & Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
Music by Frederick Loewe
adapted from The Once and Future King, by T.H. White

INFO:

Opened at the Majestic Theatre    December 3, 1960    873 performances
Original Director: Moss Hart, Lerner (uncredited)
Original Choreographer: Hanya Holm
Original Producer: Lerner, Loewe & Hart
Original Leads: Arthur: Richard Burton    Guenivere: Julie Andrews    Mordred: Roddy McDowell    Lancelot: Robert Goulet    Pellinore: Robert Coote
Cast Size: Male: 7 Female: 3 Ensemble: enormous Total Cast Size: 10 principles plus as many ensemble as possible, at least 16. At least 26, then, and likely you’ll need more.
Orchestra: 22, there is a reduced orchestration for 11. Could be done smaller.
Published Script: Boosey Hawke Catalogue No: 02319 Shop Product Code: 030487B; Chilton (as a part of Great Musicals of the American Theatre, Vol 2 (Richards) (long out of print)
Production Rights: Tams Witmark
Recordings: The original Broadway is very interesting. There are at least four others.
Film: A mediocre movie starring Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave.
Other shows by the authors: My Fair Lady; Brigadoon; Paint Your Wagon; Gigi  Lerner: On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, Love Life
Awards: 1961 Tony Awards Best Actor in a Musical (Burton) And the cast album set records for sales.

WHO SHOULD DO THIS SHOW:

As traditionally done, Camelot is enormous. (By “traditionally,” I refer to copies of the original Broadway production’s approach to the show.) Even approached creatively to reduce all the technical values to a minimum (which may or may not be wise, to be discussed), the cast size alone can be daunting. This is unfortunate, because the show needs a huge ensemble when done traditionally, and the ensemble does not really sing much. (This problem has a remedy, there were really fun songs edited from the show and written for the ensemble that it would be good to return to the show, and a few songs sung by leads that can and should be cut to make room. More to come.)

Camelot is a mixed bag of wonderful material and poor material, wonderful possibilities in terms of production and frightening demands. I’m going to get pretty creative below in an attempt to make the show more relevant and easier to produce, but this is a large show. It’s also a long show, in serious need of an edit.

High Schools and most Little Theater groups shouldn’t do this show in a traditional manner, they simply won’t have the performers or be able to execute a lot of the technical values required. I know this won’t stop them from doing so. Colleges are a better bet for a traditional approach, maybe, with large and well-funded theater art’s departments. Stock, semi-pro and pro when they have large stages and theatres to fill, and hefty budgets available, though I will attempt to ameliorate some of that, below. Dinner Theaters ready to assume a highly creative approach, and do some judicious editing. (You’re supposed to get permission to edit from the owner of the rights, legally.)

All of that said, I think that there is room for a far less traditional approach to Camelot which will make it not only far more producible, but “new”, “fresh” and creative again. Using the approach I’m going to suggest will open the door to many more companies being able to do Camelot. And perhaps it will make more producers and company eager to give it a try. More to come.

Be Warned:

Camelot really is a mixed bag. It is very far from perfect, and knowing that opens the door to improvement. Some of the material soars, the result of the work of some of the best and brightest the Musical Theater ever made use of. And some of it is awful, potentially embarrassing, requiring highly skilled direction and even revision and editing if it’s to work. The show is worth the effort, it is beloved. But it really requires very skilled performers and staff, with a Director who has, I believe, significant experience. If you go the traditional route, you’ll need lots of money and access to a huge talent pool, the cast in LARGE, as is the traditional orchestra. (We’ll discuss ways around some of this.) If you don’t qualify, please don’t do Camelot. Or try the more creative approaches I will describe.

One warning, there is talk of sex in the song “The Lusty Month of May.” (And what else would a song with the word ‘lusty’ in the title be about?) I think it’s silly and funny, but if it offends your group, you might cut the number. (It could be replaced effectively with “Then You May Take Me To The Fair.”)

THE STORY:

ACT ONE: A hilltop near Camelot. A young Arthur hides in a tree, awaiting the arrival of his bride to be, Guenevere, whom he has never met. The carriage arrives, and Merlin angrily sends the court to meet it at the bottom of the hill. Arthur peers from the tree and demands Merlin tell him what Guen will look like. Left alone to his fate, the young king is petrified. (“I Wonder What The King Is Doing, Tonight”) He hears a sound and hides, and Guen climbs he hill alone, equally petrified. He watches as she St. Genevieve to kill her so she won’t need to be married. (“The Simple Joys of Maidenhood”) They talk, and discover that they have a great future together (“Camelot”), and enter the city with acceptance and even in love.

In the meantime, Merlin, as he has predicted, it taken away from Arthur forever byu a magical creature who imprisons him and takes his magic, Nimue. (“Follow Me”)

Five years pass, and Arthur has made Camelot a land of grace and fairness. But he longs to do more, and creates in his mind the idea of the Round Table. Guen really only cares about p[arties and fighting at this time, and listens half-heartedly.

Lancelot makes his way to Camelot, certain of his perfection and his entry into the Round Table. (“C’est Moi!”) He is met by a knight whom he defeats, and discovers he has defeated Arthur himself. Lance feels he has blown his chance to serve at the Table, but Arthuir recalls what Merlin said about Lance – that he will be the greatest knight at the table, and welcomes him.

Back in Camelot, Guen throws a big party. (“The Lusty Month of May”) An elderly knight intrudes, lost, and it is Pellinore. He’s invited to stay, and gratefully does so for many years. Arthur joins them, and he recalls King Pellinore from his own youth, and welcomes him. Arthur introduces Lance to Guen, and she immediately seems to dislike his bragging, and dislike him. (It is, however, love at first sight.) The other knights offer to challenge Lance in battle on behalf of Guen, and she happily accepts. (This would be “You May Take Me To The Fair,” if you insert it here, though it may be too much like “The Lusty Month of May.” Personally, I think “Fair” is a better piece.)

Arthuir and Pell play backgammon, and they play for blood, like field commanders. Lance joins them in his humorless way, annoying Pell. Lance agrees that he is too serious. Guen joins them, and Lance sensing her dislike, exits. Guen and Arthur fight,. And she leaves him alone to contemplate the one thing Merlin failed to teach him, “How To Handle A Woman.”

“The Joust”, and the challenges to Lance take place, and he handily defeats all comers. The final fight is with Sir Lionel, and Lance appears to not just unseat the man, but kill him with a mighty blow of his lance. Lance leaps from his horse, lays hands on Lionel and prays, and the man comes miraculously back to life in front of the entire court. Guen stares, Arthur watches the two people he loves best with sadness, and can figuratively see the future without Merlin’s aid now.

Pell speaks to Arthur, thrilled by the miracle he has witnessed. Alone, Guen confesses to herself her love for Lance. (“Before I Gaze At You Again”) Lance enters and confronts her, admits his love. She admits hers. Arthur re-enters, trumpeting Lance’s achievement. Alone, Arthur sees that the miracle will draw all the greatest knights to his table, but he is miserable. He later knights Lancelot, and alone, dwells on his own choices in the mighty “Proposition” speech, aware of the love between his closest friend and his wife. He decides to live as a King and bear his woes for the good of the world, as the act ends.

ACT TWO: Lancelot woos Guen in poetry and song. (“If Ever I would Leave You”) He wonders if Arthur knows of their love, and she says that he surely does not. Enter Mordred, a nasty young man, and he is confronted by Arthur and Pellinor. They are about to throw him out when he announces he is the son of Queen Morgause, and is here to see family, including his Aunt, Morgana Le Fey, in her invisible castle. Arthur offers Mordred a seat at the Table, after Mordred makes it clear that Arthur is his father. Alone, Mordred plans for his father’s fall. (“The Seven Deadly Virtues”)

A month later, Arthur and Guen share time with Pell, and bemoan Mordred’s presence. Pell wants Mordred to leave, and claims he’s dangerous to the peace, and stirring the knights up. Alone, Arthur and Guenevere wonder at their complex life, and ask “What Do The Simple Folk Do” to get through their days.

Mordred locates his Aunt’s invisible castle, and offers her weakness to her, sweets, if she’ll help him in his plan. (“The Persuasion”) Arthur and Pell are seen in Morgana Le Fay’s woods, hunting, and she springs the trap, walling Arthur in an invisible wall. He begs Pell to return to Camelot, in fear that Guen and Lance will be discovered together while he is trapped here and unable to defend them. Pellinore is stunned Arthur knows, but hurries to Camelot.

Pell confronts Mordred in Camelot, and it becomes clear that his plan is afoot, and he wishes to take over the city. Guen and Lance, alone, share a moment of sorrow over their situation. (“I Loved You Once In Silence”) Mordred makes sue they are discovered, and Guen is arrested for Treason. Lance escapes, owing to rescue her. “Guenevere” has the Chorus tell us of Lance’s sensational horseback rescue of Guen from the stake, even as Arthur prays for Lance’s success. They do escape, and it starts a civil war.

Camelot is doomed to be destroyed. On the field, awaiting the battle that will ensue in the morning., Arthur speaks to a young boy who is serving as a part of his army. He sends the boy home, giving him another job – to tell the world about “Camelot” (reprise), so it will not be forgotten.

SONGS: “I Wonder What The King Is Doing Tonight?”; “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood”; “Camelot”; “Follow Me”; “C’est Moi”; “The Lusty Month of May”; “How To Handle A Woman”; “The Jousts”; “Before I Gaze At You Again”; “If Ever I Would Leave You”; “The Seven Deadly Virtues”; “What Do The Simple Folk Do?”;”The Persuasion”; “I Loved You Once In Silence”; “Guenevere”; “Camelot” (reprise);

Possible restorations that were cut from the Broadway: “Then You May Take Me To The Fair”; “Fie On Goodness”

Hits include “Camelot”; “How To Handle A Woman”; “If Ever I Would Leave You”

SONGS AS I WILL PROPOSE THEM: “I Wonder What The King Is Doing Tonight?”; “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood”; “Camelot”: “C’est Moi”; “The Lusty Month of May”; “How To Handle A Woman”; “Then You May Take Me To The Fair”; “The Jousts”; “If Ever I Would Leave You”; “I Loved You Once In Silence” (maybe used as a duet rather than a solo, for Lance and Guen), “Fie On Goodness”: “What Do The Simple Folk Do?”; “Camelot” (reprise)

(Yes, if possible, I would likely cut “Follow Me”; “Before I Gaze At You Again”;“The Seven Deadly Virtues”; “The Persuasion”; and “Guenevere”. I would cut them all along with fair portions of the book. I know this appears draconian. Read on, MacDuff.)

MY OPINIONS:
(I warn you, this is going to be far longer than most. You’ll see why.) You may, as always, skip or ignore my opinions and rating.  Of course, without them, look what happened to King Arthur.   Where is he today?  Uh-huh.

Camelot was a troubled show almost from the start. During the original production, Director Moss Hart had a heart attack, and Lerner had to take over. And then he became ill, and ended up in the same hospital as Hart! When it opened in Canada in previews, in ran well over four hours. It never got edited down to a sane length, really. You might think that this makes it an embarrassment of riches, and indeed, there are numbers and scenes that are amongst the best in the Musical Theater. And the show very much became a part of American cultural history with its ties to the Kennedy administration in the early 1960s. But over-written and overwrought elements of the score and script, not to mention over-the-top expensive production values, weigh the show down considerably. (Don’t give up, there are remedies!) This is partially true because of the health problems the creators encountered, but it is also in part true because they produced the show themselves. This meant there was no one in the room to insist that they wanted the show to be shorter and tighter. Or, in other less flattering words, the lunatics were running the asylum. (Extraordinarily gifted, brilliant and charming lunatics though they were.)

I myself am conflicted about Camelot. It has some of my all-time favorite numbers and moments, which more than justify productions of the show. Much of it is magical, though strangely enough, not the parts dealing with Merlin and magic. And some of it is so wrong-headed in theatrical terms that it’s hard to believe these same men created My Fair Lady.

Is having a chance to play with the magic in this show worth having to cope with the dreck of it? Only marginally, as written and as currently directed. To really make this show work, it’s up to a production to intelligently, expertly emphasize the magical elements and minimize (or eliminate) the dreck. Additionally, you will need the show to somehow feel younger than it does, as it has a tendency toward stiffness and age. Can these issues be corrected? Yes, I think that it’s possible. Done successfully, I can’t imagine many musicals that would be more rewarding or fun to do.

But this show, so troubled from the get-go, needs work. It needs directorial guidance and, dare I say it, changes made to its script and score, as well as some smart alterations of the “standard” approach to its direction and casting. And without those changes, it will eventually stop being produced by the High Schools and Little Theaters that keep it marginally alive today. After a while, Camelot as a show will be forgotten, a footnote in textbooks about theater, if that. This should not happen. But to keep this show (and most musicals) breathing and vital, companies that have acquired rights must re-evaluate their intentions. They should be all about keeping these shows in the public’s eyes, in front of paying audiences. But sometimes, they assume the misguided role of guardian, as if producers and theater companies were children a show needs to be protected from. And believe me, friends, this is not only misguided so far as that one production is concerned, but it is misguided in terms of the long term well-being of that Musical, and of the Musical Theater as a whole.

I think these companies currently see each show as a “brand,” one which must not be altered. Coca Cola can never be anything but Coca Cola. But shows aren’t drinks or brands. To survive through the decades, a play or musical must be responsive to changing social and financial pressures. Coca-Cola may me more likely to survive the next fifty years than 4/5ths of the shows in this book. It’s rigid formula works…for Coca Cola. For these shows to live into the next century, and in many cases the next decade, they must be adaptable.

Anything that does not change dies. Musicals are the same. They must change to fit each production, each theater, each audience, at least to some extent. And that should be only the start of the experimentation that needs to happen to make old shows new.

So we start with edits, the simplest way to shorten and often improve a show. (You can also edit a show to death if you don’t know what you’re doing. But how do Directors get good at editing? BY DOING IT.) You may need to get rights to edit legally, again from the rights companies. High Schools, colleges and the like rarely do ask for or get rights, and invariably they make alterations in the text of any show they are doing anyway. No one really cares, do they?

And folks, really, no one should care! We edit and rewrite and reinvent Shakespeare mercilessly, tirelessly, endlessly. He was a better writer than anyone who ever wrote a musical. (Except maybe Frank Loesser…) We need to stop treating musicals older than say 10 years past their Broadway closing, once they move off of Broadway and into world productions, as sacred cows. The needs of independent productions should come first, overall, so long as they don’t butcher a show. And it is obviously in their best interest NOT to butcher a show! After all, that theater company is investing tons of resources into putting up a musical. Musicals are expensive and hard to do! They want to get the show right! But that means right for their theater and talent, their audience, their community. I think companies like Tams Witmark, MTI, and the Rodgers & Hammerstein Library need to understand this. Their survival is at stake, as is that of a lot of incredible BUT OLD musicals.

What’s more, it is in the financial best interest of a show to get a lot of productions, to be seen, to be seen as relevant, to stay alive. These shows are not the Ten Commandments, and yet companies controlling rights often treat them as though they are written in stone. That is a self-destructive attitude that will result in great, older musicals being seen as calcified and unproducible as time marches on.

Shakespeare lives today largely because we CAN AND DO ADAPT AND CHANGE HIS PLAYS. In fact a number of musicals that insist on collecting royalties from you were adapted from Shakespeare’s plays. I notice that the authors of those musicals and the companies that represent their rights do not send a royalty to Shakespeare’s descendants. But they certainly profit from Shakespeare’s work, don’t they. What’s more, I think our long-gone friend William would not be unhappy with this arrangement.

Shakespeare has lived for 400 years at the very heart of theater and world literature. This, in part, because his plays, his language, plotting, characters are unparalleled in all of literature. Also, in part, they survive because they are allowed to change, sometimes into almost unrecognizable forms, to fit the pressures of the time.

Musicals have the potential to do the same. I believe that if Bill Shakespeare was writing today, he’d write musicals. Some of his comedies and masques come pretty damned close to musical theater as it is, and he did place over three dozen songs into his plays. An argument might be made that he was the first writer of hit show tunes. No, I’m not joking.  (Then again, some theatrical historians believe that the best of the ancient Greek tragedies, such as the plays of Sophocles, were “sung through”, operas, musical theater.)

The company that owns and licenses rights to a musical is usually comprised of attorneys, and they are not making ANY investment in your production. On the contrary, they merely collect money from you, a “royalty” for the right to produce the show they represent, forwarding much of the cash to the second and third-generation heirs of long-dead writers who generally do not care what rewrites are done. The licensing keeps a percentage for themselves, naturally. They do represent the rights of those writers, however, and their power over the show you want to produce, which is why they have the legal right to protect the text of a musical from edits and changes.

But should they really have that right? And more importantly, is it pro-survival for the musical theater and even for the shows they claim to “protect?” I say no to both counts, soundly and loudly…after a reasonable amount of time has passed from the original Broadway production’s closing. Say twenty years (plenty of time for Broadway and West End revivals…).  After that. the shows should be fair game as to reasonable alterations and edits which will keep them timely and in the cultural discussion.

What allowed the original producers some say in rewrites was that it was THEIR MONEY OR THEIR INVESTOR’S MONEY that made the show possible. Rights companies do no such thing. They make scripts and scores available (which you rent to use), and pay the authors their royalty, they are little more than a service, but they have been vested with far too much authority. Listen, the shows are written. So if someone does a strange production of, say, Guys and Dolls, with everyone in clown face and the story taking place in the Parisian catacombs while Jean Val Jean wanders through, lost and looking for his own show…so be it!  The original, pristine script and score remain intact for future productions, above and beyond all experimentation. It’s safe, really it is. Look at Shakespeare.

Cuts should be made in Camelot, again, the easiest way to improve this show. I believe (and these are my opinions) that there are songs in the score that are not strong enough to deserve to be included in revivals. They do not effectively help tell the story, and frankly, though containing some lovely music, are overall a snooze. These include “Follow Me”; “The Seven Deadly Virtues”, “The Persuasion”, and “Guenevere”, perhaps the single most misguided idea for a number in all the Musical Theater. I believe these numbers can be cut entirely from the score. I am not really a fan of “Before I Gaze At You Again” or “I Loved You Once In Silence”, both of which bore me, but it may be harder to cut them out and you may need to keep one to please your Gwen. They’re not good theater songs, however. To be discussed, but clearly this show has too many ballads and could lose a few. And the three ballads I recommend you keep were all mega-hits. They are largely the reason people come to see this show.

I’m going to propose cutting as many of these songs as possible, and possibly restoring the number “Then You May Take Me To The Fair.” We’ll look at another cut number for the ensemble, “Fie On Goodness,” as a possible addition as well. These are both aggressively upbeat, and though there were reasons they were edited out before Broadway could see them, I think other cuts could be made that would allow them to be effective.

I’m going to propose that the “bad guys,” Mordred and Morgana, never sing, allowing you to cast very strong actors to help make these somewhat juvenile and thankless roles work.

And I’m going to propose a radical rethink of one role – Lancelot.  Traditionally cast as a tall, strapping, great looking guy with a ringing baritone (Robert Goulet), I think there’s a better way, a much better way for the show to make sense.  The original Lance in The Once And Future King, the book by T.H. White, was (take a breath…) UGLY.  He is ugly, and is well aware of this astonishing short coming.  Playing Lance as a large man, a brute of knight and invincible (he must be believable in that regard), but physically unappealing (perhaps scarred by his many battles, as well as homely) will explain how Arthur can love the man, and accept in his heart Lance’s affair with Guen, Arthur’s wife.  Lance has found and been offered love, something he was unlikely to have had, and Arthur is moved by his plight and his knightly fineness.  It HELPS THE ENTIRE SCRIPT MAKE SENSE.  What’s more, it gives the actor playing Lance something to really work with.  When he sings “C’est Moi”, it can be with a bitter touch of irony, of self-derision, providing that song a real dramatic impetus in the story, and truly establishing him.  When he lays hands on a man to heal him, it can be with an apology for his ugly hands, and that his will be the first ugly face the man sees when he returns to life.  And when he sings love songs to or about Guen, the amount of desperate yearning could be truly moving to an audience, rendering those songs dramatically far more useful to the show and characters.  In short, making Lance a big, hulking, UGLY man (with a terrific baritone voice, maybe – but maybe a faltering, breathy voice as well…) makes the whole show work better.  It is a considerable remove from how Camelot is generally done, and I hope some intrepid producer and director considers it.  I believe this change may alone breathe new and fascinating life into this show.

I would also point out that there is a difficult issue in the show- the fact that every time there’s a significant physical action in the show, it happens offstage (as in Greek tragedy) and someone comes on to tell us (or sing to us) about it. When Arthur meets and fights Lancelot at that knight’s first entrance, it has already happened as the scene begins, offstage. The big joust is watched by the chorus of knights and ladies, whose sung observations are as close as we get. And the worst case of this, the song “Guenevere,” the climax of the show, when the Queen is about to be burned at the stake and Lance rides up on his steed and rescues her, as many knights die. The chorus stands, look at us, and tells us what happened in song. This trend steals the blood from the physical life of Camelot. It is deadly and must be mitigated against.

Camelot is a show rich in pageantry and poor in action. Pageantry is fine and has an honored place in theater, but theater today is competing with films that cost 250 million to make, and the pageantry (and action) that such a film (or TV show) provides sets the bar. Either we compete by raising the emotional and intellectual stakes for our characters and plays, we provide more pageant of a sort that only a live media can provide, or we move away from the literal and from pageantry, toward more symbolic references. Shakespeare used lots of pageantry, but it is simple overall, restricted as ever by the walls of the stage. The audience was expected to “imagineer” the locations and pomp and parade of a Shakespearean play, to borrow a term from Tom Jones. (Not the singer, the author of The Fantasticks. And I think he may have borrowed it from Walt Disney.) Camelot could benefit, I believe, from a similar approach, a far less literal approach to all of its physicalization, and a far more metaphoric, even impressionistic approach. This might allow action to appear in the form of mummer’s show, or dance, or slow-mo, or in silhouette, or through the use of any distinctly theatrical device you care to name or use.

A great piece of theater balances inner action or character conflict with outer, physical action. Plays are not only philosophical tracts. At least, not good plays. Hamlet is a universe of of a play containing all philosophies. Its main character is famously tortured and pulled apart from within. But it also has cool sword fights, ghosts, murders, and plays within plays that drive kings mad before our eyes. There’s spectacle for you, and all in service of the story and the characters as they develop. Camelot could have lots of cool action, but it does not. It is largely an intellectual exercise in aesthetics and ethics, and as such, can be lovely. But it was meant to be more, and if its creators had been in good health at the time it was being put up on stage, it would have been.

I believe that Camelot, perhaps more than almost any show I covered in this site, is in need of directorial reinvention. I think it would most benefit from a startling, new approach to its physical nature than almost any show I can think of. And some perhaps brutal edits would be good, too. The important thing to understand is that the truly wonderful elements of this show demand of us that we rethink and salvage what should be an exhilarating evening of theater. Let’s begin.

MY RATING: * (a better-than-average and interesting show, right for many groups)   This rating could easily go up one star, possibly even two, with some of the changes I recommend.

PRODUCTION CONCERNS AND IDEAS:
DIFFICULTY OF MUSIC:

Camelot is a surprisingly complex score. The piano score, which I have played as an accompanist, is dense with poly-tonal groupings that the music director/pianist may have a tough time wrapping his brain around. I think that the orchestrations equally provide a challenge. That said, the melodies are, overall, very simple and many are memorable. Just don’t be fooled by the Arthur role, because it’s intended to be as spoken as sung, an experiment Lerner and Loewe perfected in My Fair Lady, that allowed them to cast a notorious non-singer in Rex Harrison, and which allowed them to cast another great actor with dubious singing chops as Arthur, Richard Burton. (Note – in both cases they wisely cast opposite these fine men an actress who could sing like an angel, Julie Andrews.)

Arthur – Acting before singing, that’s your priority with Arthur. He does have some gorgeous songs, however, and Burton carried a melody okay. Later, the role was played by Richard Harris (see the film version), who sang a bit better than Burton, but seemed to weak a man to be a king. Even late, on tour, Arthur was played by he original Lancelot, Robert Goulet, a man with an enormous Baritone voice of great beauty. And that is too much voice for this role. In other words, Burton was tremendous and the closest to right, but the role has yet to find its master, I suspect.

Guenevere – Soprano, must sing with great clarity and beauty, but not be too “soprano-ish,” no heavy vibrato or shake in the voice, this isn’t opera and should not sound like opera. Needs a fairly large range for the role.

Lancelot – Legit theatrical baritone. The role made Goulet an international star.  Consider the variation on this role I recommend above.

Nimue – Legit, golden soprano voice. (Cut if possible.) Will double in ensemble.

Mordred – A character tenor voice, doesn’t need much range, more of an acting role.

Pellinore – Doesn’t need to sing.

Merlin – Doesn’t really need to sing.

Morgana – Limited singing required.

Ensemble – MUST sing, and sing well. All parts, spread it out, you need a strong choral effect.

DIFFICULTY OF DANCE, CHOREOGRAPHIC CONCERNS:

Camelot is not really a dance show. There are a few numbers requiring some limited movement, but like My Fair Lady before it, Lerner and Loewe were primarily interested in creating beautiful songs to sing, so the show really needs actors who sing, or singing actors. A choreographer might have some fun with an ensemble in some the parade-like musical intervals, in “The Joust,” and most importantly (and in coordination with a director), in “Guenevere,” perhaps the worst number ever written for a major show.

So what’s the problem with this number, and why should it move over to the choreographer? The number tells the audience about what befalls Guen and Lance when they are caught cheating on Arthur. Guen is almost burned at the stake, as it is the law, even as Arthur prays that Lance swoop up on his white horse and rescue her – which he, of course, does. Well, fires and horses on stage, generally, no-nos. So what he Broadway production essentially did was line up the chorus members, have them face the audience and sing, telling us what happened. It is an unbelievably ham-fisted, Greek-chorus answer to a problem, and can be largely explained by the hospitalization of the show’s original director, Moss Hart (who would die soon after the show went up), and then the hospitalization of the follow-up director (who happened to also be the book writer and lyricist), Lerner. In fact, they ran into each other on gurneys in the hospital, if the tale told is true. So this number, rudderless, really did not work. And if Lerner and Hart had been around, I’m betting they would have written something dramatically more effective. But that is not an option for you today.

The later movie version solved the problem all-too-easily, of course, by showing the fire and horse etc., something film is able to do. The film is fairly awful, overall, but does get this part closer to right than does the play.

What you can do is find a creative, Impressionistic or Expressionistic way to communicate this scene. Since the chorus must sing it (though I’d argue for turning it largely into a solo for Arthur, so we can see his response to it all even as he sings…), place them on the perimeter or edges of the stage, allow the center stage area to be focused on some sort of dance/action. The horse can be done today as it was in Equus or WarHorse, and even in Man of La Mancha, or as animals are done in The Lion King, on stage, with an actor (or two) and a sort of life-sized puppet. Larger than life-sized might be interesting, here, as Lance’s act is so heroic, but you do not want to make Lance look physically small by comparison. As to the flames, well, use moving gobos or lighting effects, use a fan and red/orange material cut to look like flames as it blows upwards, and place Guen on a “stake” at the center. Get creative. But find a way to show it all. And it could be danced, which aligns with what other shows have done, but if it gets too dance-ey, too lift-and-turn, it will lose its heroic quality.

Unfortunately, the same problems exist in “The Joust” which also happens to be the worst piece of music in the show, a jumble of atonal groupings moving chromatically that are headache-inducing, as the actors “watch” the joust and comment. So you have an Act One problem of the scale of your Act Two rescue. You will probably need to establish visual and dance conventions (ideas you want the audience to accept as a part of the presentation of the show) in the Act One piece, and have them pay off as already accepted, in Act Two,. But over to you. You can also just have the actors stand and sing about what’s happening. You can. I guess.

Anyway, you’re casting for singers, not dancers, un less you happen to have the ability to put up a huge chorus and can then specialize to some extent. A few dancers would not hurt, but you really should not need them.

CASTING CONCERNS:

The original Broadway cast had something over 30 actors, perhaps as many as 36 or so. Small roles are all doubled with ensemble, and there are many. You should cast smaller roles with singers who look good for the approach you take to the show, and who can do some limited acting well. Depending on the approach you take, you might be able top get away with a cast of even 18-20, but that will require some remarkable creativity.

Arthur – Must play from a young man just of marriageable age, to a mature king about to die in a great battle. Must play a wide range of emotions compellingly, and appear intelligent and honorable. A “Hamlet” sort of role for the musical theater, though without the great depth of that part. (Hence, they cast a great Hamlet, Burton, in the role.) He cannot be as “manly”, as much eye-candy, as the actor who will play Lancelot.

Guen – All the men fall for her, so clearly, she must be beautiful, fun, fiery, romantic. Again, a large acting range is required. Some of her dialogue falls flat when compared to Arthur, but she does have some spicy scenes. A good director will help the actress play this role by knowing when to move things along brightly. You do need a good actress for her, but the singing for this role is the priority, along with the look.

Lance – (Played as usual) Tall, stately, muscular, a Knight in shining armor. Somewhat humorless, even stiff, Goulet (who was somewhat stiff as a performer as a young man) played the role well. Women should sigh. The acting range is not huge, but he must be believable “in love.” Singing is the priority.

(Played as I would do it) Could be shorter than average, or tall, but a brute of a man, believable as a knight.  Ugly, scarred by many battles, aware of his appearance, isolated by it, saddened by it, a man of deep emotional context fighting to prove he’s worth something, which explains his glories in battle.  An actor we should easily care for, root for, as much as we will Arthur.  Singing remains a priority, along with a strong emotional actor, and rather than the stiffness of Goulet, a fluid, strong, believable fighter who moves very well seems to be called for.  The show will truly become a triangle of leading roles with this change.

Mordred – The “bad guy,” usually played as a weasel of a man. Roddy McDowell, a truly fine actor, was wasted in this role on Broadway, singing one of the songs that really should have been cut in my opinion, “Seven Deadly Virtues,” an unfunny attempt to illustrate the character’s evil point of view. Get an actor who is capable of some leering, comic fun, if you can. Does not need to sing much, so focus on his acting and perhaps, rather than going weasel, cast a good-looking, if smarmy, young man. That would help balance the show, and explain how, with a charming smile, he might manage to hang around Arthur and the others to work his vile deeds. It would help the play work better than casting an obviously smarmy weasel that everyone can see through.

Pellinore – A character, old, perhaps inflicted with limited Alzheimer’s, but with a sense of humor, gentility, and even nobility. Doesn’t really need to sing. Must be loveable.

Merlin – Old wizard, you know the type. Strictly an acting role, should double and play a knight.

Nimue – Beautiful supernatural creature that entraps Merlin. Only a singer with a look is needed, a legit soprano. (Unless you wisely cut the scene and number…)

Various Knights – (Such as Sagamore, Dinadan, Lionel) Must sing, of various ages (mix it up, it will look right and fun, go young old and in-between), look reasonably masculine, move moderately well. The three mentioned need to be able to do some acting, at least to appear angry and fierce believably, and switch to faux-courtliness.

Various Ladies – Singers first, must look lady-like, go various ages, but have Guen’s Ladies-In_waiting largely be like the Heathers – young, self-involved, attractive and self-aware, especially in “You May Take Me To The Fair,” if you use it.

Morgana Le Fey – Beautiful sorceress. Must sing a bit, not much. Go for a primitive, alluring look. Should double in the ensemble, but you’ll really want to disguise her as Morgana.

Tom – Young, perhaps even as young as eight or nine, innocent, impressionable, a key to the all-important final scene.

SETS:

Yes, well, get your checkbook out, unless you plan to go an experimental route. The original was famously lush, beautiful to look at. This fact helped the Broadway production survive its failings, as a matter of fact. Now, I think the whole show would be better losing about three songs, edited by almost 30 minutes, on a unit set of great flexibility and beauty and that cried out “Medieval”, with banners and flags and the like, but closer to a Shakespearean approach to bare stage staging. It works in Shakespeare because the Master literally tells us where we are each scene. And, after all, the audience will know they’re visiting “Camelot.” The parade of costumes and sets was used, I believe, to hide the overripe and overwritten elements of the script, which could be sharpened through a judicious but severe edit, and a smart directorial approach. I’d go unit set, as described, even doing the show on Broadway, today. Emphasize that this is a play, live theater, and requires the audience’s participation and creativity to fully “envision” the story.

If you go traditional, try to make extensive use of an apron, if you have one, for scenes like the opening, young Arthur in a tree, waiting for Guen. Then you can open the main drape after he sings (or as he sings) “Camelot,” and show the audience your first ravishing set. And let me tell you, if you go traditional, think opera, and ravishing sets. Half-done or inexpensive isn’t going to work, you’ll be competing for spectacle with other Arthur tellings…on film. And good luck.

And don’t go murky and dark, as the film did. Find color in the set. Stained glass windows, bright flags, bright costumes, bright lighting. It’s a musical comedy.

There are a few specialty problems, like the block of ice Merlin is entrapped in early in the show. Me, I’d use lighting and a few effects, but I sure wouldn’t go literal on such beats, or the show will cost a fortune, and to no real dramatic gain.

COSTUMES:

Start early, it’s a large cast and distinctly a period piece. Rental houses may be able to help with the “armor” and such, but remember that actors must move and sing in those tin cans. Pellinore’s armor should be heavily distressed, to comic effect.

Unless you are going wildly experimental (modern dress, or a cast of six, or something like that), costuming will be complex and expensive.

Emphasize in your costumes the manliness of the knights, especially Lance, and the womanliness of Guen and her Ladies In Waiting. Make the period as inviting as possible, rather than dark and primitive. This is a musical comedy.

PROPS:

Swords and shields and lances, oh my! This is a rather large job for this show. Work closely with the other designers to develop a period look and sensibility to the show.

Also, there’s magical paraphernalia needed for Merlin, Morgana, etc. Go for a “nature” look, from the earth, for these objects, to set them apart from the height of “civilization,” which is represented here by Camelot itself. Keep this dichotomy in mind as you design (that goes for sets, as well, and costumes…), and your show will have an interesting look.

LIGHTING:

A creative, efficient, talented lighting director is a must for this show. There will be many cues, probably in the hundreds, as moods and locations shift quickly. You’ll need follow spots for solos, there are many, and you’ll need to find ways to diversify the look for these so the show doesn’t flatten out visually. Light the “magic” scenes with perhaps saturated colors, give these a primitive feel, something impinging into civilization, something dark and from deep in the earth. :Light the scenes at court as the contrast to the magic scenes, bright, alive, civilized. You might make use of candles and torches (no real, of course), in conjunction with the set design.

MAKE-UP:

Emphasize the manliness and womanliness of the court, without gin so far overboard that you build a clown show. Find subtle ways to make the magical characters different. Perhaps they don’t spend a lot of time in the sun. There is room for creative expression in make-up, in this show. Work with our other designers and director.

KEY PERSONNEL (The ones you MUST get right.):
Director, Music Director, Set Designer, Costume Designer, Lighting Designer, Arthur, Guen, Lance.

MY THOUGHTS:
There are parts of Camelot I absolutely love. The “Proposition” speech, “How To Handle A Woman”, “I Wonder What The King Is Doing Tonight”, “what Do The Simple Folk Do”, and even some of the more romantic moments such as “If Ever I Would Leave You”. And the closing scene is stunning in its beauty, as Arthur effectively tell the young Thomas Mallory, the great poet who will write of his exploits later in his adult life, to spread the tale of Camelot. It is a worthwhile show peppered with diamonds throughout, but those diamonds need to be shown well, some of the dross around them cleared away so that the core story and relationships play and pay. I truly believe Camelot is a show in urgent need of serious editing, and I would not hesitate to cut songs that bore, so that the gems are left. If that meant cutting as much as a third of Camelot, I’d advocate for it.  The show may well grow into a masterpiece handled correctly.

This show has historical significance, of course. It will forever be wedded to John F. Kennedy’s administration and death in the minds of those who remember. It was his favorite show, and it’s closing lines seem an epitaph for his life and Presidency. On it’s own, it has so much to offer, one can only hope the estates and rights owners will allow a serious rethink to occur, to permit the gold, and I believe there’s pure gold inside this show, to be mined and exploited.