Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The King, The Knight and the Queen

Today's Notes from the Ivory Tower are being pulled from Arthurian Legends and Musical Theatre. That's right folks: we're talking Camelot!

Let's start with His Royal Highness, King Arthur. Arthur is the original Good Guy; given a chaotic England, rapacious knights running rampant and a reluctant queen, he comes up with an order of Knights whose catchphrase is "Might For Right". And were it not for a little incestuous nookie, and a too-good-to-be-true-except-for-the-whole-banged-his-best-friend's-wife-thing Knight, that could have been epic for all time. Arthur's role in musical theatre was originated by the wonderful Richard Burton, and was played twice by Richard Harris.

"Avalon? Please. Hogwarts is where it's AT."

For the Richard Burton Fans out there, here is the man himself, singing 'Camelot':
Richard Harris gave two very different performances of this song. One was in the 1960's movie version, which is absolutely a seduction of Vanessa Redgrave. This is a king looking for a queen, and he is willing to use the sheer awesomeness of his lands to get her. The second Harris performance was a 1980's stage version. Twenty years changes the performance significantly. The more mature Arthur is expressing a joy absent of base sexuality when describing Camelot to Guenevere. So the older Arthur is a more childish portrayal, and the younger Arthur is more politically minded, so to speak.
The 1960's Version
His entire manner is just SCREAMING about how awesome he is, and by extension, how awesome he's made Camelot. Right down to the weather...
The 1980's Version
Ok, yes, this is the entirety of Act I. Enjoy.
Essentially, we see three different King Arthurs. His Lancelots have been just as varied, however.
The role was originated on Broadway by Robert Goulet, and the song that made his musical career is a phenomenal little number called 'If Ever I would Leave You'. This song is essentially his love letter to Guenevere, comparing her in each season and concluding that there isn't a season where she is ever unattractive enough to leave, despite her being another man's wife. Now, courtly love made the worship of the queen by the king's knights almost a requirement; they could even hang out naked together, provided it was "courtly" (read: not sexual, although kissing was apparently also allowed). Learner and Lowe, depending on the cut of the script, can either declare the Lancelot-Guenevere relationship as chaste, sexual, or ambiguous, but however you cut the script, this particular song leaves the audience in no confusion about Lancelot's passion for Guenevere.
First, we have the original Robert Goulet:
Just for funsies, let's look at some of Lancelot's other numbers, as performed by other actors.
First of all, we have 'C'est Moi', Lancelot's opening number, alternatively titled 'Look How Awesome I Am'. In 2008, Nathan Gunn sang Lancelot in a staged performance of Camelot with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The music is phenomenal, as one would expect from a world-class orchestra, but Gunn manages to bring the funny by playing up the comedy in a song that other actors have taken so seriously that the audience can't take the character seriously. By hamming it up, Gunn invites the audience to laugh with Lancelot, as opposed to laughing at him.
Sam, darling, this one's for you.
Alternatively, we have Actor Franco Nero in the 1960's film version of "Camelot", also singing 'C'est Moi'.
Could the man be taking this more seriously? The 1982 film version of Camelot saw Richard Muenez as Lancelot, and he follows the Nero vein as far as performing 'C'est Moi' goes. You can see his performance in the very long clip above.
Now we get to the object of these two men's affections: Guenevere.
Guenevere is a problematic character; in the Arthurian canon, she is painted as everything from 'token woman' to 'demonic whore who turned down the best man ever and caused the fall of Camelot'. How she is portrayed is greatly dependent on how the author wants to portray Lancelot. It is very hard to be sympathetic to Lancelot (or the concurrent and phenomenally beautiful Tristan) without also painting Guenevere in a light that is, at least, not slightly neutral. In the very earliest Arthur stories, Guenevere has nothing to do with the fall of Camelot; she has no illicit relationship with Lancelot. The French Arthurian legends are the first ones to mention the adulterous affair, and then it spread like wildfire, and another woman was demonized.
The role was originated by the lovely Julie Andrews, and we'll be listening to her rendition of 'Before I Gaze at You Again'.
Julie Andrews was not the only actress to sing Guenevere. Vanessa Redgrave performed with Richard Harris, and Marin Mazzie sang with Nathan Gunn. Unfortunately, not a lot of clips of the Marin Mazzie performance exist, so the next clip is of Mazzie and Gunn, in the scene where Lancelot and Guenevere get caught.
For the Vanessa Redgrave example, we'll be looking at her sing 'The Lusty Month of May'.
Obviously, Redgrave was not chosen because she can sing.
And there you have the King, the Knight and the Queen.
Obviously there are other characters in Camelot, and the two Honorable Mention numbers are as follows:
1. Mordred, Arthur's son with his sister Morgause, sings 'The Seven Deadly Virtues'
2. The Final Ultimo, as sung by Richard Harris (1969)
A NY Times review of the Marin Mazzie Camelot is linked here.
Hopefully you've enjoyed these Notes from the Ivory Tower! We'll be back next time with another fun topic.

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