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CameLot - Stratford Festival

CameLot - Stratford Festival

After almost two years

After almost two years of writing and rewriting,Camelot began a five-week rehearsal period inNew York. The company next headed to Toronto,where both the show and the theatre it was to playin would be inaugurated a mere one week later.Although fully aware of the many acoustical andtechnical challenges normally inherent in a newtheatre (and this one would prove no exception),the collaborators had accepted an offer to openwhat was then the O’Keefe Centre and is now theSony Centre for the Performing Arts. A particularlygenerous financial arrangement – and, in Lerner’swords, a “total vacation from common sense” –prompted the decision.The collaborators believed Toronto to betucked far away from the watchful, critical eyesof Broadway. Yet prominent New York producerAlexander H. Cohen was in place as consultantfor the building, operation and booking of theO’Keefe Centre. Anxious to display the new theatrefor future consideration, Cohen invited a veritabletheatrical who’s who to view it and the new musical.On opening night, Hart welcomed the sold-outhouse with: “Camelot is lovely, Camelot is goingto be glorious, Camelot is long. You’re going tobe a lot older when you get out of here tonight.”The four-and-a-half hour performance proved himright, and the collaborators proceeded to excise atleast one and a half hours while strengthening themusical’s clarity and structure. This work took itstoll, hospitalizing Lerner with an ulcer, followed byHart with a heart attack. Nonetheless, the graduallytrimmed production played to full houses.Lerner, now serving as director at Hart’s request,continued to grapple as writer with the vastness ofthe tale to be told in Camelot. He set a three-anda-half-hourrunning time as the goal for the nextopening at Boston’s Shubert Theatre. That goalwas met, but Lerner – finding himself increasinglyfrustrated by the narrative challenge of progressingfrom the light romanticism of the first act to thedarker drama of the second – began to questionhis initial decision to tackle Camelot at all.The breakthrough came when he realized that hisentire motivation for telling the story sprang fromthe end of King Arthur’s journey after the loss oflove, friend and Round Table. The appearance ofthe hopeful young boy wishing to become a knight,Lerner now saw, embodied the central theme of theshow: that “men die but an idea does not.” Realizingthat the key to Camelot was to make shorter the3

steps toward the conclusion of the journey, helaunched into a rewrite of more than half of the firstact, along with most of the second.The arrival of Camelot at Broadway’s MajesticTheatre was welcomed by an extraordinaryadvance sale of almost two million dollars. Lernerremained at the helm while Hart recuperated inToronto. After well-received previews, the showopened in New York on December 3, 1960. Thereviews lavished more praise on the score than onthe libretto, and three months later, Hart returned tothe production to carry out further bits of rewriting,unprecedented at that point in a commercial run.Along with Hart’s subtle changes, Camelotwould benefit greatly from what Lerner termed“the miracle.” Ed Sullivan, the popular televisionvariety show host, devoted his entire March19, 1961, show to the celebration of My FairLady’s fifth anniversary. But the collaboratorschose to present very little from My Fair Ladyand instead highlighted Camelot’s best songsand scenes. Through the power of television,the theatre audience expanded exponentially,and Camelot became a stratospheric hit.The Broadway run continued for two awardwinningyears, followed by numerous foreignproductions and New York revivals. The successfulfilm version received three 1968 Academy Awards.Although Lerner and Loewe’s friendship remainedsteadfast, Camelot marked their final stagecollaboration on new material.The Broadway cast recording of Camelot wasAmerica’s top-selling album for sixty weeks in1961. It also ranked as number one with PresidentJohn F. Kennedy, for whom the recording, andespecially the final number, provided cherishedlistening. After Kennedy’s assassination in1963 and to this day, his inspiring, all too brieftime in office is symbolized as “Camelot.”In turn, at the conclusion of Camelot, the idealismof the Round Table continues eternally, for asLerner believed: ”there lies buried in its heart theaspirations of mankind.”Don’t let it be forgotThat once there was a spotFor one brief shining moment that was knownAs Camelot. . . .Lois Kivesto, PhD, is the researcher for CanadianStage in Toronto.4

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