In December of 1963, a few weeks after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Life magazine published an interview with Jacqueline Kennedy in which she spoke of her late husband's fondness for the cast album of Lerner and Loewe's Camelot, especially the lyrics, "Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot." The show has been inexorably linked to the Kennedy White House ever since.
The political climate is very different these days. In the 1960s Camelot was considered, accurately or not, a reflection of Kennedy's thousand days as president. In 2007 the show is a wistful evocation of enlightened leadership, and that was one of the factors that led Michael York to take on the role of King Arthur in the national tour. "I thought the timing was rather good, considering where we are politically," he says. "These are rather drab, gray, deceitful, leaderless times. We're in a war, as Arthur was, and the show posits this great, charismatic leader who comes up with a very dynamic way of governing his fellow man, where the values of trust and love and honor mean something."
Camelot, which began touring in January — and will be seen in the fall starring Lou Diamond Phillips as Arthur — also currently stars Rachel York (no relation to Michael) as Queen Guenevere and James Barbour as Lancelot, loyal to the king but in love with his wife. Alan Jay Lerner's daughter, Liza, is one of the producers of the show, and his son, Michael, has reworked the book.
"Their involvement was also a factor for me," says York. "Michael was able to go back to his father's papers and some of the versions that were never realized. So there's been some judicious tweaking. People say it's shorter, it's sharper, it's a little darker. I think it's a Camelot for our times. Lancelot's great aria, 'If Ever I Would Leave You,' which originally began the second act, is now in the middle of the second act at a point where it means something very dramatic. And Guenevere even joins in a chorus. All the changes were approved by the estate. They only balked at one change Michael wanted to make. At the very end, when Arthur says that perhaps people will remember how we of Camelot went questing for right and justice, Michael added, 'and an end to war.' That was a little too much for the estate." This is York's first national tour. "As a fairly new American citizen, I wanted to have a sense of what this country is like," he says. "I usually go from sea to shining sea, and I wanted to see the heartland." His only other appearance in a stage musical occurred more than 25 years ago, when he starred on Broadway in The Little Prince and the Aviator, which played 16 previews and never officially opened. He began his career on the British stage and joined Laurence Olivier's National Theatre in 1965. He has made more than 60 films, appeared in scores of TV shows and recorded more than 70 audio books.
York is well known to a younger generation of audiences for playing Basil Exposition in three "Austin Powers" movies. "I've actually been asked how a Shakespearean actor can stoop to doing 'Austin Powers,'" he says. "And I say, 'Well, excuse me. I think Shakespeare had just as bawdy an imagination as 'Austin Powers,' perhaps more bawdy.' What's interesting is that I was lecturing on Shakespeare at the Chautauqua Institution, and a bunch of kids came to see Basil Exposition. But they stayed for Shakespeare. It's a wonderful tradeoff."