One Brief, Shining Moment

‘Camelot’ is a paean to the rule of law

EAST HADDAM, Conn. — In 1958, lyricist Alan Jay Lerner ’40 suggested to composer Frederick Loewe that they turn T.H. White’s novel about King Arthur, The Once and Future King, into a musical. “You must be crazy,” Loewe replied, “That king was a cuckold.” (A “cuckhold” is a fogeyish term for an adulteress’s husband.) Arthur had lost his wife, Guenevere, to his best friend, Lancelot. “Who the hell cares about a cuckold?” Loewe asked.

More people than he thought. Last weekend, a revival of Lerner and Loewe’s musical, “Camelot,” opened at the Goodspeed Opera House. Although the production is only in preview season, it is already a delight.

The story follows the Arthurian legend: Arthur (Bradley Dean) marries Guenevere (Erin Davie) to unite war-torn England. To secure peace, Arthur establishes the Knights of the Round Table, who use “might for right.” Entranced by this utopia, a French knight, Lancelot (Maxime de Toledo), leaves his native country to join Arthur’s court. Lancelot becomes the king’s right-hand man—and the queen’s secret lover. Guenevere and Lancelot try to hide their romance, but Arthur’s bastard son, Mordred (Adam Shonkwiler), craving a slice of his father’s kingdom, reveals their infidelity and dismantles the Table.

It’s a riveting story, but it has to be done right. Lerner’s script combines a romance novel with a political treatise—sometimes awkwardly. Despite this challenge, the actors capture their characters’ essence. Dean radiates sincerity. When he is pondering in his study, he stomps his feet to trace his line of thought. When he is cursing Merlyn (Herman Petras) for never teaching him how to handle a woman, he twitches in anger. And when he is telling Davie that he wants to be “the wisest, most heroic, most splendid king who ever sat on any throne,” the audience believes him.

Director Robert Ruggiero keeps his staging within Lerner’s outlines, which set designer Michael Schweikardt fills with color. To this portrait, costume designer Alejo Vietti adds a dab of earth tones. The men stride in fur-lined, verdant coats; the women frolic in pastel, summer dresses. But Vietti achieves his greatest efficacy in his simplest combinations. When Guenevere meets Arthur in a wintry forest, she dons a white cloak, highlighting her long red hair. The contrast accentuates Guenevere’s fiery passion—the reason that men find her irresistible.

Although Ruggiero’s staging is masterful, his interpretation of the production, as stated in the playbill, misses the thrust of the show. Ruggiero puts the spotlight on the “layered relationships of King Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot rather than…some epic idea.” But the hero of “Camelot” is not Arthur himself; it is his institution: the rule of law.

Ironically, Ruggiero’s staging, which he hopes will underline the characters’ humanity, stresses the musical’s larger message: Civilization requires restraint. Arthur is a great king not because he feels emotion as all of us do, but because he resists emotion, as few of us do. He resists emotion to build something greater, the rule of law. When he decides to forgive Guenevere, he declares, “This is the time of King Arthur, when violence is not strength and compassion is not weakness.” At the finale, Arthur speaks to a boy who promises to tell the king’s story after Arthur dies. Elated, Arthur concludes, “I’ve won my battle! What we did will be remembered.”

The ideal of Camelot is that the rule of law can exist without a charismatic leader and in the minds of the people. Camelot is supposed to be permanent. That said, Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot” plays only until September, and theater-goers should relish it. Ruggiero may misinterpret Arthur’s story, but he tells it beautifully. His production is, in Lerner’s words, “one brief shining moment.”

Brian J. Bolduc ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House.