On September 5, 1985, the New York Philharmonic detoured from its typical symphonic fare to present a Broadway show, the 1971 Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical, Follies. In the New York Times review, the critic Frank Rich called this Philharmonic foray into Broadway repertoire "thrilling" and "historic."
He couldn't have known that this was only the start of a Philharmonic tradition that has continued to this day. This month, with the Orchestra's performances of Lerner & Loewe's Camelot (May 7-10), history will repeat itself in more ways than one. This production, the fifth musical performed by the Philharmonic (the intervening others were Sweeney Todd, Candide, and My Fair Lady), unites two of the original Follies team‹producer Thomas Z. Shepard and conductor Paul Gemignani‹with the director of the Philharmonic's Sweeney Todd and Candide, Lonny Price. Just as Lerner & Loewe followed up their blockbuster 1956 hit My Fair Lady with Camelot, in 1960, the Philharmonic is following its 2007 sold-out My Fair Lady run with this concert version of Camelot.
When Camelot premiered on Broadway almost 50 years ago, audiences quickly embraced the romantic and uplifting tale of love and war in Arthurian England, based on the novel The Once and Future King by T.H. White. The show achieved an unprecedented advance sale of three and a half million dollars, propelled in part by a preview on the Ed Sullivan Show that featured its stars, Richard Burton and Julie Andrews. It went on to run for 873 performances at the Majestic Theater; won four Tony awards; enjoyed three Broadway revivals; was made into an Oscar-winning 1967 movie; and has become a staple in regional theaters and school productions. As Mr. Gemignani observes, "It's never not being done." Ubiquitous as it may be, Camelot has not been seen on a New York stage since 1993, which is one of the reasons Tom Shepard was eager to revisit it: "It's been 15 years since its last revival," he says, "and we wanted to bring audiences something fresh."
The show's freshness arises not just from its welcome return to New York, but from its relevance to today's world. "The philosophy of this show is timeless," observes Mr. Price. Usually thought of as a romantic tale‹"one of the greatest romantic triangles and love stories in all of musical theater"‹it is also about King Arthur, "a man who tries to stop war. His idea of the Knights of the Round Tableis like the U.N.: it's about everybody sitting down and communicating and find-ing a way not to fight."
Written by the then- reigning monarchs of the American musical stage, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, the score features several memorable tunes, including the eponymous title song, performed by King Arthur, and Sir Lancelot's unforgettable number, "If Ever I Would Leave You." Less obvious but just as compelling is what Mr. Gemignani calls "the music inside the piece‹ the underscoring, the scene changes." It's that sophisticated orchestral music, written by the classically trained Loewe, that "makes this show right for the New York Philharmonic," in the opinion of Mr. Shepard. "It's a beautiful, beautiful score; and with a great cast we will make magic."
He and Mr. Price are both quick to point out that all of the Philharmonic's warmly received musicals are, first and foremost, concerts, meant to showcase masterpieces of the American musical theater, rather than to replicate a full theatrical experience. "What these concerts do," says Mr. Gemignani, "is put the focus on the music, the lyrics, the book‹not the scenery." The bonus, he continues, is having this music played by the Philharmonic, which "is like going to a five-star restaurant." Mr. Price rues the fact that, more often than not, today's theater audiences hear music played by "a synthesizer and four musicians in the pit." An avowed "symphony whore, who will sacrifice an actor or two to get more musicians," he is thrilled that this score will get the performance it deserves at the hands of 70 members of his "favorite orchestra." The added plus, he says, is the opportunity to direct a kind of theater that allows the exercise of imagination. "For me," he confides, "that's the best kind of theater‹when the audience is engaged and has to create the walls and the chandelier, and the rest of it in their heads."
To that end, Mr. Price has chosen to place the action not in the medieval world of Arthur and his knights, but "in no particular time," to allow the show's ideas to shine. "Arthur's philosophy about both love and battle were very interesting. He wanted to replace might with right; he was able to forgive his best friend and his wife for loving each other. That's what's so endearing and enduring about the show: it's emotionally sophisticated and philosophically lofty ... and it has ravishingly beautiful music which the Philharmonic will play the hell out of."
Madeline Rogers is former Director of Publications of the New York Philharmonic.