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Musical Theatre Feature



Camelot and its Creators

August 15, 2020 - Raleigh, NC:


Coping with crisisNote: We are pleased to present another substantial article on American music by the conductor and music director of the Durham Symphony Orchestra. This originated as a lecture but has been substantially updated for this publication.

***

During these unsettling times, even the "bad old days" seem actually to have been "the good old days," in comparison. In the minds of people like me who remember the burst of youthful optimism we all felt at the beginning of the presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, that era now seems to be even more precious and uncorrupted. Kennedy's most famous phrase – "Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country" – now sounds antique and hopelessly naïve. We live in an age when we only ask of politicians, "What have you done for me lately?"

The first half of the 1960s now seems to be a golden era of good citizenship and concern for others, a period wherein great advances were made in the area of equal rights. This led unhappily to the Reagan era and its "Me generation" narcissism with the "greed is good" credo. Sadly, President Johnson's well-meaning "War on Poverty" slowly morphed into the Trump era's "War against the Poor."

We yearn for the mythical "Peaceable Kingdom" and a return to the idealism of the 1960s. But the 1960s ended in turmoil and civil unrest. As we awoke from our American Dream, we found it to have been as vulnerable and perhaps even as mythical as the legend of Camelot. The connection with those Arthurian tales and the Kennedy administration began shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy when his widow confided to an interviewer that her husband would often play at night his recording of the songs from the musical play Camelot. What he was especially moved by were the lines that come at the very end of the play; "Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment was known as Camelot." Yes, even in the midst of what seemed like an unclouded era of hope and unity, President Kennedy already sensed storm clouds. This nostalgia and sense of regret is now even more on our minds. We yearn to return to Camelot.

The Making of the Musical Play Camelot

The musical was inspired by The Once and the Future King, by Terence Hanbury (T.H.) White (1906-64), which was, in turn, inspired by a much earlier book, The Death of Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory (c.1415-71). The first four parts of The Once and Future King were published together in 1958.* The final installment in White's series, The Book of Merlyn, was published in 1977, after White's death.

Walt Disney purchased the first book in the series, The Sword in the Stone, soon after publication and in 1963 made an animated film of it.

Was there a "real" King Arthur? Scholars differ, but if Arthur were not a fictional character, he would have lived in the 6th century. However, White set his story in the 14th century....

The Director of the Musical

The director of Camelot was the brilliant Moss Hart (1904-61), who wrote several famous plays with George S. Kaufman, including Merrily We Roll Along, You Can't Take It With You (Pulitzer Prize, 1937), and The Man Who Came to Dinner. His screenplays include Winged Victory, Gentlemen's Agreement, and the 1954 Judy Garland version of A Star is Born.

Hart came from a very poor Jewish immigrant family. He suffered all his life from a lack of self-esteem and deep depression. (He was probably a manic-depressive.) He would often see his analyst twice a week. He was a bisexual who craved an emotional relationship rather than a sexual one. He married Kitty Carlisle, best known for her role in the Marx Brothers' movie A Night at the Opera and her TV appearances as a panelist on To Tell the Truth. She married Hart despite the fact that all of her friends said that Moss was gay. She asked him point blank before their marriage and he replied, "Absolutely not." (Leonard Bernstein told his daughter Jamie Bernstein the same thing when she confronted him.) The Harts had a happy marriage with two children. He began having health problems because of his smoking addiction in the early 1950s. On June 27, 1954, Hart made a solemn vow to his wife that he would quit smoking. But he was unable to adhere to his promise. On July 17, 1954, he had his first heart attack. After his hospital stay, against doctors' orders, he attended the premiere of A Star is Born, and he was not pleased. The film studio, without his permission, had made deep cuts in the movie. (Some of that footage is still missing.) Hart was deeply depressed during this period. He probably thought his life was almost over. But in two years he would direct the premiere of the biggest musical smash of its time, My Fair Lady. (For more information about his demise, click here.)

The Writer

Alan Jay Lerner, born rich, was an heir to the Lerner clothing store empire, founded by his uncle, Samuel Alexander Lerner, and Harold M. Lane, in 1918. Alan Jay Lerner was successful as lyricist, librettist, and a screenplay writer. He won Oscars for his screenplays for An American in Paris and Gigi. André Previn said of him, "He was larger than life. He lived a very rich and selfish life. But if you knew him, it was very hard to resist him. He had an indecent amount of charm."

Lerner was married eight times; four wives were actresses, and most were 25 years younger than he. About these eight marriages, Lerner said, "I have no talent for marriage. I also have no talent for bachelorhood. As someone said, 'Marriage is often like a besieged fortress. Everyone inside wants to get out and everyone outside wants to get in.'" One ex-wife said of Lerner, "Marrying you is Alan's way of saying goodbye." In Paris he was to meet the woman who became wife No. 4, the most fatal of his femmes fatales, Micheline di Borgo, a lawyer. (Composer Frederick Loewe warned Lerner, "Alan my boy, never fuck a lawyer.") At age 20, she was the youngest lawyer in France, famous as a defense attorney for rapists, thieves, murderers, and other criminals. When they met, they were both in the middle of divorces. (His demise is recounted here.)

The Composer

Oddly enough, there is no full-scale biography of Frederick Loewe. He was born in Vienna, Austria, and was a child prodigy pianist who loved classical music. He came to this country with his father, who was a famous operetta singer. They parted ways when Frederick was 24, and after that Frederick did any number of odd jobs to stay afloat. He told at least one person that for a while he was so poor that he was sleeping on park benches. In New York City he made a name for himself as an accompanist. He met Lerner at The Lambs Club.

Previn said that Loewe was the most egotistical person he ever met. And Loewe's last girlfriend said, "He was a difficult egomaniac but also generous, charming, and funny. He loved Cole Porter and thought he was a genius, a huge compliment because he (Loewe) thought he was God and most other writers were worms. He had a huge ego which was a real pain quite often. But he thought Vincent Youman's "Tea for Two" was quite clever. (Others who agreed included Dmitri Shostakovich, who wrote an orchestral arrangement of it titled "Tahiti Trot.")

After he became wealthy, in the late 1950s, Loewe developed a serious problem with gambling. He lost a million dollars on the French Riviera. And his health was always precarious. In the mid-1950s Loewe had had an emergency appendectomy. And there was the stress of a recent divorce. On Feb 26, 1959, Loewe was out at dinner and felt a chest pain. He said, "It would be just my luck to get a heart attack just when I'm at the peak of my success in this rough business" Shortly after midnight, he suffered a massive coronary attack. He was in an oxygen tent for three days. After he recuperated, Loewe told an Associated Press reporter, "If you live through it, a heart attack is absolutely the best thing that can happen to you. I never enjoyed life until my attack. I drank from 5 at night till 5 in the morning. I smoked three, four packs of cigarettes a day. It was a senseless, futile existence."

In at least one way, Lerner and Loewe were opposites: Lerner was social, extroverted, and loved high society. Loewe was reclusive, introverted, and very rarely seen at a party. But the partnership worked. By the mid-1950s, they had written Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, and, of course, My Fair Lady. Quite a track record! But what does one do after My Fair Lady? (Related to this, the great movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn told Richard Rodgers after the stupendous success of Oklahoma! that the only thing left for Rodgers to do now would be to commit suicide! That's because Goldwyn, but not Rodgers, felt that Rodgers would never be able to equal that success. History has shown otherwise.)

After My Fair Lady, Lerner wanted to make Gone with the Wind into a musical. Loewe's response was via telegram, probably dictated, complete with his Austrian accent: "Vind not funny."

They eventually decided to adapt for the screen Colette's novel Gigi, a book about a young woman who is being groomed to be a courtesan. (This plot is not altogether that distant from My Fair Lady!) Gigi won several Academy Awards including best screenplay, best song, and best picture, and a special award for Maurice Chevalier. (In today's current atmosphere, the film's song "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" seems to be pedophiliac in nature. To get around this, in a recent Broadway revival of the stage version, a woman sang it.) Upon receiving his Oscar for best song at the televised ceremony, Fritz Loewe said, "I want to thank all of you from the bottom of my somewhat damaged heart."

Camelot Itself

A success has many mothers, but a failure is an orphan. According to Moss Hart, it was he who brought White's book to Lerner's attention. But according to Stone "Bud" Widney, a Lerner associate, it was he who put a New York Times book review (by Orville Prescott) on Lerner's desk saying, "Here's your next show!" Lerner trusted Widney's judgement, read the book, and fell in love with it. It was the epic and substantial vehicle Lerner was looking for.

But Loewe refused to be involved. "Who wants to see a play about a cuckold?" (A cuckold is a husband whose wife is cheating on him.) And Loewe was happy, being retired and finally enjoying his life. He promised, though, to read the book. But he never finished it. Then he gave in to Lerner and told him, "My boy, I'll try it one more time. But if it's too tough and I start to worry so much I can't work the way I want, this next will be my last."

Since the first part of The Once and Future King, The Sword in the Stone, had been sold to Disney, the team decided to set the rest of the story. The initial plan was for Lerner and Moss Hart to write the book (libretto) together. But Lerner changed his mind and decided to do it himself. Hart was disappointed. But Hart's wife Kitty said to him, "You're well out of that. There's no way Camelot can ever be as good as My Fair Lady, and you'll be the one who gets the blame. Just do what you did on My Fair Lady: direct it and help as much as you can."

A week later the Harts saw Lerner's first draft. Both deemed it to be unworkable.

What they didn't know at the time was that Lerner was having a nervous breakdown.

How to Handle a Woman?

Alan Jay Lerner was in the throes of a terrible situation with Wife No. 4, Michelline de Borgo. She was described as looking like a blonde Carmen – and behaving like one. In his memoirs, Lerner writes of a harrowing summer spent at Sands Point the Long Island location of his getaway home, "All my wives were lovely people with one aberrational exception. Her name will not appear in this book, but the havoc she wrought that summer must. During the summer I had begun to lose all hope of domestic bliss. Whether it was her aim to make my life so unbearable that I would pay any price for peace, or it was merely the uncontrollable manifestations of a nasty spirit, I do not know…, but life at Sands Point that summer would have attracted the eye of any passing exorcist. My nerves were beginning to fray at the edges and the writing was bogging down to the point of panic."

Michelline then decided to vacation in Europe for a few weeks with their two-year-old son Michael. Lerner was relieved. In his memoirs, the composer continued: "She departed and within two days I was writing away furiously. A week later I received a phone call from her announcing she was never coming back and that if I wanted to see my son I would have to visit him in Europe. The impact on me was devastating. For three days I could not move out of the chair by the telephone. I felt torn, trapped and helpless. I lost control of my tear ducts and other bodily functions… and still could not get out of that chair. I realized I must be having something akin to a nervous breakdown. It was now the end July, the first rehearsal was to be on September 3, and I had not yet written even one page of Act Two."

Finally, he called Moss Hart, who recommended an analyst who gave him what Lerner described as being "pills of unusual potency." It is believed that one of the doctors he saw around this time was the now infamous Max Jacobson, better known as "Miracle Max" and "Dr. Feelgood." The doctor had evidently created a magic pill that could bring euphoria even to the near dead. The pill consisted of animal hormones, bone marrow, enzymes, human placenta, painkillers, steroids, multivitamins, and amphetamines. Dr. Feelgood's clients included Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlene Dietrich, Maria Callas, Elvis Presley, Leonard Bernstein, Van Cliburn, Humphrey Bogart, and President Kennedy. For the rest of his life, Lerner was addicted to these pills.

From Lerner's memoirs: "Off I went to procure the magic pills and inside of two weeks I was back at work. I finally finished the song l was working on. The lyric, ironically enough was 'If Ever I Would Leave You.'"

Writer's Block: Lerner on Perfectionism: "The older a writer gets, the harder it is for him to write. This is not true because he slows down. It's because his critical faculties grow more acute, and he finds it harder to please himself. If you're young, you have a feeling of omnipotence. You're sure you're brilliant. You're an egg-head with two yolks, and even if the youth is secretly frightened, it assumes an air of outer assurance and plows right through whatever is before it. As I grow older, I judge success by one standard: Have I successfully avoided humiliating myself?"

The Camelot "Problem," Its Second Act and its Conclusion: In Our Musicals, Ourselves: A Social History of the American Musical Theatre, John Bush Jones says of Camelot's conclusion: "Arthur's wife and his best knight have betrayed him. Arthur dreams of a peaceful kingdom and of what later would be called disarmament. The formerly tranquil Camelot is in chaos. Arthur, caught in a snare of treachery cast by his wicked son, Mordred, must choose between his own creation of civil law and love for his queen. And when Lancelot returns to rescue Guinevere from the stake, he does so by slaughtering his own Round Table compatriots. At the end, all Arthur has of what had been a present reality is the all-but-vanished past of a failed utopia."

What the End of Camelot is About, According to Lerner: "For me, the raison d'être of Camelot was the end of the journey, when Arthur has lost his wife, his friend (Lancelot), and his Round Table. He believes his life has been a failure. Then a small boy (13 years old in White's book) appears from behind a tent, [a boy] who doesn't know the Round Table is dead and who wishes to become a knight. Arthur realizes that as long as his vision is alive in one small heart he has not failed. Men die…, but an idea does not."

As for Camelot being a "house divided" Lerner said, "It's very hard to go from lightness to darkness." (Symphonies do the opposite.) "In Camelot the first act is joyous and romantic. But the second act tells of the disintegration of the Round Table, and it becomes pure drama. Unfortunately, there's no way of making a downward story go uphill. Many years later, I tried to solve the breach in style by beginning with the last scene of the play. At least it warned the audience of the tragedy to come. The same thought had occurred to me in Boston (before the Broadway opening), but we were all afraid to touch the beginning, which was playing so well."

An important theme of the play is stated in Act 1: "Might MAKES right" (Not Might IS right). For centuries, the history of the world was mainly about conquest. Imperialism is all about conquest without a conscience.

The Original Cast (under which title a link to the original cast album is embedded): Julie Andrews played Guinevere. She had already achieved stardom as Liza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Richard Burton played King Arthur. Robert Coote played Pellinore. He was another My Fair Lady alumnus, having played the role of Colonel Pickering. Roddy MacDowell, best known as a film star, took the villain's role of Mordred. Robert Goulet, in his Broadway debut, played Lancelot.

The Way They Worked

First, Lerner and Loewe would work on answers to these two questions: 1. Where should a song go? & 2. What should the mood be?

Then Lerner would give Loewe a title and Loewe would work with it, improvising a melody. Lerner would then take the completed melody and write the lyric.

Loewe said this about his "authentic to the period" music for Camelot: "You had to think about it. Purcell is the earliest English music you can go to. And this is much earlier. And so there is no music, you just have to make it up." Heretofore, he had done a great job musically conjuring up the quasi Irish-Scottish atmosphere in Brigadoon and the gritty Wild West in Paint Your Wagon. The hit song of that latter show was "They Call the Wind Maria," which sounded so "authentic" that most assumed it was a folk song. Loewe was a theater composer with a flair for musical characterization that created the appropriate dramatic atmosphere for his songs

Lerner, Loewe and Hart decided that, in order to have total creative autonomy, they would produce the show themselves. (Big mistake!) They received financial help from the Coca-Cola Company which gave them half a million dollars.

According to all accounts the cast was a joy to work with and they became a family. There were no ego displays. Goulet was in his mid-20s and a wonderful discovery. And like many actors, he couldn't help falling in love with the leading lady (Julie Andrews). According to Lerner, "Bobby Goulet struck out consistently. In despair, he went to the master, Richard Burton, hoping to receive a few directions that would lead him to paradise. His hopes were dashed. Richard had no pointers or potion to give him and said so rather gruffly. After Bobby left the room, Richard turned to me and said wryly, 'Why did he come to me? I couldn't get anywhere with her either.'" (She was a fresh and pure woman, on and off stage. I'm reminded of what Oscar Levant said about Doris Day, "I knew her before she was a virgin.")

Lerner, who worked with Andrews during a seven-year period, said, "I cannot remember one moment in the time we worked together that was not a total joy. She never complained." The song "Before I Gaze at You Again" (according to another account it was "I Loved You Once in Silence") was handed to her the night before the first New York preview. This was a risky thing to have done because, as Lerner had said, "It is an absolute necessity the company perform the same play without change for a few consecutive nights before the Broadway opening to 'freeze it.'" And she pulled it off perfectly, with aplomb. (When Ethel Merman was asked to make a change two weeks before the Broadway debut of a show, she refused, saying, "Call me Miss Birdseye, I'm frozen!")

There is no free lunch. Even the greats suffer. Adrian Adolph Greenberg, a famous Hollywood costume designer, came out of retirement to do the show. He did a few sketches and then had a heart attack and died. This was just the beginning of the calamities. Next, the husband of the wardrobe mistress died. Then, one of the dancers got blood poisoning when she stepped on a needle.

Toronto: The world premiere was in Toronto, and it was the inaugural week for a new theater there. As is the case with all new facilities, there were many unforeseen problems, including the fact that the orchestra pit was so deep the sound was muted. And the show was too long. It started at 8:15 p.m. and ended at 12:40 a.m. – four and a half hours! Camelot was truly of Wagnerian length. As Lerner put it: "Only Wagner's Tristan und Isolde equaled it as a bladder contest." One critic said that "Camelot is like Wagner's Götterdämmerung but without the laughs." Lerner's riposte to this was, "As a rule, dancing on a grave is how a critic gets his exercise."

After the second performance, Lerner had to be admitted to the hospital with a bleeding ulcer. On that very day, Moss Hart's father died, but Moss, solely focused on the ailing Camelot, decided not go to the funeral. In the hospital, Lerner told the doctors they had to release him immediately. Their response was to give him an injection, and Lerner said he remembered nothing of the next five days. After that, he was allowed no visits from the cast.

Here is his account of the day he was released a week later: "My nurse was with me in the hall. While waiting for the elevator to arrive, I happened to look back and saw a hospital bed, obviously occupied, being wheeled into the room I had just vacated. As we rode down the elevator, the nurse told me who it was. It was Moss Hart." That morning, Hart had had his second heart attack.

Hart's wife had heard about his collapse on the car radio. She rushed to his bedside. This is her account: "He took my hand with surprising strength and said, 'Go immediately to Alan's room. [He thought Lerner was still in that hospital.] Tell him to take over the direction of the play until I'm well enough to come back and not to look for anyone else.'" After phoning Lerner with that message, Kitty returned to the hospital room, only to find it empty. She was overwhelmed with the thought that her husband had died. But someone led her to another room, where she found Moss alive… – and sleeping.

Lerner found it difficult to deny the request of this indispensable man who was still thinking only of the play, so he decided to direct Camelot himself and not take any contractual credit for it. Loewe argued strenuously against Lerner being the director, saying – and rightly so – there was too much work yet to be done and Lerner couldn't possibly be objective about his input as the writer of Camelot. Lerner agreed, and they looked around for a replacement. The great José Ferrer turned them down. Much to Lerner's relief, Richard Burton urged him to be the director saying, "Anyone else would just muck it up anyway." So Lerner was now wearing four hats: director, producer, lyricist, and librettist. And he was still an outpatient under a doctor's care.

After five weeks in Toronto, Camelot struggled on through the long preview period before the Broadway opening. By now, the press was calling Camelot a "medical" [sic] instead of a musical. According to Lerner, "A bright spot during this period was a visit from T. H. White, a large, shaggy man with a great, white beard." Lerner said White was "enthusiastic and encouraging."

There was a long build-up to this, but the once-united bond between Lerner and Loewe was now being fractured under stress that was  exacerbated by their great expectations after enjoying two triumphs. Loewe was still furious about Lerner being the director. And he hated Michelline Lerner. (Kitty Hart said she had even punched Michelline.) Michelline wanted to be part of the "fun" of creativity, so Lerner invited her to attend his sessions with Loewe. Of course she couldn't sit there quietly. ("Ooo," she said, "u cannot use zat tune…, zat sounds like a French folk song I heard as a child….") In revenge, Loewe brought in the 24 year old woman he was living with at the time(!). He called her "baby boy" and she called him "baby bear." (Seriously.) At these meetings, Lerner must have suffocated on the "cuteness" of this couple.

Lerner then hired Norman Rosement, a publicity man, over Loewe's objections. When the publicity man seemed to be only publicizing Lerner, Loewe was offended. He was prone to paranoia anyway. And then Loewe started telling his friends that Lerner was cheating him financially.

And since Lerner was now the writer, lyricist, and director, he had more say in what now had to happen.

"Success can be a creative stimulant, but it can weaken as much as it toughens" Lerner said that when Loewe now disagreed with him about an issue. He saw it as a lack of support. And Loewe saw Lerner as given to fantasies that could not be realized. By the time they got to Toronto they were speaking to each other only at working sessions. As Lerner said, "In the end, we were like the couple being discussed in one of Noël Coward's early plays. "Do they fight?" said one. "Oh no," said the other. They're much too unhappy to fight."

Lerner and Loewe were now communicating only through messengers. At rehearsals, Lerner would be seated in the front row of the theater and Loewe was hidden in the shadows at the back. But they had to go forward. There was no chance of closing or even delaying the Broadway opening, as Camelot had already sold an unprecedented $3M in tickets. So Camelot limped on.

Lerner said that during the road tour, the only mishap that had not befallen Camelot was the "expected incident" by King Pellinore's sheepdog. Lerner noted that "It was the only time in the history of the theater that an animal appeared in a play and never once left a pile in the middle of the stage." (The New York critics would supply that pile.)

Camelot was still too long. You cannot go into overtime eight times a week. And the production was lavish and expensive. Lerner said of Camelot, "It had more scenery than Switzerland." One day before the first New York preview, Camelot had a run-through without any scenery, without costumes, on a bare stage. Though this is not in his memoirs, he is quoted in Jabolnski's biography of Lerner that this was the most memorable and moving performance of Camelot Lerner ever saw – without all the glitz and glitter and with a piano instead of a 40-piece orchestra, the show was simpler, more intimate. All this reinforced the meaning of the play. Lerner said he would never forget that performance. Perhaps this explains the excessive amount of close-ups in the 1967 film Camelot for which he was the producer and the screenplay writer, working with Joshua Logan. These close-ups reduce the feeling of epic breadth and make it instead seem just claustrophobic.

In mid-November, Hart was released from the hospital. He was confined to his home for two months, during which he was allowed to speak on the phone for only five minutes every other day. When Camelot finally opened on Broadway, he was still too weak to attend.

With the exception of Roddy McDowell, most of the cast members thought that Lerner had done a good job as the replacement director. By his own estimation, he had rewritten "more than half of the first act and most of the second." But Loewe was still furious at Lerner and had his own health issues at the time. Julie Andrews said, "Most of the time, Loewe seemed more ill than Lerner."

Opening in New York: The opening night on Broadway was December 3, 1960. It had a glittering but tepid audience. After the performance, there was the ritual cast party at Lüchow's, where they anxiously awaited the reviews. (In those days, New York had at least half a dozen newspapers and the reviews often appeared before 1 a.m.) The notices were decidedly "mixed." Referring to the opulent scenes and costumes, one critic said that the show should be called "Costalot." And as Kitty Hart had predicted, Camelot was unfavorably compared with My Fair Lady. Most of the critics mentioned the "unworkable" dichotomy of two very different acts. The audience's interest dropped off during the show, and people were seen walking out in mid-performance. Things looked bad. The show had a large advance sale but the show would have to run beyond those receipts for the backers to recoup their investments.

In mid-February 1961, Moss Hart's doctor finally allowed him to see the show. With some distance, Hart was now able to see clearly the flaws in it. He put the play back into rehearsals, a step that almost never happens after a show has opened on Broadway. Cuts were made, including the choral number "Guinevere" and Guinevere's humorous song, "You May Take Me to the Fair." The show seemed to take on a new life.

Hart's Gay Side during Rehearsals (from The Life and Times of Moss Hart): "Moss had been uneasy with Goulet because of his inexperience and because he found himself resentful of Goulet's sex appeal. [When] Moss returned to Camelot four months after its Broadway debut he told a gay friend, 'Thank God I had my heart attack and could get out of Camelot. It was the only way I could keep from being tough on Goulet and taking out on him how much I resented him for being so attractive.'"

Roddy McDowell, also gay, was an experienced actor as well as an old friend of Hart; according to McDowell, Hart's directions to him were occasionally "adorably flirtatious but aimless." He remembered Moss telling him, 'Enter from stage left, go to center stage, look around, and then exit stage right. Now enter stage right, go to center stage, look around, and exit stage left.' Finally I asked him what I was supposed to be looking around for. Moss said, 'Nothing, dear boy. I just like to watch you walk and twinkle your ass!' That was flattering I suppose, and Moss was a charmer through and through, but it didn't help me much with my character.'"

What the new-and-improved show needed at this time was for the public to be aware of this better version. Then, the miracle occurred. Ed Sullivan wanted to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the debut of My Fair Lady on his Sunday night variety show. Lerner took over the televised show and put in a little from My Fair Lady, but the main feature of the telecast was four complete songs from the new-and-improved Camelot: "If Ever I Would Leave You," "Camelot" (the title song), "Where Are the Simple Joys of Maidenhood," and "What Do the Simple Folk Do?" This was what's known as "free advertising," something very much needed for a show that was now in danger of closing in several weeks. The night was March 19, 1961, and the six-year-old Billy Curry watched it with his family. I very clearly remember the song and the staging of "What Do the Simple Folk Do." I believe that night was the beginning of my life-long deep love and respect for the best American musicals.

Evidently I was not the only viewer that was thrilled that night. The day after the telecast, there was a line at the Camelot box-office that stretched around the block. Camelot finally was a hit.

***

By all accounts, the scene that most moved audiences was the final one. Stone "Bud" Widney, an assistant to the producers during the rehearsal period, said that it was he who suggested the inspirational finale. "Alan Jay Lerner was in Palm Springs, working with Fritz (Frederick Loewe) on the score. He called me and said, 'This damn show has no ending. It's so tragic, [and] we don't know what to do with it. So can you get out here and remind us of the stories in the book that will help us.' I got on a plane. When we met, I said, 'There's one story that might have possibilities,' and I mentioned the moment at the end when Arthur meets the little boy, Tom of Warwick, who's supposed to be Thomas Malory. And Alan said, 'Oh my God, that's everything! When we can have the lift of carrying on the meaning of the Round Table, the show will succeed.' He was enormously grateful to me, and I will always be proud of that contribution."

But Camelot's journey into the pantheon was not yet over.

On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated. A week later, Theodore White went to Hyannis Port to interview Jackie Kennedy for a Life Magazine article, published on December 6, 1963. Here are a few excerpts:

"All I keep thinking is this line from a musical comedy. At night, we'd go to sleep; Jack liked to play some records, and the song he loved came at the very end of the record: 'Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot'. You must think of Jack as this little boy, sick so much of the time, reading in bed, reading history, reading about the Knights of the Round Table. For Jack, history was heroes. And if history made him see the heroes, maybe other little boys would also see. Men are such a combination of good and bad. Jack had this hero idea of history, the idealistic view. There will be great presidents again…, but there'll never be another 'Camelot."

Lerner observed that "Camelot suddenly became a symbol of those thousand days when people the world over saw a bright new light of hope shining from the White House. Ironically enough, from that moment on, the first act became the weak act and the second act, the strong one. For myself, I have never been able to see a performance of Camelot again."

(In the TV presentation An Evening with Alan Jay Lerner you can see his eyes fill with tears as he ends the program by reciting those now famous final lines from Camelot.)

I have known and loved the score of Camelot since I was a young teenager. For me, it is the Lerner and Loewe masterpiece, The music is inspired throughout and the lyrics are warm and witty, as the situation demands. Their song "'If Ever I Would Leave You" is one of the gems of American musical theater. And after seeing a worthy production of the play at Raleigh's Burning Coal Theater Company in December 2019, I found Lerner's revised libretto to be well constructed and often deeply moving.

Looking back at the original production, "Bud" Widney observed, "Ultimately, Camelot speaks about the aspirations of humanity that echo on a large scale. The show is romantic…, and timeless."

Timeless indeed. Don't let it be forgotten that, in spite of our current difficulties, we still have the power within us all to be great ancestors, to live up to the ideals of our Founding Fathers, to honor those who died for American freedom by being great citizens, the kind of citizens who ask what they can do for their country.

The Last Hoorahs: The 1985 Kennedy Center Honors

Initially, Lerner was to be honored but not Loewe. Kitty Carlisle was one of the judges, and she threw a fit about that, so Loewe was included. It was one of Loewe's last good days before Alzheimer's closed in on him. He said that night, "I would have kicked myself in the ass if I had died five years ago and missed all this!" He was now living with his last young girl friend, who was 48 years younger than he. In 2018, she said in an interview, found at the official Frederick Loewe website, "We loved each other and had a good relationship. I think I lasted the longest of his girlfriends because I made him laugh and he was also a lot older than me. He was 500 and I was 12."

After a life of luxury Alan Jay Lerner was now broke. The IRS went after him the same month he found out that he had lung cancer. He was not able to pay for his hospital bills at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

At 10:15 a.m. on Saturday, June 14, 1986, Lerner died, surrounded by his wife, son, and daughters. He was 67. He died owing the IRS one million dollars. His wife, Liz Robertson, was also now penniless. After Alan's death she said, with affection and without bitterness, "The only thing Alan left me with was a taste for champagne."

Bibliography:

  • Our Musicals, Ourselves, by John Bush Jones - Brandeis University Press
  • Inventing Champagne – The Worlds of Lerner and Loewe, by Gene Lees - St. Martin's Press
  • Moss Hart – A Prince of the Theatre, by Jared Brown - Back Stage Books
  • Dazzler-The Life and Times of Moss Hart, by Steven Bach - Alfred A. Knopf
  • The Wordsmiths, by Stephen Citron - Oxford University Press
  • The Street Where I Live, by Alan Jay Lerner - W.W. Norton and Company
  • Alan Jay Lerner, by Edward Jablonski - Henry Holt Publishing

*Online armchair scholars report that White's undertaking is divided into the following parts:

  • The Sword in the Stone (1938), detailing the youth of Arthur
  • The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939) (published separately in somewhat different form as The Witch in the Wood (1939))
  • The Ill-Made Knight (1940), dealing mainly with the character of Lancelot
  • The Candle in the Wind, first published in the composite edition, 1958
  • A final part, called The Book of Merlyn (written 1941, published 1977), was issued separately following White's death. It chronicles Arthur's final lessons from Merlyn before his death, although some parts of it were incorporated into the final editions of the previous books. Much of the contents of this book appears in the first part of The Once and Future King.

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