In his court at Camelot, King Arthur, scorning the traditional principle of "might equals right," creates a new order of chivalry based on justice, equality and the rule of law: the brotherhood of the Knights of the Round Table.
They are joined by Sir Lancelot du Lac, who soon proves himself to be the greatest of their number, thus fulfilling a prophecy made by Arthur’s old friend and mentor, the magician Merlyn. But Lancelot’s arrival also spells doom for Camelot – for he and Guenevere, Arthur’s queen, fall desperately in love.
Arthur is willing, for the sake of both their loves, to accept the fact of their illicit relationship – but when it becomes public knowledge thanks to the malicious intervention of his illegitimate son Mordred, he realizes that he must allow his wife and his friend to be judged by the very rules of impartial justice that he has fought so hard to establish.
In the battles that follow, the brotherhood of the Round Table is irreparably shattered – though the ideals that it embodied will live on in legend forever.
Program Notes by Lois Kivesto
In short, there’s simply not
A more congenial spot
For happ’ly-ever-aftering than here
After the resounding successes of My
Fair Lady (1956) on stage and Gigi (1958) on film, public and press
awaited with eager curiosity the next musical collaboration of
lyricist-librettist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe.
In the summer of 1958, production
manager Stone “Bud” Widney proclaimed: “Lerner, here’s your next show.” He had
just read, as had Lerner, a New York Times book review of The Once
and Future King, T. H. White’s whimsical epic chronicle of King Arthur and
the Round Table. In December 2010, at the time of Camelot’s fiftieth
anniversary, Widney recalled the sense of a “big idea” in White’s book. More ...
Moss Hart, director of My Fair
Lady, was intrigued by the potential project. Loewe, skeptical at first,
became caught up in Lerner and Hart’s enthusiasm, and agreed to join them in
creating and producing the musical that would become Camelot.
The Once and
Future King is a
quartet of books published in one massive volume of more than 600 pages,
loosely based on Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485). The first
book, The Sword in the Stone, recounts King Arthur’s boyhood; the
second, The Witch in the Wood, introduces the idea of the Round Table.
The next two books form the basis of the musical: The Ill-Made Knight,
named for Lancelot, tells of his love triangle with King Arthur and Guenevere,
and The Candle in the Wind marks the end of King Arthur’s reign amid
revolts led by his son, Mordred.
It was the daunting task of Lerner
and Loewe to musicalize the sprawling, vivid tale. Lerner respected Loewe’s
incomparable “gift of pure classic melody” and its importance in conveying
individual character and the overall musical journey in Camelot from
“innocence to sophistication.”
As score and libretto unfolded,
casting began. The first selection was Julie Andrews, still portraying Eliza
Doolittle in My Fair Lady in London, as Guenevere. Hart invited Richard
Burton to play King Arthur. Six months into the creative process, only one role
remained to be filled. In contrast to White’s depiction of “the ill-made
knight,” dashing newcomer Robert Goulet, trained at Toronto’s Royal
Conservatory of Music, was cast as Lancelot.
After almost two years of writing
and rewriting, Camelot began a five-week rehearsal period in New York.
The company next headed to Toronto, where both the show and the theatre it was
to play in would be inaugurated a mere one week later. Although fully aware of
the many acoustical and technical challenges normally inherent in a new theatre
(and this one would prove no exception), the collaborators had accepted an
offer to open what was then the O’Keefe Centre and is now the Sony Centre for
the Performing Arts. A particularly generous financial arrangement -– and, in
Lerner’s words, a “total vacation from common sense” – prompted the decision.
The collaborators believed Toronto
to be tucked far away from the watchful, critical eyes of Broadway. Yet
prominent New York producer Alexander H. Cohen was in place as consultant for
the building, operation and booking of the O’Keefe Centre. Anxious to display
the new theatre for future consideration, Cohen invited a veritable theatrical
who’s who to view it and the new musical.
On opening night, Hart welcomed the
sold-out house with: “Camelot is lovely, Camelot is going to be
glorious, Camelot is long. You’re going to be a lot older when you get
out of here tonight.” The four-and-a-half hour performance proved him right,
and the collaborators proceeded to excise at least one and a half hours while
strengthening the musical’s clarity and structure. This work took its toll,
hospitalizing Lerner with an ulcer, followed by Hart with a heart attack.
Nonetheless, the gradually trimmed production played to full houses.
Lerner, now serving as director at
Hart’s request, continued to grapple as writer with the vastness of the tale to
be told in Camelot. He set a three-and-a-half-hour running time as the
goal for the next opening at Boston’s Shubert Theatre. That goal was met, but
Lerner – finding himself increasingly frustrated by the narrative challenge of
progressing from the light romanticism of the first act to the darker drama of
the second -– began to question his initial decision to tackle Camelot
The breakthrough came when he
realized that his entire motivation for telling the story sprang from the end
of King Arthur’s journey after the loss of love, friend and Round Table. The
appearance of the hopeful young boy wishing to become a knight, Lerner now saw,
embodied the central theme of the show: that “men die but an idea does not.”
Realizing that the key to Camelot was to make shorter the steps toward
the conclusion of the journey, he launched into a rewrite of more than half of
the first act, along with most of the second.
The arrival of Camelot at
Broadway’s Majestic Theatre was welcomed by an extraordinary advance sale of
almost two million dollars. Lerner remained at the helm while Hart recuperated
in Toronto. After well-received previews, the show opened in New York on
December 3, 1960. The reviews lavished more praise on the score than on the
libretto, and three months later, Hart returned to the production to carry out
further bits of rewriting, unprecedented at that point in a commercial run.
Along with Hart’s subtle changes, Camelot
would benefit greatly from what Lerner termed “the miracle.” Ed Sullivan, the
popular television variety show host, devoted his entire March 19, 1961, show
to the celebration of My Fair Lady’s fifth anniversary. But the
collaborators chose to present very little from My Fair Lady and instead
highlighted Camelot’s best songs and scenes. Through the power of
television, the theatre audience expanded exponentially, and Camelot
became a stratospheric hit.
The Broadway run continued for two
award-winning years, followed by numerous foreign productions and New York
revivals. The successful film version received three 1968 Academy Awards.
Although Lerner and Loewe’s
friendship remained steadfast, Camelot marked their final stage
collaboration on new material.
The Broadway cast recording of Camelot
was America’s top-selling album for sixty weeks in 1961. It also ranked as
number one with President John F. Kennedy, for whom the recording, and
especially the final number, provided cherished listening. After Kennedy’s
assassination in 1963 and to this day, his inspiring, all too brief time in
office is symbolized as “Camelot.”
In turn, at the conclusion of Camelot,
the idealism of the Round Table continues eternally, for as Lerner believed:
”there lies buried in its heart the aspirations of mankind.”
Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that
As Camelot. . . .
Lois Kivesto, PhD, is the researcher
for Canadian Stage in Toronto.
Director’s Notes by Gary Griffin
sometimes suppose that the musical form implies lightness or superficiality:
that a musical, by its nature, cannot venture into the same serious territory
as a play. This idea seems to me to be particularly mistaken in the case of Camelot, a musical of truly classical power.
Camelot centres on a love triangle between
extraordinary people who pursue extraordinary visions of themselves: to be a
king, to be a queen, to be the greatest of all knights. The participants truly
love each other in their different ways, but the human part of them that falls
in love conflicts with the ideals they hold: they have to negotiate the truth
of who they are with who they want to be. More ...
The larger theme embodied in this story is
civilization itself and how we deal with the fundamental challenge presented to
it by human nature. The integrity of Arthur’s realm depends upon the rule of
law that he has himself established; the dilemma he faces is whether to flout
that law for the sake of love and friendship. And far from trivializing this
theme, the musical form actually raises the stakes. Music, like the other arts,
is itself a civilizing element in human life – and the dream of civilization,
the “big idea” of Camelot, is built into this musical’s score: everybody sings
We live in a time when fundamental questions about
the rule of civil law are very much in our minds. Is it the best way to govern?
During the Bush administration in the United States, we saw a heated debate
about the use of torture: could it be acceptable if it yielded information that
could prevent a terrorist act? Arthur would say no. But Pellinore would be
arguing with him: do we wait for someone to commit a terrible crime before we
I think the story of Camelot has endured, both as a
legend and as a musical, because it acknowledges the difficulty of such
questions, and admits the limitations of innocence and idealism, while still
offering us the opportunity to believe that, in the end, it is civilization
that we will choose.
Additional Notes by Shira Ginsler
No one knows for sure if a real-life
counterpart to the legendary King Arthur ever existed, though he is presented
as a historical personage in some early chronicles.
A Welsh poem written around the year
600 contains our first known mention of him: a glancing reference in which
another soldier is praised for his valour, “though he was not Arthur.” He
appears again in Welsh writings over the next five hundred years, always cast
as a great warrior. More ...
His first appearance in the work of
an English writer is in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum
of the Kings of Britain
), published in 1125. Twelve years later, Geoffrey
of Monmouth included Arthur in his History of the Kings of Britain
in 1155 Robert Wace’s adaptation of Monmouth’s account – Roman de Brut
added the Round Table to our stock of Arthurian lore.
Chrétien de Troyes, writing at the
end of the twelfth century, brought Arthur out of the realm of putative history
into that of romance. It was he who added to the story the element of chivalry:
the medieval code that holds knights to a standard of religious, moral and
social behaviour. In the thirteenth century, two German writers contributed
further to the legend: Wolfram von Eschenbach with Parzifal, and
Gottfried von Strassburg with Tristan, both of which were used in the
nineteenth century by Richard Wagner as the bases for operas.
An anonymous poem, Sir Gawain and
the Green Knight, appeared in the fourteenth century, and in 1485 William
Caxton printed Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which melded all
the prior works about King Arthur into an epic romance unified by consistent
themes, particularly the creation of an ideal society based on selfless virtue,
with the Round Table as a symbol of equality and brotherhood.
In the Victorian era, Alfred, Lord
Tennyson largely followed Malory in his twelve-poem cycle Idylls of the King,
published between 1856 and 1885, but it was from a twentieth-century prose
version of the story – T. H. White’s tetralogy The Once and Future King,
published in 1958 – that the creators of Camelot drew their immediate
inspiration. Writing from an anti-war stance, White scrubbed Arthur’s military
exploits from the page and made him a great political thinker who creates the
perfect society by translating his tutor’s moral lessons into a system of just
Based primarily on the third and
fourth books of White’s tetralogy, The Ill-Made Knight and The Candle
in the Wind, Camelot nonetheless owes a debt to all those prior
centuries of literary tradition -– and perhaps ultimately to some warlike
Welshman whose name first became renowned a millennium and a half ago.
Shira Ginsler is Education and Editorial Coordinator for the Stratford