In Camelot’s “C’est Moi,” a spectacular entrance song, Lancelot, played to the hilt by Jordan Donica, can’t stop talking about himself and his virtues: valor, bravery, boldness. Offstage, between shows this week in his dressing room, Donica confessed, “I don’t like talking about myself.” Luckily, he and I had already had that biographical conversation in 2018, when Donica blazed in LCT’s production of My Fair Lady, so we were free to concentrate on his approach to playing Lancelot, an interpretation for which he has received a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
Like many performers, Donica found his characterization immeasurably aided by his clothing. He enters wearing a quilted-blue tunic and silver-leather breastplate. “The way the costume is set up,” he explained, “I feel like I’ve got on suspenders. The weight falls on my shoulders. I used to play football, and I equate it to wearing football padding. As soon as I put it on it was easier to find Lancelot’s more animalistic tendencies.”
Lancelot, Donica continued, touts his public virtues, but inside he does not consider himself spiritually worthy. The actor said: “He initially has a very old-fashioned Catholic/Christian viewpoint: the stain of original sin. He aims to be pure.” At one point in the musical, an attendant to Queen Guenevere says of Lancelot, “My God, that’s a handsome man.” Donica commented: “At that point, my back is to the audience, but my reaction is one of shame and pain – Lancelot is seen and sexualized, and that causes him pain. He wants to be seen more fully.”
The tragedy of Camelot is that the Queen DOES see Lancelot fully, but she can convey that understanding directly only after she and Lancelot have slept together. “These are two people,” Donica said, “who are unable to process their feelings as they should. Instead, they redirect those feelings in a moment of lust and passion.” He added: “In the unwritten play in my head, they are able to talk those feelings through. Because when you’re able to talk about what you’re feeling you can alleviate almost every danger in a relationship. It’s when you don’t talk that you end up in a grey area. That’s where conflict comes in.”
Donica and I talked about how conflict makes for good drama, a lesson he was reminded of two years ago when he directed a production of The Exonerated, a play about wrongly convicted prisoners that sparked in the actor an ongoing interest in criminal justice. (During the pandemic, Donica also directed music videos and kept up his role in the CW’s series Charmed.) In Camelot, the conflicts regarding Lancelot are initially internal. “He’s so unable to acknowledge what he feels for the queen,” Donica said, “and so channels it into his behavior as a knight, and into deflecting those feelings by asserting his masculinity.”
Donica relishes conveying that masculinity. Having begun his professional career as Raoul in Phantom of the Opera and having moved on to Jesus Christ Superstar and Hamilton, Donica said, “I’ve mostly played boys or boys who are becoming men. But in Camelot I get to play a man. And I decided that to sound like a man and feel like a man I needed to shape myself accordingly.”
To that aim, Donica gained about 15 pounds for the role. “I worked out a lot, and this had a positive effect on my voice, I think. My voice feels very strong right now, knock on wood.” The role of Lancelot falls in the lower part of Donica’s register. But the vocal demands shift in the course of the show.
“Act One is very cardio-driven,” Donica said. “Not just because of the sword-fighting but because of what I’m singing. During the intermission I sip water to calm myself down. Because when I sing ‘If Ever I Would Leave You’ in Act Two I have to have enough breath so that my larynx relaxes. I want to lend the song plenty of colors – I want to lend my whole performance plenty of colors.”
Given Donica’s Tony nomination and given the enthusiastic response he has received from the audience each time I’ve seen the production, I think it’s safe to say he has succeeded.
Brendan Lemon is a freelance journalist in New York.