In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.
1961: Camelot (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
It’s a question that haunts many people: how do you follow up what is arguably your best work? For many, trying to follow up their defining work often creates an impossible standard to live up to and often creates tension. Trying to top your best work is practically impossible in terms of making the same cultural impact but you can still have success. But that success may come at the price of your working relationships and even your health as you mount a follow-up success. It wasn’t easy for the songwriting team of Frederic Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner but somehow they managed to succeed.
In 1959, Loewe and Lerner were faced with the daunting task of following up on a blockbuster level success. A few years earlier, their musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, My Fair Lady, opened on Broadway to huge critical and commercial success including being called the best musical of all time. Its accompanying soundtrack was also a massive success hitting #1 on Billboard’s album charts becoming the best-selling album for both 1957 and 1958. So when word got out about Loewe and Lerner writing a new musical, anticipation was understandably very high. While this type of success can’t be repeated, for what they came up with the next musical was another success but it was one that didn’t look like a sure bet at first.
For their next musical, Lerner decided to adapt T.H. White’s novel The Once and Future King, a recently published novel about the reign of England’s King Arthur in the 6th Century. Loewe was originally disinterested in the project wanting to move away from the musical world. Soon enough, Loewe agreed to write the lyrics for the new musical but only with the understanding that if the musical failed then he could easily get out of the musical theater business. With The Once and Future King being a long book, Lerner and Loewe decided to use a part of the book in their musical. From the part of the book they adopted, Lerner and Loewe created a sort of medieval fairy tale with Camelot which centers on King Arthur’s marriage to Guenevere, Guenevere’s affair with Sir Lancelot, the creation of Camelot and its fall.
To ease the transition from My Fair Lady, Lerner and Loewe were able to get some of its key players to participate in Camelot. Most importantly, Julie Andrews, who shot to fame with her leading role of Eliza Doolittle, joined the cast in the role of Guenevere. Its director Moss Hart returned along with their choreographer, composer, character actors, and scene designer. Despite this strong team, Camelot got off to a rough start. Loewe’s wife separated from him during production causing him to go into medical treatment postponing production. Moss Hart experienced health problems himself during production suffering several heart attacks during production.
As if the health and personal problems weren’t enough, Camelot, even being adapted from a quarter of The Once and Future King, still ran far too long compared with most musicals of the day. Camelot’s premiere in Toronto, Canada was for the most part disastrous with the show running over four and a half hours past midnight to little people in the audience. Reviews were also not very favorable a sudden drop from the praise of My Fair Lady. It looked as if Camelot was going to become a huge flop on Broadway. As Camelot prepared for its Broadway opening in December 1960, problems still persisted as Lerner and Loewe were in disagreement on how to carry on with the musical. Eventually, cuts were made to the song list and famed actor Richard Burton, known for playing Shakespearean roles and would later star in Cleopatra, joined Camelot in the lead role of King Arthur.
Initially, reception to the Broadway production was mixed and didn’t seem to be going well until television host Ed Sullivan invited Lerner and Loewe onto his show to have their cast perform songs from My Fair Lady, which was still running on Broadway, to celebrate the musical’s fifth anniversary. On Ed Sullivan, Lerner and Loewe ended up showing less of My Fair Lady and used the appearance to showcase songs from Camelot. Given that an Ed Sullivan Show performance was the largest television audience you could get in the early ‘60s, interest for Camelot immediately shot up after the cast’s performance and became another Broadway phenomenon. The increased attention also boded well for sales of the Camelot soundtrack spending five weeks atop Billboard’s album charts becoming 1961’s best-selling album.
It’s easy to see the similarities between Camelot and My Fair Lady. Both musicals are set in Great Britain that deal with high-class social structures. Both musicals star Julie Andrews and feature many of its key players. But Camelot doesn’t have much recognizability. Compared with My Fair Lady, Camelot hasn’t enjoyed the same amount of acclaim and legacy. In my lifetime, I’ve never heard Camelot get brought up among the all-time best musicals or hear its songs being played often. And most importantly for a musical, the songs haven’t held up to modern usage as the songs of My Fair Lady have. There’s no “I Could Have Danced All Night” or even a “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” The closet we get is the Andrews/Burton song “What Do The Simple Folk Do” and Andrews’ “The Lusty Month of May.”
Like with My Fair Lady, Julie Andrews easily remains the best reason to listen to Camelot in 2020. She returns with the same joy and talent that elevates her above everyone else. Like with everything else she does, Andrews’ performance is enough to put you in a good mood from her happy delivery and even whistles a bit. Andrews furthers proves just what a great talent she was during her peak. Richard Burton clearly shows that he’s not much of a singer instead performing his parts in the old-time speak-sing delivery. But the songs in Camelot just don’t have that same memorability that was present in My Fair Lady. Musically, it has the same Broadway touch as My Fair Lady but this time reflects the more medieval setting of Camelot. It’s perfectly well made but nothing striking either. I may not be big on My Fair Lady but I can at least hum some of the tunes. Not so for Camelot.
Nowadays, Camelot is remembered less for its actual content than for the legacy it represents for its time period. First Lady Jackie Kennedy was the one who initiated the Camelot myth while talking to Life Magazine only a week after her husband’s assassination. Kennedy noted that her husband was a big fan of Camelot often listening to its soundtrack before bed. JFK also had a personal connection to Camelot as he and Lerner were classmates together at Harvard University. In the interview, Kennedy noted that her husband liked hearing the lines, “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief, shining moment/That was known as Camelot.” Kennedy commented further that there wouldn’t be another Camelot.
It was those remarks that led to Camelot being used as a symbol for the youthful hope, optimism, and glamor that JFK and his presidency represented to early ‘60s America before his assassination shattered all that. In a way, the association of Camelot with JFK has been among the many big reasons as to why JFK remains one of America’s most beloved and overly-romanticized presidents. Much of my exposure to Camelot has not been towards the musical but because of all the historical pieces that use Camelot as this shorthand for JFK, his family, and his presidency.
Now, I highly doubt Americans who bought into Camelot and its soundtrack were thinking about JFK. The whole Camelot myth did not exist yet. From my research, it seemed like people just liked hearing the music of Camelot and the cast’s performance on the Ed Sullivan Show immediately made people want to see the show and/or own the soundtrack. And like with most follow-ups, familiarity is what must have resonated with most American record buyers in 1961 regarding Camelot. It gave them more of the same and a reassuring presence seeing Julie Andrews and being whisked away to an older period centered in Great Britain.
Camelot would wind up running for over two years and over 800 performances. In 1967, Warner Bros. released the film adaptation of Camelot with Richard Harris, the future “MacArthur Park” and Harry Potter star, in the lead role of King Arthur. As with most musical film adaptations, some songs and scenes were cut or moved around to spruce it up for Hollywood. The movie did decently well but not a blockbuster and critical reception was mixed. Like all musicals, Camelot continues to live on through occasional revivals and tours.
Despite the success of Camelot, Frederick Loewe went ahead with his plan and split from Lerner and went solo as did Lerner. Lerner and Loewe would only work together a scant couple times after Camelot with their last work being the 1974 musical film The Little Prince which was panned upon release. Lerner died of lung cancer in 1986 at the age of 67 while Loewe died of cardiac arrest in 1988 at the age of 86.
Next time: The magic of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim shines through West Side Story, the film whose soundtrack was massive enough to be the best-selling album for two years in a row