O.K., so here’s the dilemma: when you revive a classic show that has problematic elements (and which of them doesn’t?) should you keep it the way it was written or update it for modern sensibilities? The new production of Camelot, which opened in Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater this week, chose the latter. And I’m not sure that was a good idea.
Camelot has always been problematic. Its score by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner is delightful and filled with gorgeous ballads like “If Ever I Would Leave You” and “I Loved You Once in Silence” but Lerner’s book, adapted from T. H. White's fantasy novel “The Once and Future King” with its story of the love triangle between King Arthur, his queen Guenevere and the cocky knight Sir Lancelot has always been clunky.
That was in part because Lerner had a mental breakdown during the writing of the show and its director Moss Hart suffered a heart attack during rehearsals, all of that making it even more difficult than usual for the creative team to agree on what to cut, what to add and how to refine the end product.
The reviews were understandably mixed but the appearance of four numbers on TV host Ed Sullivan’s popular variety show caused ticket buyers to line up, resulting in the show’s running for nearly 900 performances and winning five Tonys, including one for Richard Burton’s portrayal of the cuckolded king.
But the show’s greatest claim to fame may be the fact that a week after JFK’s assassination, his widow Jackie Kennedy gave an interview in which she compared his brief time in office with the mythical Arthur’s hopes for a utopian society that would be just for all its inhabitants, or as the title song's lyrics say "Once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot."
The current problem with the show—no surprise—rests in the book’s treatment of Guenevere. Even though Julie Andrews leant her trademark sparkle to the role in the original production, Guenevere is basically just a trophy wife for the guys to fight over.
So when the director Bart Sher decided to revive Camelot, he also decided that it need a book that reflected more updated views about women and he drafted his buddy Aaron Sorkin to supply them (click here to read more about that).
For his part, Sher has cast the show well and created some beautiful stage pictures. The opening image of the show as Arthur’s knights emerge to greet the arriving Guenevere is spectacular. But the show never hits that height again, not even in the terrific swordplay choreographed by the legendary fight director B.H. Barry (click here to read more about him).
And what’s up with Michael Yeargan’s scenery? Why is the tree in which Arthur is supposed to be hiding at the beginning of the play so spindly that it looks unable to support a canary, less than a king? And where is the round table that’s supposed to be the symbol of equality in Arthur’s realm?
Still, I’m afraid most of the blame for this revisal’s failings have to be laid at Sorkin’s door. As he’s said in many interviews, Sorkin decided to excise the magical elements that animated the original production. So Merlin is no longer a wizard but simply a wise tutor. Even the story of Arthur’s claiming the throne by drawing the sword Excalibur from a stone is given a rational explanation.
And this being a Sorkin jam, there’s a lot of West Wing-style talk about good government. Don’t get me wrong, I love his TV series “The West Wing;” but I’m not sure it would make a good musical.
Some of the changes come off as tone-deaf pandering: the character Morgan Le Fey is no longer a sorceress but a scientist (really, a woman scientist in the Early Middle Ages?) and given so little to do that the character’s one song, the lovely ballad “Follow Me,” has been cut, which hardly seems female-friendly.
Just as egregiously, Guenevere now comes off as the kind of smarter-than-everyone-else heroine that turns up in so many YA novels, Meanwhile Arthur is pretty much a nebbish. Lancelot is left largely alone but as a result seems to have wandered in from some other show.
Phillipa Soo looks and sings like a queen but she seems too—how should I say it—modern for the story’s historical setting. Still she fares better than Andrew Burnap, whose Arthur seems like an emo lightweight, until the final few scenes by which time it was too late to get me onboard.
(click here for more about him) but he lacks the knowing humor that Robert Goulet brought to the role. In fact there’s too little humor in this updating. And what there is relies mainly on groaner jokes that someone as skilled as Sorkin shouldn’t have let in.
Those determined to put on classic musicals may have more choices than I suggested at the beginning of this review. They can lean into nostalgia as Sher successfully did with his sumptuous productions of South Pacific and The King and I.
Or they can go the celebrity route and turn the shows into star vehicles as Jerry Zaks did for Bette Midler in the recent revival of Hello, Dolly and as just about everyone has done with Gypsy.
Or they can take the Shakespeare route, hewing close to the original text and the original songs but finding new ways to frame them as Daniel Fish did with his "sexy "Oklahoma, or Marianne Elliott did with her gender-flipped Company and as even Ivo van Hove did with his controversial production of West Side Story .
Or—and I’m thinking this may be the best way to go so that we don’t have to lose direct access to those golden scores (this time out, the original orchestrations for Camelot’s are terrifically played by a 30-piece orchestra)—they can just do concert versions of the shows that don’t have to wrestle with the problematic elements, which may require different responses in future days anyway.