‘Camelot’ Revival at Lincoln Center, Superbly Re-imagined for Our Time
The original 1958 musical Camelot. performed with Alan Jay Lerner’s book and lyrics, and Frederick Loewe’s music, adapts theArthurian legend from T.H. White’s collection of fantasy novels entitled Once and Future King (1958). White’s adaptation was loosely based on the 1485 work Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. Aaron Sorkin’s book updates the musical and puts an interesting spin on the events of legend, heightening the characters and shifting the emphasis to King Arthur, superbly portrayed by Andrew Burnap (Inheritance). As a result, Sorkin diminishes the love affair between Phillipa Soo’s Queen Guenevere (Hamilton) and Jordan Donica’s Lancelot du Lac (My Fair Lady), aligning it more with romantic tradition which fails. With outstanding set design and fine direction by Bartlett Sher, Camelot is a stunning revival of symbolic political moment, currently running at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont until September.
At the top of the play Sorkin introduces us to one of the most important aspects of Arthur’s kingdom, the feudalistic power structure and Arthur’s previous isolation from it. Before we even meet Arthur, we meet the lords who serve the king and make up his court, as well as Merlin (Dakin Matthews), Arthur’s counselor, whose wizardry is seen through his balanced demeanor, wisdom, erudition, time transcendence, foreknowledge and keen ability to redirect the perspectives of less enlightened individuals.
Tasked to meet Arthur’s bride-to-be at the top of the hill near the castle, the lords exclaim that her carriage is at the bottom of the hill. We note Merlin’s attributes in his initial discourse with these three knights, Dinadan (Anthony Michael Lopez), Lionel (Danny Wolohan), and Sagramore (Fergie Philippe), who rant that the Guenevere’s carriage has gone against tradition, as they watch her disembark from her carriage far away from them. This change in tradition upsets them, until Merlin uses gentle wisdom to calm their responses and show them they can merely change the law to update tradition. This exchange among the knights and Merlin indicates the conflict to come, tradition vs. progress. The knights’ acceptance of Arthur’s changes is paramount to Camelot’s success.
The ruling elites are conservative traditionalists. But Merlin handles them easily and emphasizes the power of laws to change useless, outmoded ways of being. These men have power and influence over an unequal class system, institutionalized by feudalism (the peasants who serve and the lords who protect and luxuriate over them). Arthur must step around them and gain their trust to overturn traditions which have harmed and caused wars and bloodshed.
Not a member of the royal class per se, Arthur must navigate the knights’ entrenched power with wisdom, if he is to rule his kingdom well and remain effective. This not only requires steadfast courage and acute psychological and personal skills, it demands a political philosophy and will to unite the lords and prevent division. Additionally, training and counsel from Merlin, whose extraordinary gifts of wisdom provide a broader, endowed perspective and understanding, are a boon.
In Sorkin’s different spin of Merlin, we understand that the time has been stepped up one hundred years, so that the medieval age is coming to a close, and Arthur is pushing his kingdom in the direction of the Enlightenment with the help of Merlin. Unfortunately, Merlin’s assistance remains all too brief. After his death, he is replaced by one of the oldest knights in the kingdom, Pellinore, also portrayed by Dakin Matthews, who Guenevere invites in to their circle.
Sorkin advances Arthur’s human graces, contrasting them with the backward knights of his time, who he must manipulate against their own stupidity, which manifests in Act II, encouraged by Mordred (Taylor Trensch) in “Fie on Goodness.” Arthur is not a royal in arrogance, presumption or privilege. He is a people person, decent, kind, likeable and extraordinarily generous. He is more like a Christ-like figure, who forgives Guenevere and Lancelot’s “treason,” and refuses to brutally punish them for their lack of faithfulness.
He invites his son Mordred into his circle, as a reconciliation for his past abandonment, which his mother caused by refusing Arthur’s pleas for her to come and live in the castle. He announces to the kingdom that Mordred is his out-of-wedlock son who is being treated equally like everyone else and has the opportunity to learn and become a knight, if he wishes. But Mordred refuses to listen to Arthur’s explanations why he is not with Morgan le Fey (Marilee Talkington), and he gives lip service to Arthur’s largesse. Instead, Mordred manufactures his own victimization and weaponizes it against his father. Indeed, as the villain, Mordred exploits Arthur’s kindness and love. In his wicked world, these traits are a weakness to set up Arthur’s downfall (“The Seven Deadly Virtues”).
Especially in the characterization of Arthur, Sorkin presents the idealization of a king whose humility, love, intelligence, forgiving nature, and equanimity is all that the Enlightenment promises. Unfortunately, Arthur is a man out of his time, more an influence for future generations in inspired legends and stories of his exploits, frailty and kindness, which can guide by example to bring hope and light to others. Though his reign and Camelot only lasted for for a brief time, the antithesis of the stability and “happy ever aftering” Arthur and Guenevere sing about in the beginning (“Camelot”), is mythic. All individuals, even the current day audience can aspire to Arthur’s ideals of a place of congeniality for persons great and small.
Each of the characters we see immersed in feudalism are lesser in nature, greedy for power, brutal, judgmental, calculating and self-absorbed. In the dialogue to some of the songs, we note Sorkin cleverly magnifies this. For example in the ironic “Simple Joys of Maidenhood” that Guenevere sings about wanting knights to die and sacrifice themselves for her love, Arthur brings up the notion that this isn’t much fun for the knights. Not only is Guenevere naive, she is brutal in her unrealistic romanticism, a clue to the source of her treachery with Lancelot, spawned from her privileged background. Indeed, the same knights that would kill for her, would just as soon end her “maidenhood,” in a rape, which Arthur seems to note in his ironic comment, but Guenevere conveniently ignores.
Guenevere is a traditionalist in all of her “modernity.” A spouse by arranged marriage to prevent war between England and France, she is born of royalty and has the presumption, lack of humility, and fieriness to prove it. Her expectations are royal, and she doesn’t understand Arthur’s personality and hoped for kingdom. Initially, she presumes Arthur will behave according to the traditions of kings, like her father. Kings are sexually promiscuous. They treat women as objects for their pleasure; they make demands on them, requiring they be passive creatures without individuality or autonomy.
That Arthur doesn’t have women at his sexual disposal at court, and expresses belief in the fidelity of marriage is a striking and revelatory contrast. Additionally, he fosters the novel idea they must prevent fighting, war, bloodshed, abuse of the lower classes and women. Remarkably, he gladly accepts her input of ideas. It is during their discussions that the “knights of the round table” come into being. In this acceptance of Guenevere as his ruling partner, he reveals that he is dynamically striding toward enlightened governance.
Appealing to her better nature constantly, Arthur trusts her with Lancelot. Ignoring her suggestion, he refuses to expel the narcissistic knight from the kingdom, before they have their momentary affair, which Mordred has “encouraged,” unbeknownst to Arthur, Guenevere and Lancelot. Above all, Arthur provides her with freedom and power to rule with him. This is unlike anything that is supposed to happen to a female royal anywhere. And in the musical’s memorable signature song, he imagines his vision of Camelot in order to engage her to want to be Queen, and woo her, before she knows his identity.
In retrospect, at the conclusion of the musical, we learn it is his intentions of good will toward her that prompts Guenevere to fall in love with him early on. However, since both of them are unpracticed at love, they never express it to each other. It is one of Arthur’s chief weaknesses of pride. Ironically, he fails at his own express thoughts in “How to Handle a Women,” and doesn’t love her, so that she understands his love, understands that his freedom and trust in her are love, decency and generosity in the Arthurian time of patriarchy on steroids. She is still stuck in the romantic notion of love, reinforced by her ladies in waiting, who push romantic tradition on her to her detriment.
Sorkin’s book is deeper and more complex than the original musical, so that before each song, one must catch the nuance. For example the humorous repartee before and after the song, “Camelot,” works beautifully and heightens the ironic, fantastical lyrics, symbolizing the fickleness of the place in its hyperbole, “The snow may never slush upon the hillside, by 9 P.M. the moonlight must appear.” In expressing his metaphor, Arthur encourages Guenevere to realize he is unlike royalty, and his kingdom and reign with her will be unique, maverick, loving. The tragedy is that the depth of their love is unrealized and misunderstood. Guevenere, entrapped by the tradition of her place and status, and Arthur overwhelmed by his sense of inferiority to express his feelings to her, contribute to the fall of the kingdom.
An express, underlying irony is that Arthur’s view and behavior toward women is even more forward thinking than many in the US South today, and especially some of the GOP political party antithetical to equanimity between women and men. Thus, Arthur is not only schooling Guenevere about equanimity and generosity as love, he is also reminding the audience of the beauty of such an approach between men and women for our own time.
Of course, this is legend, and it is hard to come by in reality, which makes the final exchange between Arthur and Guenevere, and their relationship, all the more poignant and tragic. In a failure of her character and bondage to her identity, Guenevere is too late to recognize and receive Arthur’s love and freedom to express it. Instead, she opts out for fleeting passion which is another form of bondage, and is the antithesis of freedom. It is why she regrets her affair with Lancelot, does not run off with him, but goes to a convent. The rest of her life she does penance for contributing to his death, Lancelot’s death, and the destruction of the kingdom.
Phillipa Soo and Andrew Burnap are perfectly cast in their respective roles and are simply smashing in voice, authenticity and aura, making us empathize with their characters who are victims of their own frailties. Burnap, especially at the conclusion, coalesces the poignant tragedy that Arthur’s dreams are broken, and that by a combination of rotten timing, privileged selfishness (by royals Lancelot and Guenevere), bitterness and resentment by an ungrateful Mordred, he is undone and must pay the forfeit with his death.
Jordan Danica’s Lancelot is both funny and dangerous, for we know what is coming when his resistance to Guenevere “protests too much” in selfishness. The right way to serve King Arthur would to leave and escape his lust, which he can’t because of his own self-betrayal. The bedroom scene is perfectly directed to suggest the thrill of passion, but not love. It is appropriate that their “aftermath” falls flat in disgrace, as they realize the import of what they’ve done. Sadly, as the pawns of Mordred, they’ve betrayed their king, and the golden idea which elevated their lives and the kingdom. Interestingly, Donica’s “If Ever I Would Leave You” indicates he can’t leave because of how she “looks” in the changing seasons. If he really loved her, not the image of her and him together, he would have left the moment he sensed the attraction to save her and himself. So much for his boasted purity. To insure his leaving, he would have been truthful with King Arthur. Donica’s voice and interpretation of that song in particular are non pareil, just fantastic.
Sorkin mitigates the “magical” in this Camelot update, palatably. For example it is suggested Arthur is able to pull the sword Excalibur out of the stone because previously, ten thousand men loosened it. Lancelot’s “resurrection” of Arthur occurs because he was just knocked unconscious and not killed. No miracle occurred. Arthur’s characterization is a forerunner of the rational man of the Enlightenment, when Europe will experience many transformations. Then, rigorous scientific, political and philosophical ideas burgeon in the society with the rise of the middle class. In his approach to ruling his kingdom, Arthur is bold to overthrow the most noxious elements of feudalism to bring ideals of equanimity, peace and honor that “might for right” and “justice for all” are the better way.
The thoughtful production has humor, vibrance and poignance. The treachery and resentment of unforgiving Mordred (the fine Taylor Trensch), who helps explode the Camelot ideals of equanimity, peace and honor are a potent reminder that such a “heaven on earth” is impossible because of human fallibility. Thematically, the musical warns us that only in the aspirations of future generations, represented by Camden McKinnon’s Tom of Warwick, may that possibility become reality in limited circumstances.
In the meantime, hope must be kept alive for a time when such dreams are possible. Realistically, all the characters fall from their own grace. It happens with the best of individuals, who cannot govern their own passions, and with the worst who rebel against a more perfect order for the sake of power. Sorkin reminds us in this complex re-imagining that most important is the striving for equity and equilibrium, not the achievement of it, which in itself is too fantastic to sustain. In the striving is the learning and revelation which is priceless. As such they provide the way for the hope of tomorrow, arriving at democratic polity hundreds of years in the future: i.e. a democratic Ukraine in the face of genocidal aggression by Russia, a democratic United States in practice not in lip service.
The sets by Michael Yeargan are suggestive, stylized, minimalist and symbolic, perfect for scene changes to the castle, Arthur’s study, a maypole dance, the tournament and more. Noted the black tree on stage never blossoms or has leaves, regardless of season. At one point the projection of the beautiful Camelot is seen in the distance. However, the tree does have leaves on the program cover as a figure peers out from its branches, and we, like him, wait for a “more perfect union,” and peace, justice and equity for all.
Jennifer Moeller’s costumes are richly appropriate and gorgeous. Lap Chi Chu’s lighting design, Marc Salzberg & Beth Lake’s sound design, Cookie Jordan’s hair & wig design cohere to manifest Bartlett Sher’s vision. Projections by 59 Productions are, as usual, marvelous.
I had forgotten how lyrical, memorable and powerfully touching are Lerner and Loewe’s songs and music. “Guenevere” is heartbreaking. Special recognition goes to Kimberly Grigsby’s music direction which does justice to the score. Noted are the original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett & Phillip J. Lang, and dance & choral arrangements by Trude Rittmann. These artists, no longer with us, had a prodigious history of creating the beauty of Broadway (Bennett over 300 productions, Lang and Rittmann over 50 productions). Byron Easley’s choreography is energetic in “The Lusty Month of May.” B.H. Barry’s fight direction and the staging/choreography of swordfights of Lancelot proving his mettle with the three knights and Arthur, appear as dangerous as the crashing blades sound.
Camelot runs with one intermission. Every minute is worth seeing. Don’r believe some of the critics. Judge for yourself. For tickets and times at the Vivian Beaumont go to their website https://www.lct.org/shows/camelot/