Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre
8 June, 2023
Camelot had the impossibly difficult task of following behind My Fair Lady in the opus of Lerner and Loewe, and it emerged from the trial with very considerable credit, in the face of much adversity.
Based on T H White’s The Once and Future King, a whimsical retelling of the Arthurian legend, the show premiered at the Majestic Theater in New York, on 3 December 1960. It presented a boyish and immature Arthur (Richard Burton) and a skittishly innocent Guenevere (Julie Andrews) brought together to grow into their positions as King and Queen, as the patrons of the famous Round Table and the representatives of all that is good and orderly in the world. Arthur’s old tutor and protector, the magician Merlyn (David Hurst), is lured away by the spirit Nimuë, leaving the young man with only his own resources on which to rely in creating the best of all possible worlds. However, for all his goodness and all his efforts, he sees his queen falling helplessly in love with his best friend, Lancelot du Lac (Robert Goulet), and is eventually undone by the evil Morgan Le Fey (M’el Dowd) and her vicious son, Mordred (Roddy McDowall). Camelot and the ideals for which it stood were too good to last. Robert Coote appeared as a comical knight, Sir Pellinore, passing through the evening’s action in his pursuit of the Questing Beast.
The score of the show brought forth several sentimental pieces which became favourites: Lancelot’s ringing ‘If Ever I Would Leave You’, Guenevere’s gentle ‘I Loved You Once in Silence’ and the King’s ruminatings on ‘How to Handle a Woman’ whose lyric resulted in the axiom that loving is the best method. The romantic portions were contrasted by some more sprightly moments – Guenevere’s disappointed prayer to her patron Saint over having never experienced any of the storybook excitements which an Early English princess should go through as part of ‘The Simple Joys of Maidenhood’, or the catalogue of ghastly fates she encourages her followers to propose for the irritatingly virtuous Lancelot in ‘Take Me to the Fair’ – by some warmly picturesque ones, such as the description of ‘Camelot’, and by some, such as Mordred’s attack on ‘The Seven Deadly Virtues’, more hectic.
Staged with spectacular period lavishness, Camelot was an indubitable success, winning a little extra glamour from the well-publicized approval of President John Kennedy (who was said, by those who did not favour him, to compare himself and his America with Arthur and Camelot) and ran for 873 performances on Broadway.
William Squire and Kathryn Grayson headed out the first American national tour, whilst J C Williamson Ltd mounted an Australian production in 1963 with Paul Daneman and Jacquelyn McKeever starred and designed even more luxuriantly than the original by John Truscott. It played at Her Majesty’s, Melbourne (22 February 1964) for more than seven months and at Sydney’s Her Majesty’s thereafter (17 October 1964).
As a result of this production’s success, Truscott was retained to design Jack Hylton’s London production, mounted with truly extravagant spectacle on the stage of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Laurence Harvey and Elizabeth Larner appeared in the starring rôles with Barry Kent (Lancelot), Nicky Henson (Mordred) and Miles Malleson (Merlyn) in support through a run of 518 performances.
In 1967 a film version (again designed by Truscott) was made, with Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave starred, and a dubbed Franco Nero as Lancelot, and Harris later took up the rôle of King Arthur on the stage, touring it for many years through America, and playing it, in the wake of a revival with Burton and Christine Ebersole starred (New York State Theater 8 July 1980), on Broadway (Winter Garden Theater 15 November 1981), and in a sadly truncated and dilapidated state, in London (Apollo Victoria Theater 12 November 1982) and Australia (Sydney Entertainment Centre 24 September 1984).
In 1992 Goulet – now graduated from Lancelot to Arthur – headed out a further touring company as Camelot began to show signs of making up ground even on My Fair Lady in the enduring popularity stakes. His production visited Broadway for 56 performances (Gershwin Theater 21 June 1993) during which Goulet played his Arthur to the Guenevere of Patricia Kies and the Lancelot of Steve Blanchard. London got another brief glimpse in 1996 when Paul Nicholas appeared as Arthur.
A German-language version (ad Marcel Valmy) was seen for the first time at Karlsruhe in 1981 with Manfred Behm (Arthur), Steve Barton (Lancelot) and Pamela Hamblin (Guenevere) featured.
The Arthurian legend has served regularly as material for the musical theatre down the ages. Dryden and Purcell’s opera King Arthur (Dorset Gardens, London, 1691) was the most notable amongst the early such works, Garrick launched a King Arthur in 1770, and Alfred Bunn produced Isaac Pocock’s King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table at Drury Lane at Christmas1834, with T P Cooke featured as Sir Roland and also credited with the music.
The most effective Camelottish musical of the Victorian age was William Brough’s King Arthur, or the Days and Knights of the Round Table (26 December 1863 mus: D Spillane) produced at the Haymarket Theatre with Louise Keeley as Arthur, Fanny Wright as Guinevere, Henrietta Lindley as Sir Lancelot and Mr Tilbury as Merlin.
Although John Clarke played Morgan le Fey in travesty, the piece was not a grotesque burlesque, but an extravaganza which followed the legend of the sword-in-the-stone and its sequels faithfully, give or take the inclusion of rather a lot of fairies and a Guinevere who danced a pas seul. The grotesque got its rein in such pieces as the Lancelot the Lovely, or the Idol of the King (Avenue Theatre, 22 April 1889) concocted for low comic Arthur Roberts as Lancelot to the Guinevere of Annie Halford and the Arthur of Alec Marsh, in W M Akhurst’s King Arthur, or Lancelot the Loose, Gin-ever the Square and the Knights of the Round Table and other Furniture (Theatre Royal, Melbourne 31 October 1868) and Merry Mr Merlin, or Good King Arthur (E H Paterson, Harry Grattan Elephant and Castle, 11 February 1895). Operatic composer Karl Goldmark also contributed a Merlin (Vienna 19 November 1886), a title which was reprised on Broadway in 1983 for Doug Hemming’s magic show.
Hervé’s opéra-bouffe Les Chevaliers de la table ronde included Merlin and Lancelot as minor characters in a plot which didn’t have anything to do with Arthur and Guenevere, and Planché’s Knights of the Round Table was even less Camelottish, the ‘knights’ in question being a gang of Henry II-period conmen. But it was a good, catchy title.
Sir Arthur Sullivan supplied a considerable score of mostly choral music (‘Chant of the Grail’, ‘Sleep Song’ etc) to J Comyns Carr’s drama King Arthur as produced at the Lyceum 12 Jan 1895 with Henry Irving (Arthur), Ellen Terry (Guinevere), Forbes Robertson (Lancelot) and former opera-singer Genevieve Ward as Morgan Le Fay.
Hungary added its musical mite to the Arthurian heap with a Megyeri Gyalog Galopp (Kolibri Színház, Budapest 22 April 1994 ad Mária Révész) in which the credits bore the names of Terry Gilliam and Graham Chapman, and would thus seem to signify that it was a version of Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail.
Australia: Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide 30 November 1963; UK: Theatre Royal, Drury Lane 19 August 1964; Germany: Badische Staatstheater, Karlsruhe 3 October 1981; Film: 1967 Warner Brothers
Recordings: original cast (Columbia), London cast (HMV), film soundtrack (Warner Bros), London 1982 cast (TER), New York 2023 cast (Broadway Records)