Based on one of the Western world’s oldest and most cherished myths, Camelot still has the ability to inspire despite being nearly 50 years old.
Written in 1960 by the legendary team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Camelot initially opened to somewhat tepid box office. But when news got out that President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie enjoyed listening to the Broadway soundtrack, buzz spread and it became a worldwide hit.
From that point on, not only did the musical enter the pop culture pantheon, but its title became symbolic of a more positive and hopeful time in America.
Terry Hanson, company manager for the production of Camelot coming to the Johnny Mercer Theatre as part of the Broadway in Savannah series, says the success of the show is due not only to the evocative appeal of the King Arthur folktale, but the timelessness of the human stories it tells.
“It’s not just about the Middle Ages, it’s about today,” Hanson says. “There are many aspects of the story that resonate with contemporary life.”
For example, Hanson points to the egalitarian reforms King Arthur makes -- including the famous Round Table, which has no head -- to change the hidebound traditions of British feudalism.
“King Arthur, even though he’s essentially a mythological character, has a concept of trial by jury, where people are judged impartially,” Hanson says. “He realizes, through Merlin, that war is a waste, because it’s almost always fought over boundaries -- boundaries which in fact don’t exist.”
While the progressive aspects of Arthur are important, still more important is the classic love triangle driving most of Camelot’s story arc.
“The relationship between Guinevere and Lancelot and its effect on her husband Arthur, all has to do with basic human concepts of love and trust and fidelity,” Hanson says.
“Guinevere is found to be unfaithful and is about to be burned at the stake. Meanwhile there’s a bastard son who wants to assume the throne. It’s a story with real drama. Certainly all that has an appeal no matter what’s going on in history.”
And how about songs like “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight” and “How to Handle a Woman?” Oh, yeah, the music -- people seem to like that as well. In an age of Disneyfied musicals that seem more designed to promote action figures or Nickelodeon shows, Camelot stands out for the warmth and vitality of its songs.
“Camelot is a traditional musical in the grand style, of a vintage everyone remembers,” Hanson says. “It really helped set the stage for musicals in this country. Those great teams like Lerner and Loewe and Rodgers and Hammerstein -- those people knew how to make a story work by adding music. They were real craftsmen.”
In roles first made famous by Richard Burton (as Arthur), Julie Andrews (Guinevere) and Robert Goulet (Lancelot), this production of Camelot features a fairly young cast, all of whom got the job after a series of auditions in New York.
“We auditioned a couple hundred people for 21 roles,” says Hanson. “They all have varying backgrounds, with most being majors in theatre, with a lot of dance and acting training.”
Currently the cast is traveling the country by bus in a grueling schedule.
“The cast basically just gets to the hotel long enough to check in, take a shower and do soundcheck, then get some dinner before the show,” Hanson says. “Then we sleep until we leave the next morning.”
Hanson says while younger actors tend to hold up better on these types of traveling shows, “I once toured with the cast of 1776, and they had an average age of over 50. There was less sickness and more stamina on that tour than on any other I’ve been on. Sometimes those stereotypes about age aren’t always true. A cast with more experience will also have more experience in taking care of themselves.” ƒç
Jam Theatricals presents Camelot at the Johnny Mercer Theatre in Savannah on Saturday, October 14, at 8 p.m. Tickets, which range in price from $30 to $47, can be purchased at the Johnny Mercer Theatre box office, all Civic Center outlets, online at www.savannahcivic.com, or by calling 651-6556.