FOLLOWING CAMELOT By Peter Filichia
Who knew that “Follow Me” had so many fans?
But since Aaron Sorkin’s revisal of CAMELOT started previews at the Vivian Beaumont on March 9, friends have been calling me to complain.
“They dropped ‘Follow Me’!” they’ve exclaimed, in voices that registered astonished surprise to outright contempt. Longtime Broadway publicist Kevin McAnarney said that it’s his favorite song in the classic Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe score. Understandable; “Follow Me” is an enticing melody that flows and ebbs with the grace of an ocean’s waves that tenderly reach the shore and then recede.
Other “Follow Me” fans include Tony Bennett, who recorded it in 1960, and Frank Sinatra, who did the same eight years later. The real surprise is that in 1980, one Angela Trimble – better known as Deborah Ann Harry and Blondie – recorded it.
Many first heard it thanks to Mary Sue Berry, playing Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, on the now-legendary 1960 original cast album.
Did you know that Berry was actually the understudy to Marjorie Smith, who’d been portraying Nimue since the Toronto tryout? Alas, on the day of the recording, Smith fell ill, and Berry took her place. What a sad break for Smith, and a lucky one for Berry.
None of this was enough to get her name on the cover of the original cast album, where Richard Burton (as King Arthur) and Julie Andrews (as Queen-to-Be Guenevere) received billing over the title. As for Robert Goulet, who played Lancelot, he could only nab fifth billing, which is odd, considering that he has the musical’s third-most important role as the knight who comes between the king and queen.
Third billing went to Roddy McDowall (who played Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son), despite the fact that he didn’t show up until Act Two and sang a song that didn’t even last a minute-and-a-half. (It’s a great song, though: “The Seven Deadly Virtues” insists that “It’s not the earth the meek inherit; it’s the dirt.”)
McDowall’s billing was the result of an almost quarter-century film career; he first made a name for himself in the Oscar-winning How Green Was My Valley. Some months before CAMELOT even went into rehearsal, McDowall received his Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Fourth billing went to Robert Coote, who played Pellinore, the aging knight whose dementia was getting the better of him. He too had far less stage time than Goulet and doesn’t appear on the album at all. But Coote had played Colonel Pickering in the original Broadway production of Lerner and Loewe’s MY FAIR LADY, which had also been directed by CAMELOT’s director Moss Hart. So, some sentimentality must have gone into play when Coote’s agent presumably asked or insisted that his name be prominently shown in the credits.
When CAMELOT was originally issued as a gatefold album (meaning that it had a double cover), it retailed for $5.98 in monaural sound and $6.98 in stereo. In 1967, however, when CAMELOT reached the screen and Warner Brothers Records released the soundtrack in a single jacket – which meant $4.98 in monaural and $5.98 in stereo – Columbia executives decided that they’d better reissue the album with a single cover. They feared that those interested in hearing the score might look at the price tags of both and buy the soundtrack and save a buck. With a single cover, Columbia evened the record-playing field.
In the ensuing seven years, Goulet became a bona fide star. Why else would Bebe in A CHORUS LINE remind herself that as an adolescent she would shout “Robert Goulet, Robert Goulet, my God, Robert Goulet!” So, for the reissue, the billing on the cover was Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet all over the title with a picture of each in costume.
Play CAMELOT’s original cast album and listen to Goulet’s crystal-clear voice in what became the show’s best-known and best-beloved song: “If Ever I Would Leave You.” Jordan Donica, the current admirable Lancelot – or any of the 10 other Lancelots I’ve seen in productions ranging from the original to one at the St. Louis Muny – can’t eclipse Goulet when he sings “When fall nips the air.” He makes the word nips sound like there’s actual nipping going on.
The new Lincoln Center Theater production reveals other cuts in the score, starting with the Overture. If you’re only familiar with the vinyl record, you might not notice, for it was rather short there. On the original issue’s second side, there was an instrumental section called “Parade.” When the CD was issued, “Parade” was incorporated into the Overture. What’s currently heard at the Beaumont is not quite one or the other.
Now “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” – originally conceived with three distinct sections and a coda – has been stripped of the last few lines. They’re well worth hearing on the cast album, especially with Andrews’ Guenevere expressing great wonder at what Burton’s Arthur has told her.
This production also drops the three-part, 16-line verse that began Arthur’s question of “How to Handle a Woman.” Of course, you won’t hear that on the original cast album, either, but that had everything to do with space requirements. CAMELOT weighed in at more than 51 minutes, which was a heavy load for vinyl to carry in those days. Be assured that if the more accommodating CD technology existed in 1960, genius producer Goddard Lieberson would have included it.
In this new production, Lancelot receives a song that was originally Guenevere’s: “I Loved You Once in Silence.” It actually fits his character better than hers, but we must be happy that we have another chance to hear Andrews on the cast album.
This song does what few love songs do. It’s intensely romantic for its first three sections before lowering the boom and instead stressing that the two lovers will have “twice as much grief” and an estimated equal amount of strain, despair and pain. Try thinking of another love song that does the same.
In the spring of 1961, Lerner decided that the lengthy musical didn’t need two songs. “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” had Guenevere manipulate three knights into jousting with Lancelot in hopes that they’d decimate him. Losing it was quite a loss, though, for Lerner was at his lyrical best here. (“His shoulders will be lonesome for his head.”)
Lerner also cut “Fie on Goodness!” where the knights decide that taking the high road isn’t the way to travel. Luckily for us, both songs were recorded and released before Lerner decided to eliminate them; still, most audiences who attended CAMELOT in the ensuing decades didn’t hear them. Equally lucky for current Beaumont Theater audiences, Sorkin has found room for them.
Sorkin received few love letters from most critics, but he’s done a fine job in the spirit of what Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards did with their two future presidents and congressmen in 1776: Sorkin has humanized them.
Arthur fell into the role of king through a quirk of fate, so he was just plain folks before ascending to the throne. His personality shows that in this new version.
As for Guenevere, although of noble birth, she’s shown to be a woman who’s been anxious to get out of her royal cage and just be herself; when she gets the chance, she shows wit and parries well with Arthur.
And yet, one of Sorkin’s greatest brainstorms involves just three words that we see projected on the back wall at the start of Act Two: One Year Later. This shows us that Guenevere and Lancelot have long resisted their lust for each other, each determined to not break the vows that each of them has made. Arthur is such a good man that he deserves their loyalty, and you deserve to see how the ever-clever Aaron Sorkin finds a way to move the action forward and get them into bed. Fie on anyone who doesn’t like this CAMELOT or the 1960 original cast album.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon.