The 1981 Broadway Revival
This “Camelot” was part of the cable series “HBO Theatre” and is a videotaped presentation of the 1981 Broadway revival of the musical at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City. It lasted for only 42 performances and closed in January 1982. Plays on film can be valuable archives of necessarily tenuous live productions yet almost invariably they embody the very least of their two combined mediums. The thrill of watching a live production – the sound of the orchestra, the actual human voice echoing on the stage, and the movement and sheer “aliveness,” of the actors cannot be recaptured on a film or videotaped medium. That indefinable, magical reality dissipates as soon as the cameras roll. As for film, in its infancy, it was locked down tight, and its no wonder that mere reproductions of stage plays were one of the medium’s first subjects. But of course now, the movement of the film camera, along with editing and special effects, can take the viewer to places no stage production could ever dream of recreating.
As we watch “Camelot”, we get the feeling that we’re being short-changed of both medium’s strengths. When it premiered on Broadway in 1960, it didn’t get the raves one might assume that it would. It was a show that the critics found clunky and awkwardly plotted, but which audiences embraced because of the lyrical, haunting songs by Lerner and Loewe, and because of the initial powerhouse Broadway cast of Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet. In 1967 Warner Brothers turned it into the bloated, misconceived film starring Richard Harris. One of the main complaints of the film (and there were many), was the fact that the stars of the film couldn’t sing. It is even more curious to see Harris take up the King Arthur again. Harris on the stage, singing songs he’s not really vocally suited to, is an exercise in professionalism battling with excess here. Further complicating matters is the fact that this revival takes the 1967 screenplay of the film version as its inspiration, keeping among other things the flashback structure of that film (which isn’t found in the original play). This reliance on the screenplay, along with having the star of that ill-fated movie recreate his role on stage, just makes this all the more ill-conceived.
We, however, still have the lovely songs of Lerner and Loewe, and hearing the score is a pleasure. There is something indefinably haunting and lyrical about those celebrated songs, and it’s not surprising that we love them still after more than forty years.