Not Your Father's 'Camelot'

What should a director do when working with a musical that exists in multiple texts? Many such titles abound: "The Baker's Wife," "Cabaret," "Candide," "Flora, the Red Menace," "Follies," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "Merrily We Roll Along," "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever," "Paint Your Wagon," "Rags," and "Show Boat" are but a few. Interestingly, there are a number of commercial successes that fall under this category; it's not just a list of shows that authors kept revising in the hopes of finally having a hit.

Molly Smith, artistic director of Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage, faced just this problem in her recent, critically praised production of Lerner and Loewe's "Camelot" that closed on Jan. 4. A significant commercial hit in its initial 1960-63 Broadway run and long since a staple of regional and community theatre, "Camelot" sustained substantial revisions during an extended out-of-town tryout, underwent further revisions months into its Broadway run, received more modifications for its West End premiere, was again rewritten significantly as a film, and received a final set of changes for a 1980 Broadway revival and national tour, all at the hand of author Alan Jay Lerner. Yet Lerner, who died in 1986, apparently never sanctioned a definitive text, and "optional materials" are available from its licensing house, Tams-Witmark.

So how did Smith shape a version of her vision of "Camelot"?

Lerner once said, "After writing 'My Fair Lady' and 'Gigi,' I wanted to write a musical about Washington, and I ended up writing 'Camelot.' " It's no surprise, then, that Smith sensed the importance of the political themes in Lerner's script, and was drawn to bringing them out. "I think that the political nature of the play is so impactful for today's audience, because it really is about a good king who tries to bring the world together for peace, and what a great idea to have in the world at this moment," says Smith.

One way of highlighting those themes was to make the show more consistent in tone. "Camelot" has always been criticized for veering excessively between its humor and its darker themes, and Smith chose to go in the direction of the latter. She created her own opening, jettisoning Lerner's early jokes for the ensemble about meeting Guenevere in the traditional fashion in favor of a silent prologue in which we see the young Arthur (the same actor who would later play young Tom of Warwick in the show's final scene) pull the sword from the stone. Explains Smith, "We opened with the image of the sword in the stone because it is iconic. Because many of us know the legend, but there are young people in the theatre who don't. So we wanted to have a searing image at the beginning of the play that told part of the story."

But aside from creating the opening image, Smith was scrupulous in refusing to do any "ghost" writing. "We only cut. There are sections of the musical that we took out because the running time tends to be quite long. So there are choices that need to be made, although we ended up putting in some of the material that is optional, like 'Take Me to the Fair' and 'Fie on Goodness,' and leaving in the invisible forest scene."

Continues Smith, "I come to musicals from a life of both working on new plays and also on major classical texts. I come to it with a focus on language. Even though my joy in it is working on the music, I tend to be quite hardheaded about focusing on storyline, character, and language. I don't want that to be anything that is brushed over at all. I just feel that it adds more and more color to the production by focusing on it in this way."

True to her respect for language, Smith's cuts were never wholesale or unconsidered; rather, internal, thoughtful cuts were made within scenes, songs, or speeches, again to shorten the overall length and to highlight the themes she wanted on display. "In 'Fie on Goodness,' " she says, "we found that the solo sections of it tended to slow down what we really wanted to be an explosive, masculine power punch of a song. They softened it. By paring it down, we were able to maintain the forward thrust of the song quite nicely."

Smith also removed some of the deliberate anachronisms used humorously both by T.H. White in "The Once and Future King" and Lerner in his musical derived from it. "I felt that by paring them slightly, it kept it in a more classic world. I wanted it to be seen as a serious musical. It is a wonderful text. And the lyrics are exquisite. Lerner really is a brilliant lyricist, and I wanted to bring that up for our audience, so that they were able to see it exposed."

Lerner did very much the same thing to the anachronisms in his 1966 film adaptation, which Smith chose not to see, wanting to work only from what had been created for the stage. She did not, however, have access to the 1980 Broadway version. If she had, she would have known that Lerner also jettisoned his original opening, telling the story as a flashback by Arthur on the eve of his battle with Lancelot (something he borrowed from his film script). Lerner is on record as saying he thought about doing this during the original out-of-town tryout, in order to prepare the audience for the dark direction in which the show would ultimately go, but was loathe to try it because the first act was working so well and the production was so troubled.

Smith would also have been able to make a change instead of a cut. In "How to Handle a Woman," there is dialogue between the two choruses for Arthur, musing to himself: "What's wrong, Jennie? Where are you these days? What are you thinking? I don't understand you. But no matter, Merlyn told me once, 'Never be too disturbed if you don't understand what a woman is thinking. They don't do it very often.' But what do you do while they're doing it?" Smith removed this entirely, ending the song after the first chorus. "I felt that was pretty retro thinking about women. I also didn't want the audience to pull away and think too much in that moment." Ironically, Lerner agreed with her. He changed the line in 1980 to the following: "Merlyn said to me once, never ask a woman what she is thinking. She may tell you. But what do you do while you're wondering?"

Smith cast her love triangle young and attractive, and was clear to make both Arthur and Guenevere's marriage and Lancelot and Guenevere's affair sexual. This was crucial to her: " 'Camelot' is all about how complex love is, that love isn't as simple as what one's expectation of it is in early life." But this was no betrayal of Lerner's intent, despite the fact that, on Broadway in 1960, Lancelot and Guenevere only longed for each other; they never actually slept together. The truth is that Lerner ultimately blinked. He didn't think audiences were ready for Julie Andrews committing adultery. (Interestingly, Lerner also blinked about an act of adultery that served as the climax of Act I from his 1948 musical "Love Life," written with Kurt Weill, removing it pre-Broadway.) But Lancelot and Guenevere's adultery was present in Lerner's original, first-day-of-rehearsal script, and he restored it for the 1966 film. Indeed, many of the changes Lerner made for the film and the 1980 Broadway production are not changes, but restorations of his original vision for the piece.

Smith's "Camelot" may not be your father's "Camelot," and may or may not be yours, but her unflinching respect for the work as she went about creating her vision of the show is admirable. I once saw a major regional theatre produce a version of "Gigi" that combined the Lerner-Loewe songs with the script for the 1951 Anita Loos play adaptation. It was not only appalling, it was almost certainly illegal, but that didn't prevent it from happening.

Smith's 2003 production of "South Pacific," chosen by Bruce Weber in The New York Times as a highlight of his 2003 theatrical year, rekindled the love she once felt for musical theatre. According to Smith, "I was brought into the theatre by seeing 'Camelot' when I was eight years old. Then, in the '60s, I rejected all musicals. I was part of a whole movement of baby boomers who only respected experimental theatre for a period of time. And now, I have come back to it with a jolt. We need to be looking at the American musical in the same way and in the same breath that we mention our great writers like O'Neill and Williams. We need to be talking about Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe like that. For my whole life as a theatre artist, I have always separated the two, and I'm not doing that anymore. And I think that this could be an important moment where we in the American theatre stop putting the American musical down and bring it to the level of respect that our other great writers have."

Sounds like there could be some interesting doings in D.C. in the years to come.