WASHINGTON — The myth of King Arthur has captured mankind’s imagination for centuries.
But it was etched into American history in 1960, when President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy co-opted the smash Broadway musical for their own family lore.
The parallel is on full display as “Camelot” hits Shakespeare Theatre Company through July 8.
“I was at the [National Portrait Gallery] in the Hall of Presidents and had a really poignant moment with a Baby Boomer in front of one of the JFK pencil drawings,” actress Alexandra Silber told WTOP. “She was crying … and looked over and said, ‘We did our best for you. It’s up to you.’ We really do have this echo in the musical itself that what we do will be remembered. … So there’s definitely American mythology attached to this western English mythology.”
Based on T.H. White’s novel “The Once and Future King” (1958), the story follows King Arthur (Ken Clark) as he learns from Merlin, wields Excalibur, falls for Guinevere (Alexandra Silber) and forms the Knights of the Round Table with his charming sidekick Lancelot (Nick Fitzer).
“The seeds that Merlin plants in Young Arthur … blossom throughout the musical ‘Camelot,'” Clark said. “You can’t take the whole ‘Once and Future King’ and put it into two and a half hours. Is it abbreviated from the book? Sure, a little bit. But our production does a great job of taking the ideals, the ideas and the allegorical things that T.H. White wanted to get across.”
The cast has big shoes to fill, be it Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet in the 1960 Broadway cast, or Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero in the 1967 film.
“It’s both daunting and motivational,” Silber said. “The most important thing is that one feels like they’re part of a chain of links. I’m the Guinevere that’s come along now and there will be Guineveres after me. I’m part of a legacy that began with Julie Andrews and the myths that began generations and thousands of years before her. The only clay we have as performers is ourselves, so ultimately I can only take the mold that she set and fit the dress to myself.”
Speaking of the dress, get ready for lavish wardrobe by costume designer Ana Kuzmanic.
“There’s this great synergy between the set design and the costumery,” Clark said. “The set is very Medieval, plain, sparse, Spartan. It’s a wooden set, a very simple backdrop for the costumes to really pop. … Every single costume is unbelievable, whether it’s the detail on the armor, or we have this knighting scene where we’re in full gold regalia.”
Not only are the costumes grand, they are impressively symbolic as the story progresses.
“She tells such a beautiful visual story through the clothing, through our aging process, through our moral issues,” Silber said. “Arthur and I have a very similar color palette throughout the show. We’re connected through color, but it darkens and intensifies as the show goes on. We’re also more and more imprisoned — you see my collars get higher.”
Meanwhile, you’ll see some truly iconic props, particularly the enormous sword Excalibur.
“It’s about four feet [long] and it’s top-heavy,” Clark said. “It’s a true two-hander, man.”
“You handle it like a boss,” Silber said, to which Fitzer joked, “And he swings it at my face!”
These lush visuals are paired with the iconic songbook by Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music), the dynamic duo behind “Brigadoon,” “My Fair Lady” and “Gigi.”
“‘Camelot,’ the title song, and ‘If Ever I Would Leave You’ are two of the most famous songs in the musical theater repertoire,” Fitzer said. “Even if I dragged myself on stage and didn’t do a tremendous job of ‘If Ever I Would Leave You,’ it’s such a good song that people are still going to love it. My dog could sing ‘If Ever I Would Leave You’ and people would still applaud.”
In all seriousness, Fitzer’s singing might actually be closer to what Lerner & Loewe intended.
“The creative team went to the Library of Congress to look at the Lerner & Loewe papers,” Fitzer said. “They were searching through notes in the margins. One of the things they found was a note that said, ‘God, I wish Bob Goulet could sing this in C, but he can’t.’ His key was B-flat, so our music director said, ‘How about you do it up a step?’ I said, ‘I would love that!'”
Ether way, the Original Broadway Cast album was America’s top-selling LP for 60 weeks.
“I think most people came to the album first … because most people weren’t able to make it to New York to see the Broadway production,” Fitzer said. “So when my mother discovered this album, the character of Guinevere spoke to her so personally.”
Likewise, each new generation discovers this timeless tale as a commentary on its own era.
“The concept of civility, the concept of might being used for right,” Silber said. “The thematic rumbling of a young king and the people in his life … trying to make the world a better place, decision by decision by decision. It’s incredibly poignant against our current backdrop. … This is a play of great hope and a play of great character. It does restore faith in that possibility.”
Therein lie the forward-looking hope in an otherwise nostalgic mantra that ends the show:
“Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot,
For one brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot.”
Find more details on the theater website. Hear our full round table with the “Camelot” cast below: