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UNSYNCHRONIZED PASSIONS: A BLOG

I Spent the Pandemic Writing a Novel about Broadway's CAMELOT

Richard Burton as King Arthur. Photo by Friedman-Abeles. 

Part One: The Saving Grace of Quarantine

 

As life came to a halt in March 2020 and all of us quarantined to avoid the pandemic, I finished the revision of my first historical novel, LITTLE SURE SHOT IN THE WILD WEST. My book spotlights the sharpshooting brilliance of Annie Oakley and her conflict with her boss, William F. Cody, the mercurial star of Buffalo Bill's Wild West. I am currently submitting to agents.  

 

After several years of writing about Annie and Bill, I felt sad as I bid farewell to these feisty protagonists. During an earlier six-month break from this pair, however, I began drafting a new novel, a romantic comedy about a young couple who fall in love during the chaotic out-of-town tryouts of Broadway's Camelot. And when I reread the opening pages in April of 2020, I felt inspired to keep going. Last month when I finished A FLEETING WISP OF GLORY, my family and friends were vaccinated and looking forward to socializing—even traveling—again. Yet I had kept myself so busy with my new book, I hadn't minded being confined at home. Ironically, researching and writing about Camelot was the saving grace of an otherwise stressful year.

 

During my ongoing research, I learned that Camelot was meant to be a follow-up to the phenomenally successful My Fair Lady, also created by Alan Jay Lerner (librettist/lyricist), Frederick Loewe (composer), and Moss Hart (director). Instead, Camelot, adapted from T.H. White's novel, The Once and Future King, was a train wreck that nearly closed before it returned to New York. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, from the day its costume designer Adrian dropped dead a full year before rehearsals began. Yet with Richard Burton as King Arthur, Julie Andrews as Guenevere, Robert Goulet as Lancelot, and Roddy McDowall as Arthur's son Mordred, the producers believed they could overcome any problem they might face on the road.

 

They were wrong. Two days after Camelot debuted at the O'Keefe Centre in Toronto (October 1, 1960), Alan Lerner was hospitalized with bleeding ulcers. Moss Hart, battling flu, held the cast together, but on October 15, 1960, as Lerner was leaving Wellesley Hospital, Hart was being wheeled into the very room Lerner had vacated. The director had suffered his second heart attack and was unsure when he could return, thus leaving a sinking ship without a captain. I say "sinking" because the show was running three-hours-and-thirty minutes, and one Toronto wag had dubbed it "Gotterdammerung without laughs." Yet nobody on the production team was laughing. Indeed, Lerner and Loewe fell out when Hart asked Lerner not to hire a replacement. (Sadly, the famous duo never created a new show for Broadway again.)

 

Camelot, fueled by the noble ideals of the Round Table, was a unique musical of ideas. The other musical comedies of its era eschewed the thorny subject of infidelity, whereas King Arthur's queen Guenevere fell in love with his best friend Lancelot. To keep the company afloat while pruning his ungainly book, Alan Lerner imported a "secret" director, Philip Burton, who was Richard Burton's adoptive father. Camelot survived poor Toronto and Boston reviews to open on Broadway (December 3, 1960) to more lackluster reviews. Yet the show gradually became a success, another improbable chapter in its history that its creators called "The March Miracle."

 

I narrate my novel through the eyes of Jane Conroy, an eager "Gal Friday" to the producers, and Bryce Christmas, a gifted baritone who plays a knight. The couple fall in love in Toronto and face professional and personal obstacles. But will their relationship survive? Will their fledgling careers flourish? (Jane is an anomaly in her generation, a young woman pining for a vocation instead of marriage and family.)

 

I can't wait to share my novel with readers! Luminaries such as Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, Roddy McDowall, Robert Goulet, Alan Lerner, Fritz Loewe, Moss Hart, and Kitty Carlisle Hart interact with Jane, Bryce, and other fictional characters in a Broadway saga that is witty, surprising, and, with luck, touching. I hope the book mixes elements of My Favorite Year (the film) with Elizabeth Gilbert's 2019 backstage novel CITY OF GIRLS.

 

Part Two: Why Camelot?

 

When I was eleven, my parents bought their first console stereo, and my mother joined the Columbia Record Club. The first "free" shipment changed my world. My mom had ordered the original cast albums of Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady and Camelot and Rodgers & Hammerstein's The Sound of Music. When I heard all those glorious show tunes sung by Julie Andrews (My Fair Lady and Camelot), Richard Burton, Robert Goulet, Bruce Yarnell (Camelot), and Mary Martin (Sound of Music), I felt I'd come home to myself. I longed to visit Manhattan, three hours by car from our home in Cohoes, New York, and see those musicals, all still running.

 

But I couldn't get there, so I sang along with the albums, discovering I had a light soprano voice. I also studied the production photos and liner notes, trying to guess the plots. Then in October 1963, my mother took me to see Camelot's touring production at Proctor's Theatre in Schenectady. It was one of the signal moments of my youth, since the show was just as magical as I'd imagined. I admired Arthur's new moral order and his commitment to "might for right." And I adored the ill-fated romance at its heart and the triumph of hope at the end. (Little did anyone dream that one month later, President Kennedy would die in Dallas and Mrs. Kennedy would tell the world in Time that Camelot should be the symbol of JFK's administration.)

 

By 1974, as Susan Kindlund, I'd launched a career as a theatre publicist. That summer at Goodspeed Opera House I worked with John Cullum who'd made his Broadway debut as Sir Dinadan in Camelot and understudied Richard Burton. Mr. Cullum, then starring in Shenandoah, was a witty raconteur who told me his Camelot stories, and my interest grew.  

 

My next job was heading publicity for a regional theater, Syracuse Stage, and after years of taking voice lessons I won the role of Guenevere in a 1978 Syracuse production of Camelot. Our director borrowed the original Broadway sets, and as I stood on the rickety "Joust" platform, formerly trod by Julie Andrews, my idol, I got goosebumps. I somehow knew Camelot would play a part in my future, an instinct that grew stronger after I saw Richard Burton in the 1980 Lincoln Center revival. Mr. Burton was an older and wiser, but utterly riveting Arthur; so was Richard Harris whom I saw in a 1982 touring version in Washington, D.C.

 

I began to collect Camelot playbills and production photos. I read biographies and memoirs of everyone connected to the original production. I wrote a Huff Post article about the show's fiftieth anniversary in 2010 for which I spent two thrilling hours on the phone grilling Alan Lerner's right arm, Stone "Bud" Widney. Mr. Widney filled in the gaps in my knowledge.

 

Writing, rather than PR, became my main focus, and in 2012 I published my first backstage novel, The Voice I Just Heard. I also wrote a 2013 article for Classical Singer about Camelot's original Sir Lionel, the late Bruce Yarnell, a dazzling baritone who had a brief but memorable Broadway career. I spoke by phone with Yarnell's Camelot understudy, Jack Dabdoub, and while I couldn't use Mr. Dabdoub's anecdote in Classical Singer, I adapted his hilarious story of Yarnell's conflict with Burton for my novel. 

 

Having finished A FLEETING WISP OF GLORY, I'm more in love with Camelot than ever. I finally know that if Alan Jay Lerner had been less resilient, the show would've closed out-of-town and been lost to the ages. And since Lerner felt he'd penned an ideal version of the book for Burton's 1980 revival, drawing upon his script for the 1967 film, I think it's time for a full-scale Broadway revival as Camelot heads toward its 65th anniversary in 2025.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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