So you want to get a copy of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s classic Broadway musical Camelot on CD and don’t no where to begin? Well, I’d like to tell you to look no further, but things are not as simple as that.
The show has several recordings: some are cast recordings from productions around the world; others feature studio casts put together for the sake of creating an album. Internet searches will reveal that up to 25 different recordings of the show exist, but the field is whittled down considerably when one takes a look only at those that are available on CD. This leaves us with a selection of 3 recordings: the 1960 Original Broadway Cast Recording, the 1967 Film Soundtrack and the 1982 London Cast Recording.
Even with that limited selection there is no clear forerunner. Revisions to the score over time mean that one of the two latter recordings is essential, but the Original Broadway Cast recording offers a more rounded cast and some numbers that are essential to the score that for reasons only known to Lerner had disappeared by the time of the 1982 production in London and its equivalent Broadway production.
Perhaps the best place to start is with performances. When it comes to Arthurs, it seems that personal preference comes into play quite strongly. Richard Burton (1960) offers an understated, but moving performance: by turns boyish and mature, playing Arthur as both the person he might have been and the king he became, he transforms the into something approximating a tragic hero of Shakespearean proportions. Richard Harris appears on both other recordings and delivers a performance that is more busy vocally in terms of how he “indicates” what Burton makes appear natural. It’s clear then whom I prefer, but if you’re going for Harris, go for the earlier recording. When one can listen to his performance there free of the visuals of his ridiculously overstated make-up, an Arthur emerges that is credible. In the 1982 recording, the interpretation is still clear, but the voice is tired on the edges and he sounds more like Arthur’s grandfather on his wedding night than the boy himself.
Three Gueneveres appear across the three recordings. Perhaps it is easiest to write off Fiona Fullerton (1982) right at the outset: she simply doesn’t cut it in terms of vocals or insofar as her interpretation of the role is concerned. Let me put it this way: her Guenevere sounds as it it is being played by Dulcie in a production of the show at Madame Dubonnet’s School for Young Ladies. Julie Andrews (1960) gives us the songs as they were meant to be sung: girlish, but not cloyingly coy, at first – her dry wit saves us from any missteps here – with a quiet maturity characterising the songs in the second act. Vanessa Redgrave (1967) acts the role beautifully, but doesn’t have the vocal range to carry off what the score demands. So again, while the Original Cast Recording is essential here, the film trumps the revival in terms of giving us a compelling Guenevere.
The best Lancelot is easy to pick: Robert Goulet of the original cast, in his first Broadway role, sounds like the godly hero that Lerner and Loewe created – for better of worse – for their version of the Arthurian legends. Franco Nero stole many a heart in his film performance, but there’s something about his performance that seems unduly comical to me. I can’t figure it out, but this is a case where I do prefer the London revival’s Robert Meadmore to his film counterpart.
Mordred’s song (“The Seven Deadly Virtues”) is cut from the film and the role seems to be interpreted very differently in the other two recordings. Roddy McDowall is sinuous and scheming, while Michael Howe brings a more carefree feel to the role – he’s more of a man’s man than an intellectual. That’s all very well, and the song plays all right on its own, but it doesn’t make for a great enough contrast between Mordred and, respectively, Arthur and Lancelot.
With the main performances considered, the differences between the scores is another factor that complicates choosing one recording over another. The Original Cast Recording gives a fairly good overview of the score as it stood back then, with only “The Jousts” missing completely. Other numbers are truncated, but it is “Guenevere” and the “Finale” that suffer the most from cuts. Sometimes the tempos seem a little fast, particularly ballads such as “I Loved You Once in Silence”, but this perhaps allowed for as much material to be included onto the record as possible.
The two latter recordings offer Lerner’s revised version of the show, the primary strength of which is the inclusion of a prologue that goes a long way toward focusing the score, especially as an audio experience. Other numbers are cut, as mentioned above in regard to “The Seven Deadly Virtues”, which goes missing in the film, as well as – unforgivably – “Take Me to the Fair”, which disappears from the revival.
So what’s the verdict here? One really needs two recordings. For me, the 1960 recording is indispensable and the 1967 film soundtrack trumps the 1982 revival overall, although that recording is not without its virtues. So get them in chronological order; that would be my advice – at least until we get a completely definitive version of the show with a cast that gives us the best of all of the performers showcased across the albums we have available to us at this point in time.