New Rep’s current production of the musical “Camelot” is a reminder of what a fascinating history the original Broadway production had. Anticipation had been high among critics and the general public back in 1960 for “Camelot”, the next musical to be presented by the creative team behind “My Fair Lady”. Once again, the book and lyrics were to be by Alan Jay Lerner, with music by Frederick Loewe, to be directed by Moss Hart. It was to be based on the story of King Arthur and his Round Table in three of the four books in “The Once and Future King” series by T.H. White (the rights to the first having been obtained by Walt Disney for his animated “Sword and the Stone” about Arthur’s youth with Merlin). After almost two years of writing and rewriting and painfully troubled pre-Broadway tryouts in Toronto and here in Boston, with Loewe recuperating from a massive coronary and Hart also suffering a heart attack, Lerner took over as director. The advance word wasn’t good, and the show finally opened in New York to a fairly tepid reception among critics and the public. The cast album had been rushed to record stores before the New York opening, in hopes of increasing demand for tickets (famously having musical numbers recorded out of their final order). Just as things were looking dim, Lerner and Loewe were offered a tribute on Ed Sullivan’s televised variety show, so they chose twenty minutes of songs from “Camelot”, which enraptured the public at last. In its fourth month, the show increased sales, ultimately lasting two years on Broadway.
The show survived, despite the qualms Loewe expressed about the subject of cuckoldry (which proved prescient) and the troublesome denouement (the “Guinevere” song), which described all the action taking place off-stage, a curious choice. The second act continued to strike audiences as by far the weaker act, until history intervened. After President Kennedy was killed, his widow Jacqueline revealed that he had frequently listened to the cast album; she likened his loss to the feelings Arthur expressed at the dissolution of his round table and the ideal of Camelot. Suddenly the ending of the show had unexpected resonance for the audiences of the day. It was partly with this in mind that New Rep made the noble choice to mount this show on the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s death. Those of a certain vintage will always make the internal connection, but it isn‘t necessary to feel the myth and its message.
What is necessary is a trio of singing actors that can truly deliver on its magically wondrous score. This production surely does that, under the direction of Russell Garrett. King Arthur (Benjamin Evett) needs to be a bit out of touch with the times (an idealist in a bellicose era), and gentle as well (“the way to handle a woman is to love her, simply love her, merely love her, love her, love her”). Evett delivers as usual, and with a hitherto unknown fine singing voice. His Guinevere (Erica Spyres) must be full of youthful spirits (“shan’t I be young before I’m old?… shall kith not kill their kin for me?”) and eventual remorse (“I have so much forgetting to do before I try to gaze again at you”, and “now there’s twice as much grief, twice the strain for us, twice the despair, twice the pain for us, as we had known before”). Spyres too delivers, particularly poignant in a difficult role; she and Evett are charming together in their duet, “What Do the Simple Folk Do?”. The knight in shining armor, Lancelot (Marc Koeck), requires a handsome actor with a large baritone voice, so winning that he can get away with lyrics such as “had I been made the partner of Eve, I’d be in Eden still”, (with such self-flaunted traits as virtue, nobility, iron will, godliness, purity, boldness, self-restraint, but seemingly not modesty) and finally steadfast (“no, not in springtime, summer, winter or fall, no never could I leave you at all”). Koeck, a senior at Boston Conservatory, overcame all doubts (despite a distinct lack of shining armor in a very unflattering costume). A very buff Sir Dinadin (Michael J. Borges) and Tom of Warwick (a promising young Dashiell Evett) were both truly outstanding in a huge cast.
The artistic decision to recreate literally the Dark Ages resulted in a production that jettisoned color and pageantry for the presumably more historically accurate drabness of the period. Logistics and financial restraints these days dictate a smaller than ideal orchestra, resulting in a tiny (and often tinny) sound, surprising given musical director David McGrory’s memorable work in the past (as with New Rep‘s “Marry Me a Little” last season).
The essence of the Arthurian myth is idealism. When a small boy (the younger Evett) appears in the final scene wishing to become a knight of the Round Table, Arthur realizes this means his vision lives and he hasn’t failed; “men die, but an idea doesn’t”. And thus naturally come the last words of the show: “Don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot”.