For Art’s Sake — and Guenevere’s, Too

It's not so much a question of "What Do the Simple Folk Do?" as to what they're doing differently.

And these people are not so simple either: Michael and Liza Lerner, children of Alan Jay Lerner who, with Frederick Loewe, were the kin Arthur, Lancelot and Guenevere kept in the musical theater world as composers of "Camelot," have taken the 1960 show of daring and derring-do and rederringly redone it.

I wonder what the king is … thinking … tonight? He should be pleased since the new incarnation of the classic tale of King Arthur and his Round Table squares with much of what the original creators had intended to do.

Opening at the Merriam Theater on Tuesday, June 5, with Michael York in the crowning role once worn by Richard Burton, "Camelot" has come a long way, through thick and thin, over the years to claim its own fiefdom of fame.

Just ask the Kennedys.

Or, ask Michael Lerner, an acclaimed writer and war correspondent on his own who risked the Battle of the Boos for taking on his father's revered material with a pen for a sword and ardor for armor.

"It wasn't just the length that had been a problem," says Lerner of a musical which had jousted with just about every patrons' patience as it ran on and on and …

But it was also the "likability" quotient of Lancelot and Guenevere, the illicit lovers whose crossbow kisses were at cross-purposes with the musical's mien. "They were so unlikeable at the beginning of Act II that something needed to be addressed," says Lerner.

It also meant staying on the street where his father lived; not tampering or toying but keeping the royal residence intact.

"It was all an attempt to honor his work," says the son of the legendary Jewish lyricist, "to make it the best it could be. This wasn't about my ego but about what was best for the show."

Best in show is where "Camelot" places in many a musical minion's mind. And if "If Ever I Would Leave You" still leaves audiences breathless, why tamper with timing?

Such a Shining Spot
But, ironically, the more things change, the more they — resemble what Lerner, who wrote the book and lyrics, had wanted originally. A check with some past original orchestrations — before being moved about during original previews and staging — bore out his son's sense of what made "Camelot" such a shining spot.

He was spot-on: But then when you're growing up in a household ruled by idylls of the king and his fair lady, bringing "Camelot" back to the stage is like putting a dear old friend back on his horse for the ride of his life.

One need not take a gallop poll to see why this luxurious musical holds sway today, its political idealism a welcomed music of the knight.

"It was political idealism that motivated my father to write it," says his son. "It was all about America. And whether you're a Republican or Democrat, we all need to feel the importance of such ideals," especially at a time like now, "when a lot of the ideals in this country are called into question."

Unquestionably, it would be easy to play up the musical's pertinence. "As a matter of fact," says Lerner, tongue pushed far into his cheek, "we were tempted to insert a rap song about Guantánamo Bay."

Is that hard-core "Camelot" fans you hear baying at the moon? Relax — it is all a joke told tenderly by a son who knows that a rapping Mordred is as dreaded a conceit as possible.

This knight errant would see the error of such ways. So would his sister in what is an unusual family act — he's adapting; she's co-producing — made even more unorthodox since their dad was married eight times.

Adapting? He's grown accustomed to her phase, says Michael of working with his sister in her role as co-producer. The family that plays together …

If show tunes always showed up at family gatherings, Michael Lerner's more private moments were reserved for those songs that rocked his world, says the big fan of Elvis Costello.

But he always appreciated the music that had theater fans feeling they could dance all night with a lithe Eliza or ponder the kingdom of Camelot with the artful King Arthur. Or, for that matter, paint their wagon as those wagons went westward ho.

There was a rhyme and reason to his father's fiefdom, says Michael. "I had an appreciation of my dad as not a lyricist but as a poet," he says of the perfectionist who found the world in his words.

But it was a different world the son pursued. "I felt like I needed to establish my own identity," which he found in the theater of war, covering the Mideast as a journalist for Time and penning the movie "Deadlines," "which has parallels to today's Iraq."

The Mideast mess as a musical? Maybe not, but Lerner certainly has designs on delivering something significant to the stage. "I really long to do something in theater," he says of the medium he adores.

After all, it was a constant companion as he grew up the son of a leading man of lyricists who "never," says Michael Lerner proudly, "was at a loss for words."


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