Monday, December 16, 2013

Heart and Soul: Camelot & After Midnight

It’s still taken for granted that the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein altered the American musical theatre, but to my mind none of their collaborations stands on equal footing with those of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, who overlapped with them. That’s because, even when Rodgers’s music was at its most lush (South Pacific) or most heart-rending (Carousel), Hammerstein’s words, with their resolute banality and didacticism, kept pulling it down to their populist, fake-real-folks level, whereas Lerner’s extraordinarily literate lyrics elevated Loewe’s beautiful tunes. The Austrian-born Loewe, like Jerome Kern and Kurt Weill, brought the melodic legacy of the fin-de-siècle European operettas, with their swirl of melancholy, to the American stage; you can hear it in ballads like “There But for You Go I” and “From This Day On” (Brigadoon), “I Still See Elisa” and “Another Autumn” (Paint Your Wagon), “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” (My Fair Lady), “Before I Gaze at You Again” and “I Loved You Once in Silence” (Camelot). And Lerner, who bore the witty influence of Cole Porter and especially Ira Gershwin but was more of a thinker than either, strove to match him. They were at par on the 1956 My Fair Lady, which is still, I think, the zenith in American lyric writing, and again on the 1960 Camelot, their musical about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, which is currently being revived by Boston’s New Rep Theatre.

I saw Camelot with the original cast when I was ten, and I’ve never forgotten the experience. I was already a Lerner & Loewe fan, through my older brother’s worn recording of My Fair Lady, and by the time my dad took me to see Camelot on Broadway, where it had been playing for nearly a year (and where, famously, JFK’s identification with it had turned it into a hit), I had owned the cast album for months and already knew it by heart. But I wasn’t prepared for the grandeur of the production – directed by Moss Hart and, up to that point, the most expensive in Broadway’s history – or the narrative power of Lerner’s book (based on T.H. White’s The Once and Future King). And I certainly wasn’t prepared for Richard Burton, who was making his musical-theatre debut as Arthur (just as Rex Harrison, another non-singer who discovered the efficacy of talk-singing, had made his as Henry Higgins four years earlier). I was already in love with the theatre; Burton made me fall in love with actors. Whatever limited ideas I may have had about what actors do, when I saw Burton I knew I’d seen the first great actor of my life. Afterwards I bought a copy of the play, which Random House had published in its invaluable series of hardback scripts, and memorized the soliloquy that Lerner, defying received wisdom, had written for Burton instead of supplying a song to end the first act. It dramatizes the moment when Arthur, drawing on the methodology Merlyn the magician taught him as England’s teenage king, reasons out his response to the knowledge that his wife Guenevere and his best friend Sir Lancelot have fallen in love, choosing tolerance, compassion and love over fury and revenge – that is, civilization over barbarism, the philosophical underpinning of the Round Table. More than half a century later, I can still hear Burton’s reading of that rousing speech, his majestic, soaring Welsh-tinged voice ferreting out the heart and soul in Lerner’s writing. Richard Harris does a fine job with the soliloquy in Joshua Logan’s underrated 1967 film version of the musical (which features the earliest of Vanessa Redgrave’s many great movie performances), but it’s Burton’s version that resides permanently in my head.

Erica Spyres & Benjamin Evett in Camelot (photo by Andrew Brilliant)
has classic second-act problems: there’s an excess of plot, and the two new characters introduced in act two, Arthur’s illegitimate son Mordred (the villain who destroys the Round Table) and (briefly) Mordred’s aunt, the sorceress Morgan Le Fey, are an unwelcome distraction from the romantic triangle in which the audience is so invested. Mordred is straight out of the legend, of course, but in the musical he’s a plot device, and so is his aunt: he persuades her to trap Arthur in the forest while he’s out hunting with his friend King Pellinore so that the queen and Lancelot can be alone to follow their desires in his absence – and so that Mordred can catch them in the queen’s bedchamber and arrest her for adultery and treason. (Lancelot escapes and returns with an army to rescue her from the stake, and the war ends Arthur’s age of chivalric idealism.) You can see why Lerner, a faithful adaptor here as he was with Shaw’s Pygmalion, wanted to include Mordred, but as a character he’s such a Johnny Come Lately that he barely registers, and it doesn’t help that he has the only two lousy songs in the score, “The Seven Deadly Virtues” and – with the knights – “Fie on Goodness.” Still, the virtues of the musical far outweigh its second-half flaws. The battle between baser emotions and finer feelings is a towering theme, and unlike Man of La Mancha or Les Misérables, Camelot handles it without sentimentality and filters it through compelling, complex characters – Arthur, of course, chief among them. And few musicals have ever built to so poignant a final moment, when Arthur sends the boy Tom, who longs to fight for the Round Table, home to grow old and retell the story of Camelot so that “the fleeting wisp of glory” that existed “for one brief shining moment” might inspire a fallen world once more.

Benjamin Evett & Dashiell Evett
is such a huge musical that regional theatres rarely attempt it. When Trinity Rep in Providence mounted it three years ago, it was set in a London tube station during the Blitz – an insane scheme that magnified the problem of a company that wanted to stage a musical it knew would be a crowd pleaser but lacked the resources to pull it off. In the past New Rep’s efforts to bring plays from grander eras to its stage have sometimes been unfortunate, as when it produced the robust 1948 hit Mister Roberts, set on a ship during the Second World War, with merely half a dozen actors standing in for the corps of sailors. But the New Rep’s Camelot has a cast of twenty-one, and it’s no disgrace. There are inevitable concessions to the economic realities of regional theatre in the twenty-first century: under David McGrory’s direction, the orchestra is game but sounds thin, and costume designer Rafael Jaen hasn’t figured out how to solve the problem of creating medieval clothes on a restricted budget. (The costumes are awful.) Plus Russell Garrett’s staging tends to be unimaginative and his choreographic ideas are fatuous. But John Traub’s sets make a virtue of necessity. He makes clever use of periaktoi – vertical set pieces that serve double duty when they’re turned around – and employs wheeled towers to vary the height of the action; and a combination of skill and a good eye have produced an esthetically pleasing design.

The production is well sung and the acting ranges from perfectly competent to excellent. I would have advised against allowing Marc Koeck to use a French accent as Lancelot; sure, the character is a French émigré, but except for the odd phrase in his first song, “C’est Moi,” neither his lines nor his lyrics are written for an accent – the Canadian Robert Goulet, who originated the part, doesn’t use one on the cast album – so Koeck ends up sounding a little like Pepé Le Pew. (The Mordred, Nick Sulfaro, puts on a Scots brogue, but the role is a bust with or without an accent.) Robert D. Murphy doesn’t make much of an impression as Merlyn, but when he reappears as Pellinore, the eccentric questing king who becomes Arthur’s permanent guest and confident, he’s charming. Fortunately the excellence end of the acting spectrum is occupied by Benjamin Evett as a soulful Arthur and Erica Spyres (who is in fine voice) as first a playful and then an anguished Guenevere. If you’ve got a good Arthur and a good Guenevere, the richness of the musical comes through.

After Midnight (photo by Caitlin McNaney)

Since I raved about the musical revue Cotton Club Parade two years ago when Encores! produced it at City Center, I won’t spend much time on After Midnight, the current Broadway transfer. It’s essentially the same show. Daryl Waters has replaced Wynton Marsalis as musical director (he was associate musical director and conductor last time around), there’s a different array of superb musicians in the Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars, and a few numbers have been added, including “Ain’t It De Truth?” by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg (from the movie version of Cabin in the Sky) and the ineffable Dorothy Fields-Jimmy McHugh tune “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” Only a handful of the original performers are back: Jared Grimes, Rosena M. Hill Jackson, Karine Plantadit (stunningly expressive once more in the second-act dance performance of Duke Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy”) and Adriane Lenox, bringing down the house in the sassy honky-tonk numbers, “Women Be Wise” and “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night.” The newbies are champs, every single one. The M.C. who begins the evening by reciting Langston Hughes under a street lamp is now the effortlessly affable Dulé Hill of TV’s The West Wing and Psych, and Fantasia Barrino provides knockout renditions of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Stormy Weather,” “Zaz Zuh Zaz” and “Sunny Side of the Street.” If you ever doubted her star power, you won’t if you see what she does here. The major expansion is Isabel Toledo’s extravagantly stylish costumes. Warren Carlyle’s production (conceived by Jack Viertel) is the best sung, best danced musical on Broadway since Kathleen Marshall’s Anything Goes revival three seasons ago. It’s ninety straight minutes of heaven.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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