Launching at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts prior to a national tour, the Glenn Casale-directed staging is not your grandfather's Camelot. Despite the show's reputation for hit songs, its link to the Kennedy administration, and the warm memory of its exposure on "The Ed Sullivan Show," Camelot was a famously troubled musical that many consider a puzzle yet to be solved.
Camelot's critics over the years have said it has too many ballads, a weak second act, too much "telling" and not enough "showing." Casale and company are addressing those issues and more, he told Playbill.com, but aren't seeking to fix what isn't broken: Namely, the love story at the center and how the personal lives of leaders collide with their political lives.
Casale calls the Arthur-Guenevere-Lancelot triangle one of the great love stories in western literature.
Performances continue in La Mirada, CA, through Jan. 28. The official launch of the tour is Jan. 30 in San Jose, CA.
Camelot had a rocky pre-Broadway test run 47 years ago. Director Moss Hart had a massive heart attack before the show was fully crafted, and lyricist-librettist Alan Jay Lerner took over the direction. "The first act has so much good storytelling, [but] you've got to marry that second act to that first act, which I don't think they really completed," Casale said.
Changes were so rampant in 1960-61 that the original cast album (featuring Tony nominee Julie Andrews, Tony Award winner Richard Burton and Robert Goulet) doesn't accurately represent what was heard on Broadway.
Lerner's son, Michael Lerner, is now providing additional material for the current revival, which draws on the property's various scripts from over the years — including the original, the first London version and later drafts that Lerner tweaked for tours that starred Burton and Richard Harris.
Among the new production's producers are Lerner's daughter, Liza Lerner, McCoy Rigby Entertainment, Nederlander Organization, Live Nation, and Waxman Williams Entertainment.
This time around, Michael York (perhaps best known for the film "Cabaret") takes on King Arthur, Rachel York (City of Angels, Victor/Victoria) is Guenevere and James Barbour (Jane Eyre) is Sir Lancelot.
The 1960 musical is based on T.H. White's King Arthur novel, "The Once and Future King." A section of the book deals with the challenge of building a civil, ideal society — and seeing it crumble when its leaders break rules.
Casale told Playbill.com that Act Two is now radically different than before. "The storytelling in the second act was unclear, and not strong," he said of the earlier versions. "There was no climax, and there's no final number. We tried to build a final number, and use that song ['Guenevere'] to thread it through: You see her go to trial, and you see her being taken to the pyre, and you see Arthur in the tower wondering what to do."
There is a modern visual sweep to the staging now, Casale said. Theatregoers can expect moving towers and more fluid visuals.
A sequence known as "The Jousts," in which courtiers describe an offstage competition (a la "Ascot Gavotte" from My Fair Lady) is now replaced by an onstage broadsword battle between knights — where Lancelot proves himself, moving Queen Guenevere to fall for him.
"We had to write material, and we used existing material, to put together battles," Casale said, specifically crediting Michael Lerner for those contributions. "It makes it more alive and dangerous."
Casale said his and the producers' approach was respectful because Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe were masters. "There's so much good in it," Casale said. "I don't want to not use that stuff. I've been very respectful to what it is. I also know a lot of people adore a lot of it. It's about figuring out the puzzle. We moved some songs around. The first act is now an hour and 25 minutes, the second act will be 45 minutes."
That's lean for a show that in its 1960 Toronto tryout ran closer to four hours than two.
"What I tried to do is streamline it down," Casale said. "The criticism of it is the length and the redundancy in it. Today, we wanna get on with it…"
Among songs cut are "Fie on Goodness," "I Loved You Once in Silence" and Mordred's salty-comic number, "The Seven Deadly Virtues."
"All of those songs are very good — I just think they don't move the plot along," Casale said. "And I think 'Seven Deadly Virtues' rubs against Mordred's character in a not good way because it's not fitting to the rest of the score. I think it feels like an insert in style and tone."
"Take Me to the Fair," on the cast album but subsequently cut from the score, has been added to this revival. "They put it in the film," Casale said. "It really helps Guenevere — you see another side to her, and it's great."
What's this Camelot like, visually? The set (by John Iacovelli) and costumes recall rich pre-Raphaelite paintings that romanticize the Middle Ages, when Arthur was said to have lived (circa 400-500).
"It's a 'rough' period, we've set it in the late hundreds, because we still wanted to use a lot of the Roman influence because England was very much Roman-inhabited," Casale said. "[In the costumes] you see fur, raw silks and hemp material."
Casale's production uses the image of the famed Round Table, where all are equal; and references "the sword in the stone" story — the origin of Arthur becoming king.
What will fans of the old show — or the old show of their imagination — think of the "new" Camelot?
"For Camelot purists, I think they will enjoy it," Casale said.
As previously announced, the Camelot creative team also includes choreographer Dan Mojica, set designer John Iacovelli, prop designer Aaron King, sound designer Julie Ferrin, lighting designer Tom Ruzika and musical director Craig Barna. Casale, Barna and Iacovelli were among those responsible for breathing new life into Peter Pan in the last decade.
The tour will play at least 25 weeks in the first season with many more in a second season.
The cast also includes Shannon Stoeke (Mordred), Time Winters (Pellinore), Eric Anderson (Merlyn), Tavis Danz (Young Arthur), Stuart Ambrose, Daniel Guzman, Robert J. Townsend, Alan M-L Wager, Shannon Warne, Sandi DeGeorge, Sandy Hawker, Monica Louwerens, Megan Bayha, Suzanne Carlton, Joanna Louise, Leah Seminario, Grant Rosen, John B. Williford, Vincent Zamora, Venny Caranza, Jill Townsend and Joseph Sark.
Camelot was propelled to success partly on the reputation of composer Frederick Loewe and lyricist-librettist Alan Jay Lerner (whose previous hit was My Fair Lady), partly because it got solid play on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and partly because of its stars — Julie Andrews as Guenevere and Richard Burton as Arthur.
It ran 873 performances on Broadway. Touring revivals have popped up over the years, starring the Arthurs of Burton, then Richard Harris, then Robert Goulet (who graduated to Arthur after originating Lancelot in 1960).
The title song about an idealized realm became associated with the John F. Kennedy administration. Kennedy was a fan of the score, his widow said.
The score — charting political and personal passions of Arthur, his Queen and their loves and enemies — includes "Follow Me," "How to Handle a Woman," "If Ever I Would Leave You," "The Lusty Month of May," "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood," "What Do the Simple Folk Do?," "C'est Moi," "Guenevere," "I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight," and "Before I Gaze at You Again."
The legend of King Arthur is a fictional, ancient account of the start of the democratic ideas in a woolly and barbaric England.
For more information, visit www.lamiradathatre.com.