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The Royal Wedding: Time to Return to ‘Camelot’ – The Original Broadway Cast Album

26 April, 2011 (19:18) | Ethics & Morality, Music | By: Peter Kinder

        As an antidote to royal wedding gushes, I recommend the Broadway cast album of ‘Camelot’ (1961).

           With Julie Andrews, Richard Burton, Robert Goulet, Roddy McDowall and a highly competent supporting ensemble, the album captures the emotion of the play as no other I know of.  ‘South Pacific’ (1949) comes close.

           Standing alone, apart from the dialogue that framed them, these songs on this album are one of the greatest retellings of the Arthurian legend in all its hope and pathos.

           Richard Burton [1] made a brilliant Arthur, at once kingly and unworldly,  profoundly naive about what moves women and knights, utterly human.  His untrained singing voice emphasizes his innocence compared to Guenevere and his knights.  I can barely imagine someone else singing ‘How to Handle a Woman’, no one else the ‘Camelot Reprise’ at the album’s close.

           In contrast, Robert Goulet’s trained, disciplined tenor captures the perfect, almost cardboard Lancelot.  One can believe him when in ‘C’est Moi’ he sings:

 I’ve never strayed
From all I believe;
I’m blessed with an iron will.
Had I been made
The partner of Eve,
We’d be in Eden still.

 Goulet does a beautiful job on ‘If Ever I Would Leave You’, but it is almost too polished, too emotionless, too much like an art song.

           Roddy McDowall plays Arthur’s evil nephew, Mordred.  He was one of those rarities, a child star – in classics such as ‘Lassie Come Home’ and ‘How Green was My Valley’ – who became a very serviceable adult actor.  His one song, ‘The Seven Deadly Virtues’, is delivered almost slyly and certainly wickedly.  It’s still funny after 50 years of listening:

I find humility means to be hurt
It’s not the earth the meek inherit,
It’s the dirt

Honesty is fatal, it should be taboo
Diligence a fate I should hate
If charity means giving, I give it to you
And fidelity is only for your mate

          An unexpected gem on the ‘Camelot’ album is ‘Follow Me’, the very brief song sung by a nymph to enchant Merlin away from Arthur.  According to the excellent liner notes by Mark Kirkeby [2], Mary Sue Berry [3] was an understudy for the part.  Her performance has always enchanted me.  And those lyrics!

           But, the album belongs to Julie Andrews.  She is Guenevere.

           One can say Lerner & Loewe gave her superb material, which they did.  But as I listened to her songs the other day, I thought of ‘The Method’ and Lee Strasberg.

           For Andrews doesn’t merely sing ‘The Simple Joys of Maidenhood’; she is a self-centered girl-woman.  In ‘Then You May Take Me to the Fair’, she destructively pits knights against Lancelot as she struggles with her growing attraction to him.  We know what’s going on inside her, but she hasn’t acknowledged it.

           ‘Before I Gaze at You Again’ and ‘I Loved You Once in Silence’ express not just her love for Lancelot but the foreboding of its consequences.  These are songs of experience and maturity.  In other hands, they are gorgeous art songs.  In Andrews’s, they are heartbreaking.  She gives each word its own shape, leaving space around them.  The clarity of her singing draws attention away from her immense gifts toward her character and the story.  Julie Andrews is Guenevere.

           The story of ‘Camelot’ is timeless, romantic and aspirational.  We want there to be a ‘once and future king’.

           But, the story retains its power because, for all its trappings of royalty and magic, the emotions are ours: the hope, the love, the despair – and the wickedness.

Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known
As Camelot.

                                                             -30-

 Notes

 [1] The Official Richard Burton website is fun to look at, but it is certainly incomplete where his recordings are concerned.  For instance, it omits his readings of Dylan Thomas’s ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’.  His recitation is so personal that I thought, as a 14 year old when I first heard it, that he must have written it.  More than once I’ve wondered if Lerner & Loewe hadn’t thought of that performance when they wrote the ‘Camelot Reprise’.

[2] A quick Google revealed no biographical information on Kirkeby.

[3] Ditto Berry.  But what a lovely legacy!

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Comment from Marc Gunther
Time 2011/04/27 at 07:58

What a wonderful idea, Peter! We disagree on both “Follow Me” and “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood” (always seemed insipid to me) but Camelot is, indeed, a wonderful re-telling of the Arthurian legend and, because of its link to the Kennedys, a reminder of what seems a more idealistic and hopeful moment in American history. Perhaps because I performed in the play at Croton-Harmon H.S. back in 1968 or 1969, Camelot will always remain close to my heart. I will have to download a few of the songs for listening this weekend.

Comment from M.J.
Time 2011/04/27 at 13:21

Hi Peter; I listen to Julie Andrews singing “The Lusty Month of May” every May 1, without fail.

Cheers! M.J.

M.J.

Comment from George Kinder
Time 2011/04/30 at 14:38

How wonderful, Peter, to take us back so far. I had no idea, now nearly 50 years later that you enjoyed that album as much as I.

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