More about my book in progress, “More Fog, Please!” – 31 Years Directing Community and High Schol Musicals. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter on Camelot. (The chapter begins with my director’s note for the production and I’ve reproduced a section of that to start this blog post.)
Of all the myths and legends that are part of our cultural heritage, none catches and holds our imagination more than the stories of King Arthur. The “once and future king” is presented as a ruler of vision, justice, and nobility, brought to a tragic end by those he loves most.
The tales of Arthur and his knights are far too many to be telescoped into an evening of theater. Alan Jay Lerner, in writing the book (or dialogue ) for Camelot, took some material from T. H. White’s book, The Once and Future King. (King Pellinore, as he appears on stage, is taken almost verbatim from White.) He also adapted some material from other sources, concentrating on Arthur’s attempt to establish a just kingdom in the midst of a chaotic historical period, and on the story of Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere. Arthur’s illegitimate son, Mordred, also plays a key role in the story.
Every age looks for heroes to admire and to emulate. Because of his courage, and in particular his courage to forgive – and love those he forgave – Arthur is a hero for all time. In this imperfect world, neither Arthur nor his kingdom could long survive, but
Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot.
Pocono Lively Arts (Stroudsburg High School)
It is quite a journey from the Fairy Godmother and Cinderella to Merlin, Morgan Le Fay, Nimue and Camelot, but the wonderful world of musical theater takes us many magical places. This was another show I had long looked forward to directing. And I see that once again I had a rather lengthy director’s note due to my intense interest in the subject. Researching the background of a show I always found an engrossing, fascinating part of preparing a production.
One thing that immediately comes to mind about this show is performing it in the middle of a sizzling heat wave. Summers in the Poconos can be just about anything: rainy and cool, dry and hot, stretches of warm days and cool nights, stretches of cool days and almost cold nights. On occasion, it can be brutally hot, day and night.
We had such a spell that summer, and it fell mainly during tech week and performance weekend. The audiences were fine, they were sitting in air-conditioning, but whatever cooled air there might have been on stage was burned away by the lights. So actors in heavy medieval garb were walking through hallways that were stifling onto a stage that was an eyelash away from Dante’s inferno due to stage lighting.
As a result, when the actors were not on stage, they generally shed as much of those heavy costumes as decency would allow. Nearly everyone had on an item of apparel under their costume which could be worn without shocking anyone … a leotard or a bathing suit, for the most part. Our Lancelot was a very good looking young college student who was a swimmer. I don’t think I need to elaborate. Whenever he could, he stripped down to swim trunks. The ladies in the cast were most appreciative. The words “eye candy” come to mind. It gave them something to think about other than the miserable heat.
Morgan Le Fay must have been up to some mischief during our production because we had some interesting developments during our preparation. First was the case of the disappearing costumer, a woman who had agreed to handle costume rentals for the show. We had decided not to stint on this show. If you do Camelot, you want to do it right. She came in early in the rehearsal period with a committee who measured the cast and prepared the forms required by the rental company. Those were duly sent to the company, and her job was done until it was time to take delivery of the costumes, fit the actors, handle any necessary alterations and keep careful tabs on everything during the performances, and then collect everything to be returned.
Ten days or so prior to show weekend I attempted to contact her to remind her of our schedule. For a couple of days I called repeatedly and couldn’t get an answer on her phone. Finally, I reached someone who informed me she was out of town. “When will she be back?” The answer stunned me.
“We’re not sure.” What?? They were quite serious; no projected return date. She might as well have been M.I.A. Fortunately, another woman who had helped with costumes for a high school production was around, and was brave enough to take over. This was a big rental order; she became my hero.
King Arthur was a tall man with proportionately long arms. The stuff the costume company sent didn’t fit well; the sleeves were all too short. We were less than thrilled with Guinevere’s costumes. Merlin worked some reverse magic to counteract what Morgan had been up to (that wicked girl) and a trip to the costumer – a drive of about an hour and a half ─ was very fruitful. We came back with treasure; wonderful costumes for both the King and the Queen.
There’s a dog in Camelot; King Pellinore has a dog named Horrid. We only need to see him once, but he’s important to Pellinore’s first entrance. We hoped to find the large, shaggy dog referenced in the script, and a friend brought his dog Ray to a rehearsal. Ray was an Irish setter, friendly, very sweet, and seemed just right for Horrid. Until the second time he went onstage.
Ray managed to get on stage – just barely – and proceeded to lie down, after which he refused to budge. At all. He wouldn’t even lift his head. The actor who was playing Pellinore looked to me for help, but I didn’t have anything to offer. We hadn’t even considered “hiring” a dog: Horrid is only onstage one time, and is on a leash.
Eventually, Ray’s owner managed to get him offstage, and I said to him later, “I don’t think this is going to work.” He agreed. The orchestra conductor had a dog named Penny, who was getting along in years and half blind, but with her daddy in the orchestra pit she was fine. Penny had the role.
One last not-so-shining moment … I love stage fog. Or stage mist; whatever you call it, it’s just fun to spread around for a magical show like Cinderella or Camelot. To the best of my memory, Camelot was the first show for which we used a chemical fog machine rather than one which required dry ice. My son Steve was not only lighting director, but technical director for the show. Chemical fog machines are nifty, because you’re not constricted by having to keep feeding dry ice to the machine. Merlin was bewitched by Nimue, and the fog poured out over the stage. It looked great.
It was too great. It set off the fire alarms in the high school where we were performing, and before we knew it the Stroudsburg Volunteer Fire Department roared up to the school, at least two trucks and first responders in full fire-fighting regalia, right on the heels of the school principal (he lived mere blocks from the school). Apologies all around; we promised to control the amount of fog we produced and not have a repeat of the false alarm. The principal was very forgiving under the circumstances. So we had fog, but it was subdued fog. Too bad … the first attempt had been glorious.
I still love Camelot, but I think it’s a show with a flaw. There is far too much dialogue, but it’s good dialogue and it’s very difficult to cut. Mr. Lerner tried valiantly to bring this sprawling epic down to a manageable evening and he did a good job. It’s still too long. But the dialogue is truly wonderful, and our actors did it well.
Pocono Record writer Susan Koomar gave us a fine review, referring to the production as “princely.” “Well-acted and visually lush, this version of Lerner and Loewe’s classic is entertaining and often enchanting.” She went on to praise many individual performances and ended the review by referencing my director’s note: “… noble Arthur and his kingdom could not long survive in this imperfect world. But that kingdom is revived here in good measure for a short time.”
She liked us. She really liked us!
Camelot, Pocono Lively Arts, July 1991
Photo by Roselinde Karlson