THE DVD SHELF: Lerner & Loewe's "Camelot" With Harris; Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" With Liz

The DVD Shelf   THE DVD SHELF: Lerner & Loewe's "Camelot" With Harris; Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" With Liz This month's column discusses the DVD release of the 1981 Broadway revival of Camelot (starring Richard Harris) and Hal Prince's checkered motion picture version of A Little Night Music (starring Elizabeth Taylor).
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Here's an idea. Take a member of the ruling class — a prince or king, say — and find him a suitable, blue-blooded mate. Make the girl young and spirited, the fellow slightly drab but reasonably likable. Marry them off. As the ruler becomes stodgier and drabber, have the lass run off with an obliging hero on a white charger (or in a red Aston Martin).

Who's story do you want to follow, from here on out? Make the girl enchanting enough, and give her an understandable reason for straying, and she'll have the public firmly on her side. Or, rather, the audience. Keep the ruler as your hero, and you'll find your second act growing drearier and drearier by the minute. What is there that you can have him do, anyway? Dance? The audience would much rather be off somewhere with Diana. Guinevere, that is.

This observation is brought on by the DVD release of Camelot [Acorn Media], taped by HBO at the Winter Garden during the Broadway run of the 1981 revival. Camelot, fashioned by Lerner & Loewe as a follow-up to their masterwork My Fair Lady, didn't work too well in 1960. It received condescending reviews (although it managed to ultimately turn a profit), and it hasn't worked since.

The show returned to Broadway in 1980, with Richard Burton recreating his original role. Burton appeared mighty sleepy, apparently due to illness; when he was forced to drop out, the producers hit upon the idea of replacing him with Richard Harris (from the troubled 1967 film version). Harris took the show back on the road, returning to the Winter Garden just 15 months after Burton left. Broadway saw yet another Camelot in 1993, with Robert Goulet — the romantic Lancelot in the original — moving into Arthur's boots. Camelot is sure to return again at some point, too; if the current touring version (starring Michael York) doesn't come in, there's sure to be another one on the road down the road. Camelot keeps coming back, again and again, with frequent alterations; the changes began, actually, during the run of the original. But the show still doesn't work. It is my contention that it cannot work: we, the people, want to run off with Jenny (Guinevere), but they always stick us with old man Arthur. Once his fair lady leaves, this hero is simply too stolid for the spotlight.

This isn't the only musical with a hero who had a wife and couldn't keep her, and the other cases offer valuable lessons. South Pacific and The Most Happy Fella both feature imbalanced couples, with especially spirited and likable ladies. The girls break off the romance, leaving the leading man figuratively singing the blues. In both cases, though, the ladies left for more compelling reasons than simple boredom. The audiences at these musicals spend the latter stages of the final act pulling for Emile & Nellie and Tony & Rosabella to reunite; when they do, the emotions swell even more than the music, and everybody in the house weeps their way through the curtain calls.

The trouble with Camelot, I suppose, begins with "If Ever I Would Leave You." This is a pretty grand song, admittedly, and makes a convincing argument for Jenny to ride off with Lancelot. Dramati-logically, though, it just about kills the show. When Freddy Eynsford-Hill camps out "On the Street Where You Live" serenading Jenny's first cousin Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, there's not a soul in the stalls urging Liza to leave 'enry 'iggins for this undashing swain. When Lance sings his ballad, though, there is no question that the authors want — and need — Jenny to bolt. And so she does, leaving the once and future king sitting alone on the throne with egg on his face, making for a soft-boiled second act. Guinevere doesn't want to hang around playing Scrabble with Arthur; why do the authors think we want to sit with him?

This problem is not restricted to Camelot; Jerry Herman & Mike Stewart ran into the very same dead end with Mack Sennett & Mabel Normand. I suppose that one day someone will do a Charles & Diana musical. If they stick with Charles through the second act, I wager they'll wind up stuck.

The new DVD from Acorn Media preserves Frank Dunlop's production, in which Harris was joined in the Round Table triangle by Meg Bussert and Richard Muenz. Which takes us to another perennial Camelot problem. Back in 1960, Mr. Burton was more than matched by Julie Andrews, who was already at the height of her fame. Ever since, though, Camelot has been seen as a fortress for aging male stars. Burton was only 35 when he originated the role, against a Julie ten years younger. The 1980 Burton was 55, with a Guenevere half his age. (Christine Ebersole it was, and those who remember her in the role will agree that she has come a long way since!) The 52-year-old Harris on the DVD is 20 years older than his lady, as was Goulet. The presently touring Mr. York is almost 30 years older than his Jenny, Rachel York (who is no relation, apparently even after they are married on stage).

Arthur hides in a tree, in the opening scene, because he is nervous about meeting his young-bride-to be. If Arthur-up-the-tree is on the far side of 50, how old is Guinevere? More importantly, what is the audience to expect from their forthcoming nuptials? And what are the connotations when Lancelot is young enough to be the grandson of Arthur's older brother? Ya got trouble in Camelot, that's for sure.

Even so, the new DVD does preserve the stage version — or, rather, a revised stage version — of Camelot; unlike with similar cases, there's nobody jumping up and down complaining that said version is not as good as the original. For those who enjoy Broadway musicals captured on film (as opposed to film versions of Broadway musicals), this HBO Camelot should prove of interest.

The 1978 film version of A Little Night Music [Hen's Tooth Video] is famously flawed. Elizabeth Taylor was at the end of her usefulness, cinema-wise; watching this film today, you can see her pass from actress to caricature before your eyes. As for director Hal Prince, the Night Music film pretty much destroyed any possibilities of a cinema career. Which turned out okay for us, as he went back to the rehearsal hall for Evita, Phantom and other pleasures.

If the screen Little Night Music is a mess, let us spend this column dwelling on the good parts. For the many Sondheim fans who did not get to see this 1973 musical on the stage, Prince and his producers have preserved many a treat. First and foremost is Len Cariou reprising his stage role, back in the days before he lifted his first razor. Cariou is joined by Laurence Guittard as the Count, a lesser but equally juicy role. Watch the pair have a go at "It Would Have Been Wonderful" ("… but the woman was perfection…"); this is what the original A Little Night Music was like, and the film is something of a musical candybox. The "Now-Soon-Later" trifecta, too, is what might be termed perfecta. Cariou performs with Lesley-Anne Down and Christopher Guard rather than the superb couple who supported him on Broadway, but no matter. This might be the best-translated screen rendition of a sequence from a Sondheim musical. Watch it and enjoy yourself. "A Weekend in the Country" is here, too, although slightly chopped and truncated; even so, it is "A Weekend in the Country." The opening sequence presents a facsimile of Pat Birch's stage opening, with the principals in kind of a musical chairs dance, on a stage set with sliding trees not unlike those of Boris Aronson. That sleek and mustachioed conductor waving his baton from the podium, by the way, is none other than Jonathan Tunick.

True, a great deal of the score has been dropped. True, Ms. Taylor is — well, Ms. Taylor. But we do get, as a present, the presence of Diana Rigg as Charlotte. Rigg made a splendid Phyllis some years later in the London production of Follies, which did not come as a surprise to anyone who remembered her performance here (featuring a sharply-delivered and keenly felt rendition of "Every Day a Little Death"). Ms. Gingold is on hand to reprise her original role; as someone who didn't much enjoy her stage performance, I can only say that I'm not overly upset that they cut her big solo ("Liaisons") from the film.

As a bonus, Mr. Sondheim went so far as to write us a new song. "The Glamorous Life" ("unpack the luggage") is one of our favorites, and an unofficial anthem for anyone who has traveled with a Broadway-show-on-the-road in the last 30 years. For the film version, though, the composer saw fit to come up with a very different replacement "Glamorous Life," a solo for Fredericka to sing while the camera shows us scenes from her mother's touring life. This second "Glamorous Life" is among Sondheim's most delectable treats, which — in itself — helps justify the film A Little Night Music.

Cinema fans take note; this DVD is not a state-of-the-art affair. At numerous places, there are vertical black lines splitting the screen, making the whole thing look like it's transferred from a tired print that traveled around the world and back. (For a film that was a quick and unlamented flop, it's almost impressive that they found such a worn-out copy to work from.) Broadway fans, though, will overlook the numerous weaknesses of the film, and the DVD, and appreciate this A Little Night Music for what it is. Watch Mr. Cariou in the trio, and in the duet with Mr. Guittard, and Ms. Rigg's "Little Death" and that new "Glamorous Life." For a Broadway fan, that makes a satisfying night's music in itself.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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