One of the official photos for the national tour of Lerner and Loewe's Camelot showcases Lou Diamond Phillips as King Arthur, clutching Excalibur and wearing a crown atop a mane of long, not-very-stately-looking hair. The picture serves as a royal proclamation: This is not your grandmother's Camelot.
"There are a couple of reasons for the long hair, and one is that I didn't want people looking at me and going, 'Hey, it's Ritchie,'" says Phillips, referring to his break-out role as Ritchie Valens in the film "La Bamba." "I want them to see King Arthur. And I think that for this generation, a generation that didn't know Richard Burton [who originated the role], the iconic look of medieval kings is different. I was influenced by [the film] 'Excalibur,' which is a grittier, more rustic, more realistic version of the story. Another inspiration is 'The Lord of the Rings' — which I think borrows heavily from Arthurian legend — and Viggo Mortensen in 'The Return of the King,' with the long hair and the beard."
Camelot began touring last year with Michael York portraying King Arthur. When Phillips, who at 45 is 20 years younger than York, took over the role with a new Guenevere (Rachel de Benedet) and Lancelot (Matt Bogart), director Glenn Casale approached it like a new production. "Glenn said, 'It's a blank slate,'" says Phillips. "One of the first things I said to him was that I was going to be more physical and that I wanted to move around a lot more. So they added dancing and a sword fight for me. Arthur is young when he meets Guenevere at the beginning of the play. He is in his prime when he creates the Round Table. A lot of people think Arthur is old. I've heard that from journalists across the country who saw Robert Goulet or Richard Harris in the role. But Richard Burton was 35 when he did it on Broadway in 1960. And Arthur is supposed to be Lancelot's best friend. Therefore the betrayal becomes that much more tragic, because they love each other, because they're contemporaries."
This is the second time that Phillips is wearing a crown in a legendary musical. He made a memorable Broadway debut in the 1996 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I, which earned him a Tony Award nomination. Although on the surface King Mongkut and King Arthur would appear to have little in common, Phillips says they share several characteristics. "Self-reflection wasn't a big thing when these shows were written," he says. "We weren't into Oprah and Dr. Phil. And yet what both of these kings share, which I find amazing, is this great self-doubt that leads them to be better kings. They are constantly reviewing what they think they know of themselves and their world. What's really beautiful is that both of them feel very responsible to make the world a better place, to leave a legacy. Maybe one reason why I'm attracted to these roles is that there is such heart and intelligence to both of these men. Camelot is so very timely right now. There's a moment where Arthur says, 'I stumbled into my future.' And Lancelot says, 'Did you ever doubt it?' And Arthur says, 'Of course I did. Only fools never doubt.' You want to give the audience a knowing wink. Not to politicize the play, but there are so many truths in this piece that are so relevant and resonate today. It's a medieval love story with a medieval dreamer, but it really speaks to contemporary audiences."