Book Review: FROM CAMELOT TO SPAMALOT: Musical Retellings of Arthurian Legend on Stage and Screen (Megan Woller)

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by Vaughan Edwards on June 19, 2021

in Books,Film

ART FOR ARTHUR’S SAKE

It all started in 1485. In Le Morte d’Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory gathered the tales of King Arthur and his knights into a single work for the first time. As luck would have it, this coincided with the invention of the printing press, making Malory’s book one of the first ever bestsellers; if airplanes had existed in 1485, passengers would have been reading Le Morte d’Arthur. Since then, such wildly disparate adaptors and borrowers as John Steinbeck, Walker Percy, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson have given us their personal take on this apparently inexhaustible myth. And that’s not counting over a hundred film adaptations and spin-offs.

In From Camelot to Spamalot, Megan Woller has restricted herself to the half-dozen or so musical stage and film adaptations of the legend. Surprisingly for such a popular subject, King Arthur and the Broadway musical have only crossed swords three times. Each of these shows, all hits, are typical of their time, the only ties that bind them being their Arthurian roots. This tenuous connection enables Woller to compare and contrast three very different works and the cultural milieu in which they originated.

The first work under discussion, Rodgers and Hart’s A Connecticut Yankee, premiered on Broadway in 1927. Unusually for a musical of that time, it was based on a bona fide literary source, Mark Twain’s 1889 novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

Broadway musicals of the twenties were written only for New Yorkers; if there was a tourist trade it didn’t have much impact on Broadway. Shows were considered ephemeral, ran for a season and were quickly forgotten, except for any song hits which might have emerged. Clocking up over 400 performances, A Connecticut Yankee was a bigger hit than most, and produced two standards, “Thou Swell” and “My Heart Stood Still”. But, aside from a 1943 Broadway revival and a 2001 concert performance, A Connecticut Yankee is as lost in the mists of time as King Arthur himself. Woller’s title, Camelot to Spamalot, reinforces the idea that the show is the red-headed step-child in this family, not even making it into the book’s title. She describes it as “arguably the least enduring of the musicals listed here” — a statement few would argue with.

Woller next embarks on a lengthy appraisal of the 1949 Bing Crosby vehicle A Connecticut Yankee, giving the film a lot more attention than it probably deserves. Bing Crosby’s particular brand of middle-American charm hasn’t weathered well, and his laid-back vocal style has long been eclipsed by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Harry Connick Jr. Today, Crosby is most affectionately remembered as a foil to Bob Hope’s inspired clowning in Paramount’s series of Road pictures, which coincidentally anticipate Monty Python’s anarchic style.

Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot is a far more deserving subject for detailed analysis. While the Rodgers and Hart show and Crosby film use Twain’s novel simply as a jumping-off point for musical comedy high jinks, Camelot is a genuine attempt to give the legend a contemporary (1960) relevance. At over 600 pages, T. H. White’s novel The Once and Future King (1958) is an unwieldy source for a musical, and the general consensus is that Alan J. Lerner never quite solved the problem, as major revisions in subsequent revivals attest. Also, Camelot came only four years after its authors’ hugely successful My Fair Lady and has never quite emerged from the shadow of that show.

As with A Connecticut Yankee, Camelot is very much a product of its time. A sumptuous piece based on a respectable literary source, with a lush, almost operatic score, it’s the quintessential Golden Age of Broadway musical. It is also inextricably linked in the public consciousness with the unfulfilled promise of the Kennedy administration; Kennedy had Camelot just as Eisenhower had Call Me Madam. (The Trump administration didn’t have a musical, though the ill-fated Carrie might have fit the bill.) Yet despite its flaws, Camelot has earned a place in the musical-theatre pantheon. In retrospect it was a kind of precursor to the bombastic British imports of the eighties and nineties.

By 1967 and the inevitable filming of Camelot the sixties were in full swing, and the show was tailored to fit the times: Arthur and Guinevere emerge as a sort of hippy-dippy flower-child couple. The film was one of an avalanche of musical adaptations spawned by the surprise hit of The Sound of Music. Hollywood’s moguls decided that mega-musicals were the next Big Thing, and in almost every case they were proved wrong. Camelot was just one of a dozen slow-moving behemoths to hit the big screen in the mid to late sixties.

Justification for inclusion of the less-than-inspired film The Sword in the Stone (1963) here is debatable. It’s not really a musical and is based on a T. H. White novel outside the accepted canon of Arthuriana. It was also released in a particularly uninspired period for Disney animated features. But clearly a completist, Woller gives it her all, treating us to a full-blown analysis of the Sherman brothers’ songs, none of which has the charm and wit of their subsequent work on Mary Poppins.

Fortunately, Woller next moves into far more rewarding territory. Her account of Monty Python and the Holy Grail‘s evolution from cult movie to Broadway hit is by far the most interesting section of the book. The Monty Python team was already an international phenomenon by the time their first film was released in 1975. Its irreverent take on the legend proved irresistible and the film remains a comedy classic. By 2005 Monty Python’s fan base had reached theatre-going age, creating a built-in audience of baby boomers, and the show was a huge hit on several continents.

By the time Spamalot hit the stage, the British Invasion of Broadway was running out of steam. After two decades of pitiful paupers, crashing chandeliers and hovering helicopters, theatregoers were ready for some fun. The theatrical wheel had turned full circle since A Connecticut Yankee and musical comedy was back in style. Eric Idle made a telling remark in an interview at the time of Spamalot‘s opening. He explained that the Arthurian legend offered opportunities for a “mock-heroic pastiche of Wagnerian grandeur”, a phrase which echoes Noël Coward’s dismissal of Camelot as “like Parsifal but not nearly so funny”, and nothing could be further from the stately Camelot than Spamalot.

Woller’s scholarship and her enthusiasm for her material are undeniable, but for a study of essentially light-hearted subject-matter, her prose frequently lapses into a dry academic style. She also has a distressing tendency to repeat herself, telling us what she’s going to tell us in such phrases as “as I will discuss later in this chapter”, then all too often telling us again what she just told us. And as so often in dissertations disguised as books, we are bombarded with multi-syllabic words like “intertextualised”, “heteronormal” and “palimpsestuous”, causing Spell Check to light up like a theatre marquee. Someone should remind the editors at Oxford University Press that such words don’t exist in real life.

But setting the above reservations aside, Camelot to Spamalot sheds a fascinating light on the many ways in which a century of popular culture has responded to one of the most enduring of all stories.

From Camelot to Spamalot: Musical Retellings of Arthurian Legend on Stage and Screen
Megan Woller
Oxford University Press
paperback | published April 2, 2021 | 248 Pages | 6 1/8 x 9 1/4 inches| ISBN: 9780197511039
also available as Hardcover and Ebook

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