On March 4, Lincoln Center Theater will present a one-night benefit concert performance of Lerner & Loewe’s Camelot. Lin-Manuel Miranda will play King Arthur. From childhood, Miranda has been passionate about all the indelible shows of Broadway’s postwar abundance, a roster that certainly includes Camelot. (The show is also dear to him because it is his mother’s favorite score of all Broadway musicals.)
A more career-related connection to Camelot: Miranda is best-known as the creator of Hamilton, a phenomenon so huge that Miranda has occasionally wondered publicly whether he will ever surpass it. While I can find no public statement from Alan Jay Lerner or Frederick Loewe specifically stating they could never top My Fair Lady, the men were acutely aware of the expectations being placed on their follow-up Broadway show, Camelot, in late 1960. Expectations were high not only because My Fair Lady was such a hit because Lerner and Loewe’s subsequent project was also loved and laurelled. I’m talking, of course, about the movie musical Gigi, based on a novella by Colette. Gigi was released on May 15, 1958, and at the 1959 Oscars won nine awards, tying the record set thirty years before by Gone With The Wind for most Oscars going to a single film.
Lerner & Loewe took steps to protect themselves should Camelot come a cropper. In Lerner’s 1978 book, The Street Where I Live, he says that Loewe at first had no interest in the Camelot project, and only agreed to do the music on the condition that if the show flopped it would be his last score. More concrete protection came with the casting: Richard Burton as King Arthur and Julie Andrews, made a Broadway star by My Fair Lady, as Guenevere. If critics and audiences didn’t care for the show they would probably at least praise the leads.
As with My Fair Lady, which had its first out-of-town tryout in New Haven, Camelot’s initial preview, on October 1, 1960, in Toronto, was not marked by brevity: it ran four-and-a-half hours. Operatic length ensured operatic quips. Lerner later noted that “Only Tristan und Isolde equaled [Camelot] as a bladder endurance contest.”
When Camelot opened at Broadway’s Majestic Theater on December 3, 1960, it had been tightened and improved. Still, critics did not greet it with quite as many rave notices as they had showered on My Fair Lady. A chief complaint was that the second act was not as fine as the first – which critics have been saying about great musical plays at least since Euripides. Camelot went on to have a very respectable run (a little over two years) and, like My Fair Lady, spawned a top-selling cast album.
People like to say that Broadway isn’t at the heart of American pop culture as it was during Lerner & Loewe’s heyday. But Miranda’s Hamilton album, released in 2015, has had sales comparable to those of Camelot. I’m sure he will bring plenty of that audience-pleasing genius to his King Arthur at the Beaumont on March 4th.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com
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