'Camelot' -- again In revival, musical is fresh, appealing

"Camelot" and King Arthur have swept back onto the American stage -- on a tour will take them from here to Wolftrap, Vienna, Va., then to Detroit, and finally Broadway.

Twenty years have passed since the songs and story from this Lerner and Loewe musical were last unpacked for a national, tour, but as with the Arthurian story itself, the freshness remains.

In all, it's a magnificent show, a successful attempt at the tricky business of representing the richness of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The exuberant cast and elaborate sets are further brightened by touches of humor as the legend-rich music and drama fill the stage and vast auditorium of the newly refurbished Metropolitan Center.

Part of the freshness is due to Richard Harris, from Ireland via England, who has starred in movies ranging from "Cromwell" to "Orca" to "This Sporting Life" (for which he won an Academy Award nomination).

Harris plays a high-minded Arthur who seeks to tame the warlike passions of his knights and to civilize their lives. At the same time, he sees absurdity in his own conduct as well as in theirs. Harris -- and Richard Muenz as Lancelot -- milk some of the early scenes beautifully, spoofing Lancelot's impossibly heroic character and Arthur's dependence on Merlyn the magician. A slight ennui sets in for the audience after Arthur implores Merlyn a few times too often to return and do his thinking for him.But in all it's a very appealing performance.

Harris took over as Arthur last May from Richard burton, who had returned to the role after pioneering it on Broadway 20 years ago. And Harris was Arthur in the 1967 movie version of "Camelot." Recently I asked him why he would want to repeat a role he had already done.

"It really wasn't like doing something again," Harris responded. "The movie came from a different place in my life. I attacked it as if it was something totally new. I felt that the Arthur I played in the movie dealth with tragedy too much. There was a slight self-pity in it. There was a sadness that he projected to the people around him. I think that a more mature approach would have been that he was so magnanimous that he never would have allowed it to have been seen."

Although Harris is no stranger to the stage, it's been a long time since he last appeared in a play. He found that having once played the role of King Arthur in the movie was little help in reintroduction to the boards.

"I only had eight or nine days to go in and take over," Harris remarked. "The movie proved a tremendous hindrance because when you learn something it sticks in your head.You really have to unlearn it and then learn it again because added stuff has been put in. In a movie you can do things in two lines where it takes you six or eight lines on a stage."

Harris, who first broke in on the London stage in "The Quare Fellow," has become somewhat cynical about Hollywood productions -- and in particular about the movie version of "Camelot."

"Hollywood's theory of making movies is to include certain formulas and ingredients to make them financially successful. In the movie version, Queen Guenevere's infidelity ruined the point of the film. The realm story is that Lancelot. King Arthur's best knight, and Guenevere do notm commit sin. The leading characters are wonderful people who sit upon their passions. And this is what we do in the play.

"And the movie really lacked humor. It needed a lightness at the beginning to balance the heavy drama of the last half of the play."

Harris's interpretation of Arthur also different from Richard Burton's. "Richard played Arthur as a king born to greatness . . . I play him more as a man with greatness thrust upon him and he can't deal with it."

For Harris, "The message is the thing. Audiences love its idealism, and they loved it when the play was so popular during the '60s." King Arthur is at the core of this idealism. As Harris describes him, "He didn't hold grudges, he understood the feelings of other people and he put them before his own. He dealt with problems in his own way but they didn't stop him from going forward."

Why are there so many revivals hitting the American stage, and not more new material?

"Things like Camelot are classics. New generations should see them every so often. There are people around who can write. But what worries me is . . . when writers like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller can only run on Broadway for a week or two weeks."

And what will the public see Harris doing in the future? He dislikes making plans, he says, but "I'd like to do Hamlet."

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