When Robert Goulet toured as King Arthur in Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot in 1998, he made up his mind that he was forever done with the role. “I was so nervous at the last performance that I screwed up my last speech,” he says.
Six years later, he has a chance to get it right. He is wearing the crown once more on a brief tour that began in Atlanta on July 27 and plays four additional cities. “I’d done the role a number of times, and had said goodbye to it in my head,” he says. “But I was asked by several independent producers to do it again, and in this country there aren’t too many independent producers left. They’ve been very good to me for many years, and I figured that if I could help them out for a few weeks, I would.”
Goulet first portrayed Arthur in 1975 in Los Angeles, opposite his then-wife Carol Lawrence. “When I was asked to do it, I said, ‘It’s not my part. It’s Richard Burton’s part,’” he says. “And they said, ‘You’ve got to do it some time.’ I said I would do it only if Carol could play the Queen. We were bloody awful. We got clobbered by the press, but we sold out for seven weeks. I said then that I’d never do it again, but years later I decided to take another look at it.” He returned briefly to the role in 1990, then toured extensively as Arthur from 1992-94, stopping in New York for eight weeks in 1993. It was his first time on Broadway since winning a Tony Award 25 years earlier for The Happy Time.
It was, of course, the role of Sir Lancelot in the original 1960 Broadway production of Camelot—particularly his show-stopping performance of “If Ever I Would Leave You”—that transformed Goulet from a popular performer in Canada to an international star. Given the show’s very troubled tryout period and very mixed reviews, few would have guessed that Camelot would have such staying power. “Shortly after Camelot opened, Richard, Julie [Andrews] and I went on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’” says Goulet. “That’s what turned things around. We were given about 17 minutes, which was unheard of. The next day people were lined up around the block, and Camelot was a hit. I think one of the reasons people are still interested in the show is the whole Kennedy mystique. People know that John Kennedy used to play the music from Camelot before he went to bed. We were unaware of this until after he died. He never saw the show, and neither did his wife.” When Goulet played Lancelot on Broadway for the last time, he blundered in much the same way he would years later as Arthur. “Lancelot makes his entrance singing ‘C’est Moi,’” says Goulet, “and as I walked onto the stage, I thought, ‘I’ll never sing this song again.’ I was going to be doing night clubs, and you don’t sing ‘C’est Moi’ in night clubs. I was thinking about that, and it’s a wordy song, and I got lost in it. I was making up nonsense rhymes. And then I got to the line ‘Cleave a dragon in record time.’ But I said, ‘Cleave a dragon with two behinds.’ At that point I cut off the orchestra, turned to the audience and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is my closing night and I’m a little nervous. Can I start again?’
“They gave me a big hand, and I walked offstage and made my entrance again. I could do no wrong the rest of the night.”