A bit of history. I believe the tale is worth it.
Back in around 1980, I made one of the more stupid theater-going decisions of my life, probably the most. There was a revival of the Lerner & Loewe musical Camelot being put together to tour the country and end up on Broadway, and it was attracting tremendous attention because Richard Burton would be re-creating his legendary starring role in the show. The show announced it was playing in Los Angeles, and tickets went on sale. A friend bought them early, and for reasons to this day I don't quite understand, I didn't. Hence, the "most stupid" part.
For some reason, I decided to wait. This was idiotic for many reasons, but near the top of the list was that clearly the limited run could easily have been sold out. So...wait??? To be clear, being sold out didn't end up being the problem. But that doesn't make the delay any more pathetic. That's because a few weeks into the run...RIchard Burton's chronic back problem got so bad he had to drop out of the show.
The official response to this is "Aaaggghhh!!!"
I likely wouldn't have gone to the show regardless of the replacement, though I suppose there could have been someone who'd have intrigued me. But who they got -- while understandable and one that made great business sense -- was Richard Harris. The problem for me though was that I not only had of course already seen him in the film, but I hated his performance, drunk whispering his way through the film. So, I didn't go -- not just not seeing Richard Burton, but not the show either.
(The production was a huge success with Harris and went to Broadway where they even videotaped it for television. I did watch it, and he did a better job than in the film -- sober and not whispering. But it was galling to watch: we already had Richard Harris recorded on film in the role. And by all rights, this should have been Richard Burton, having his classic portrayal saved on tape for posterity. But we don't. Instead we have Richard Harris the sequel.
I've tried for years to find video of Richard Burton in Camelot, most especially singing the title song. There's some footage of him in a TV special, which I've posted here. But he doesn't sing the title song. He did sing it once on the Tony Awards, when he was brought back as part of a retrospective theme -- and it was nice to see, but he was there in a tuxedo, and it's not quite the same thing as in performance. More to the point, I haven't been able to find it A year or so ago, I did find some new footage that had him singing the song -- it was for some special event...and he was clearly lip-syncing. So, that wasn't worth it. But I live in hope.
I hit the mother lode.
I said at the beginning that this was worth it. I was being subtle, which doesn't do justice to the concept of being subtle.
A couple of weeks ago, I just discovered this video, and I can't believe it exists. It's not Richard Burton singing the title song of Camelot in performance -- it's the ENTIRE 1980 revival of Camelot with Richard Burton!!!
(Nice, too, is that 'Queen Guinivere' is played by Tony winner-Christine Ebersole, who I wrote about recently seeing her at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in the musical War Paint -- and who went to my high schoo, New Trier in Winnetka, Illinois. But as admittedly nice as that is...it's obviously not the point here.)
As a rule I do not remotely approve of such bootleg videos. But we live in a world of exceptions. And when something has historic value that would otherwise be lost to history, then I'm glad it exists.
The quality of the video recording isn’t great, but if one knows the show, it’s fine and easy-enough to follow for such a treasure. The image is fairly static and a bit distant, and occasionally moves off, but it's clear and not fuzzy, and definitely watchable. The sound is thin, and you can’t pick up every word (which is why it helps knowing the show, though not essential), but you can hear most and follow it.
But best of all are the songs. I haven't watched the whole thing yet – but if you only check out the first 23 minutes you'll Burton sing, “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight,” Ebersole perform “Where are the Simple Joys of Maidenhood?” and…of course, there it is -- the title song, “Camelot.” To see Richard Burton sing it in an actual production is just a joyous treat.
If you don't watch the entire video, at least check out those three. But it's easy, too, to jump forward and find the other songs, if that's all you want to see. But at the very least, watch Burton sing the title song, which starts around the 14:55 mark.
A couple other sequences of note worth jumping to. One comes at the 27:20 mark -- that's where Burton has what is basically a five-minute monologue with Guinivere coming up with the idea for the Knights of the Round Table.
Then, a few seconds before the 1:03 mark, Burston sings "How to Handle a Woman" -- particularly worthwhile because it includes the extended introduction verse that isn't on the original Broadway cast album, and also has the monologue in the middle which was cut from the album.
Finally, do jump to the end, at 2:06. That's when war is about to break down and King Arthur's dream of what Camelot could be is falling apart. And at that moment, he finds a young boy who has been hiding, and from that the despondent king finds hope. This includes Burton's famous performance of the reprise of the title song -- and my favorite part of the show, King Arthur's life-affirming cry of "Run, boy! Runnnn!!!!!" And then stick around for the curtain call.
There is an important caveat here. As incredible as it is to find this video, and as significant a historical document as this is in theater history -- remember what I said above about Burton dropping out of the show because of chronic back problems. It seems likely watching this video that these painful back problems have their impact, and as a result his performance is often more low-energy than one would wish. To be clear, some of it is vibrant. And interestingly he seems to pick up in energy as the show goes on. Just know that he did leave the production fairly early in its run for a very real reason. But know too that this really is a treasure to have, and much of it is quite wonderful.
Here is Camelot. Flaws and all, it's a gem to have. So, revel in theater history.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
Feedspot Badge of Honor