For Lincoln Center Theater’s new production of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot, Aaron Sorkin, with whom I spoke recently, has written a new book. But if you’ve clicked on this article hoping to find out exactly what changes Sorkin has wrought to this timeless story of Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot, halt this instant. The first preview isn’t until March 9th, so you will have to wait for complete satisfaction.
But wait: I misspoke in the paragraph above. The legend of Arthur and the Round Table may be noble and stirring and classic, but in Sorkin’s new version it isn’t timeless. “Instead of having the story take place in a kind of Middle Earth,” Sorkin said, “I wanted it to take place in a real time and place – England in the late-15th century, on the eve of Enlightenment – and to make Arthur a real king.”
Before disclosing other changes to Camelot, Sorkin briefly sketched his timeline with the project itself. Speaking of Camelot’s director, Bartlett Sher, Sorkin said: “Bart came to me not long after To Kill a Mockingbird, our previous Broadway collaboration, had opened. He had done a staged-concert version of Camelot for a Lincoln Center Theater gala benefit, and he asked me if I wanted to take a shot at writing a new book. I told him yes.”
Sorkin, who made his first Broadway splash with A Few Good Men and who went on to create the superlative TV show The West Wing and write and/or direct such movies as The Social Network and The Trial of the Chicago 7, fortified himself with Camelot research. He re-read Lerner’s original book as well as T.H.White’s Once and Future King, upon which the musical is based. He consulted a few of the myriad versions of the legend of King Arthur. He went back to Sher.
“It’s been generally understood since the show opened, in 1960,” Sorkin said, “that it has beautiful songs, by Lerner and Loewe, but a problematic book. I told Bart that I wanted to write a new book not polish the old one.” Sorkin added: “The Lerner people would have had every right to say no. But they’ve been incredibly generous and very helpful. We did four mini-workshops leading up to the first general rehearsal and they were at all of them. They gave us notes, but none of those notes said: ‘We like it better the old way. Please don’t change it.’”
In addition to making the story’s time and place specific, Sorkin has eliminated the supernatural elements, which in various renderings of the legend have included Merlin the magician turning Arthur into a hawk or Morgan Le Fey constructing an invisible wall to keep Arthur prisoner. “Camelot tells a great story, an emotional story: of people grasping for higher ground. They fail but they’re going to try again. The successes and failures are more moving if they’re fully human not abetted by magic.” I asked Sorkin if that goal wasn’t more easily achieved in a musical – the soaring songs already provide the magic, however metaphorical – than in a tuneless telling. “Yes,” he replied.
One of the other major changes Sorkin has made is to the musical’s love triangle between King Arthur, his queen, Guenevere, and the knight Lancelot. “I wanted those stories to feel relevant to 2023. And that’s all we should say about that for now.”
Sorkin and I talked about the book for the original production of the musical. He said: “I’ve always loved that Camelot’s first and second acts end not with musical numbers but with speeches. As a writer, I thought that was one for my team. And as the writer of a new book, I wanted Camelot to work as a play with songs. I think that’s what we’ve got here.” Sorkin added that he likes much of the original book’s approach to the spoken word. “I’ve always loved that Camelot’s first and second acts end not with musical numbers but with speeches. As a writer, I thought that was one for my team. And as the writer of a new book, I wanted ‘Camelot’ to work as a play with songs. I think that’s what we’ve got here.”
Although Sorkin has previously never written or directed a musical professionally, he has a B.F.A. in musical theater from Syracuse University and has plenty to say about the construction of the form. “A musical’s book shouldn’t be a way to get from song to song – mini-bridges. A song in a musical works best when there’s something that can no longer be best expressed in words alone. You’ve just met a girl at a dance and you’re telling your friends how great she is and you gotta run through the streets and proclaim her name: Maria!”
Those who come to LCT’s Camelot thinking only of its lovely songs will be surprised by how much humor the show contains. Especially in the character of Guenevere, originally played by Julie Andrews. “Our Guenevere is a little different from the original one,” Sorkin commented, “but she still has a way with a retort.” Sorkin continued: “She’s been given good reason to be a little cynical. She’s the daughter of a king who seems to embody all the worst parts of being king. He uses an army to collect taxes and he doesn’t have Arthur’s interest in justice. At the beginning of the story she’s attempting to run away. Arthur convinces her to stay for a good cause.”
When Camelot opened, in late 1960, America’s brand of royalty, Jack and Jackie Kennedy, were on their way to the White House. A mere infant during the Kennedy years, Sorkin has no contemporary memory of that era but he is of course aware of it. Sorkin said: “The Kennedys saw the show and Jack loved it. Jackie started called their White House Camelot and soon other people did, too.”
Some observers have contended that Jack and Jackie’s attachment to Camelot mythology has been over-stated or even is untrue. Sorkin responded: “Whether it’s true or not and whether the Kennedy years were Camelot or not doesn’t matter anymore. What’s important is that in our minds we think it could have been. Once again, I’ll return to there not being literal magic in the new show. It does us good as a people to feel that a White House could have been Camelot. But with real-life humans working the switches.”
Brendan Lemon is a freelance journalist in New York.