Paul Gemignani, Musical Director
Marc Robin, Director
George Hearn, King Arthur
Sylvia McNair, Guenevere
Rod Gilfry, Lancelot
Lerner & Loewe’s
Book and Lyrics by
ALAN JAY LERNER
Original production directed and staged by Moss Hart
Based on The Once and Future King by T. H. White
Assistant Musical Director
DIANE FERRY WILLIAMSKRISTI J. MARTENS
KRISTI J. MARTENS
Production Stage Manager
RAVINIA FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA
Camelot is presented by arrangement with Tams-Whitmark Music Library, Inc., 560 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10022.
RAVINIA FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA
Florentina Ramniceanu, Concertmaster
Guillaume Combet, Asst. Concertmaster
Pat Brennan, Principal
Barbara Haffner, Principal
Collins Trier, Principal
Darlene Drew, Principal
Robert Morgan, Principal
Charlene Zimmerman, Principal
Clarinet/Eb Clar/Bass Clar/Flute
Peter Brusen, Principal
Melanie Cottle, Principal
David Inmon, Principal
Adam Moen, Principal
Michael Folker, Principal
Marcia Labella, Principal
ALAN JAY LERNER (1918-86) AND FREDERICK LOEWE (1901-88)
A book review in The New York Times (October 1958) guided lyricist and librettist Alan Jay Lerner toward a newly published retelling of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le morte d’Arthur—The Once and Future King by T.H. (Terence Hanbury) White. The English novelist had begun his modernization in 1936 and completed the epic novel three years later. His massive volume languished at the publisher—the reason being a shortage of paper during the war (or perhaps the outwardly anti-war sentiment of the fifth book, The Book of Merlyn). Not until 1958 did White’s Arthurian novel appear in print, and then only the opening tetralogy: The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight and The Candle in the Wind. The Book of Merlyn remained unpublished until 1977.
Lerner and director Moss Hart immediately took to White’s novel. Their musical collaborator, Frederick Loewe, formed a different opinion. “You must be crazy,” wrote the Viennese-born composer. “That king was a cuckold [a man whose wife is unfaithful]. Who the hell cares about a cuckold?” Lerner and Hart eventually persuaded Loewe, who had recently recovered from a heart attack, to compose the score with the understanding that this would be his last musical “if it’s too tough or if I start to worry so much I can’t work the way I want to.”
The casting proceeded quickly. Julie Andrews, who sometime later purchased a home near T.H. White, would create the role of Guenevere. Stage and film star Richard Burton would play King Arthur. Roddy McDowell petitioned Hart for the role of Mordred. Selecting an actor to portray Lancelot took longer, but eventually the production team settled on Robert Goulet, who made his Broadway debut in this role.
The script, lyrics and music took nearly two years to complete, with Lerner trailing Loewe to Palm Springs, Cannes and Long Island. Meanwhile, the first of several problematical subtexts entered the Camelot narrative. Lerner underwent a painful divorce from his second wife and separation from his young son, prompting a deep depression that clouded his mind up until the first read-through. Rehearsals soon began in earnest for the first tryout in Toronto at the newly constructed O’Keefe Centre.
The technical crew struggled, as expected, to conquer the untested facility. Complications continued to mount in Toronto. In performance, Camelot proved much too long. Lerner joked: “Only Tristan und Isolde equaled it as a bladder contest.” Local reviews were polite but largely unenthusiastic. A bleeding ulcer curtailed Lerner’s work on shortening the story. While walking out of the hospital, Lerner passed another man on a hospital gurney—it was Moss Hart, who had suffered a heart attack.
A second tryout in Boston fared little better. Hart remained hospitalized in Toronto. The show had been abridged but still not enough for a Broadway production. Some scenes required complete replacement, and new songs were composed. (Julie Andrews graciously agreed to learn Guenevere’s new first-act song “Before I Gaze at You Again” for the first New York preview but famously requested: “Do try to get it to me the night before.”) Though weakened, Lerner directed the remaining scenes himself.
Camelot moved to New York’s Majestic Theatre as an imperfect show, opening on December 3, 1960, with a record $2 million in advance ticket sales. The opening-night performance inspired mixed reviews, and the production as a whole failed to generate any real excitement. Once released from the hospital, Hart reunited with the cast on Broadway and began making long-overdue cuts and dramatic adjustments, which vastly improved the production. In a brilliant public relations move, Lerner arranged for the three leading actors—Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet—to sing 20 minutes of Camelot excerpts in costume on The Ed Sullivan Show. Ticket sales skyrocketed the next morning, and the show finally enjoyed popular success.
The Arthurian musical comedy eventually ran for 873 performances. Camelot earned four Tony Awards (Best Actor in a Musical Production, Best Conductor and Musical Director, Best Scenic Designer of a Musical and Best Costume Designer) and The Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Set Design. The original cast recording topped the LP charts for 60 weeks. A two-year tour of the U.S. followed in 1963-64. Warner Bros. released a film version starring Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero in 1967. Keeping his promise, Frederick Loewe retired as a musical theater composer, although he emerged temporarily from retirement in 1973-74 to adapt the film Gigi for the stage and to compose the film musical The Little Prince with Lerner. Moss Hart never had the chance to direct another show; he succumbed to a second heart attack on December 20, 1961.
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, added another chapter to the Camelot story. Lerner had been one of Kennedy’s classmates at Choate boarding school (they co-edited the yearbook) and Harvard University. In an interview for Life magazine, Jacqueline Kennedy revealed that her husband listened to LPs every night before bed. The title piece from Camelot ended with one of the President’s favorite lyrics: “Don’t let it be forgot,/that once there was a spot,/for one brief, shining moment that was known/as Camelot.” The “brief shining moment” of the Kennedy presidency spelled hope for America during an era of social and political turmoil. Even amid the current economic crisis, many again believe in a modern-day Camelot inspired by the optimism of Barack Obama’s presidency. [See page 30 for an article about “The New Camelot.”]
—Program notes © Todd E. Sullivan 2009