Wilson Jermaine Heredia as Lancelot.
Unlike most productions of Camelot, these fights take place on stage.
First, it was the Batman movies. Then, it was James Bond and Star Trek. Even Scooby-Doo recently had a grim and gritty reboot. Our culture seems to have a boundless appetite for dark re-imaginings of popular stories. And just when you thought the trend couldn't go any further, the San Francisco Playhouse presents its version of the classic musical Camelot. The original is as much an artifact of Kennedy-era optimism as the space program. It starred Robert Goulet and Julie Andrews. Your parents (maybe even grandparents?) probably had the soundtrack on LP. But the points of reference for this version aren't paladins and princesses. Nope. Think more along the lines of Game of Thrones.
The production is rubbing in dirt in every place it can find. The set designer has swapped a gleaming palace for a ruined castle. Battles that are usually handled off-stage happen right in front of the audience. They are even bringing back two songs ("Take Me To The Fair" and "Fie on Goodness") that were cut from the original production for being too grim.
What happened to the show-biz magic? Where's the razzle-dazzle? The flim flam? Is this show another symptom of our cultural disdain for the frivolous, the fantastical, the downright fun?
To find out, I sat down for back-to-back interviews with the director of the show, Bill English, and one of its star, Wilson Jermaine Heredia. We talked at the theater just before they began their rehearsal. Musicians were warming up in the lobby. Members of the cast were mumbling their lines to themselves. Production people scurried around everywhere.
"The musical was Disneyfied," English says to me as we sit on a battered couch in a side office. That's not the tone that he wants for the show. "It's an ugly world, this Camelot."
Is there truth in ugliness? English thinks that there often can be, and we spend the rest of the interview unpacking that proposition. "The actual story is very dark," he says, outlining a saga that's more soap opera than it is Saturday morning cartoon. There's infanticide. Murder. A love triangle. Dark magic. Plenty of blood. "These are not knights in shining armor," he says. "These are thugs who rape and kill for the King."
Interestingly, English doesn't see this tone as a departure from the original intent. Rather, he thinks that he is restoring the initial vision. "Those were the impulses that they had from the very get-go. But they had Julie Andrews. In those days musicals were glossy and shiny. You went to Broadway to be entertained." Turns out that when English was in New York City negotiating for the rights to a reboot, he met with one of the original producers, now in his eighties. "You're on to something, son," he told English. "That's the way we wanted it, but we had to cave to Broadway."
The cast features someone who knows a little something about dark musicals. Heredia, who plays Lancelot in his Bay Area Theater debut, won a Tony for his role as Angel Dumot Schunard in the original production of Rent. In person, he has energy of a man on his fifth shot of espresso. He breaks into song several times during our conversation—only some of them actually from Camelot. He's quoting from books and Zen koans with the same felicity he reels off his lines. I like the guy.
He makes a similar argument to English's. "When I first read the script," he says, "I saw the rawness." The glossy version, Heredia thinks, isn't as accurate.
But why so dark? What's the gain? English and Heredia both independently argue that it isn't simply to grind the audience down with unalloyed nihilism. Rather, it throws Arthur's idealism into greater contrast. "We created this barbaric environment to better show the difference." English says. "This is basically one of the first Western democracies."
The show tries to trade on a set of contrasts. Body or soul. Power or justice. Paganism or Christianity. Heredia doesn't simply want to argue for one over the other though. "The danger of idealism is that there are always sacrifices. Ideas make you feel you are doing the right things, without always giving you a mechanism to distinguish right from wrong."
Heredia and I could probably keep talking for another hour, but he's pulled away to do a costume fitting. When he leaves, I slip back into the theater to watch the rehearsal. Three actors practice jumping on and off of a low stone wall. It's much harder than you would think. Heredia comes back, now dressed in character as Lancelot. He has a shining armor breastplate and a sword. I think he looks two inches taller than when he left me, and his face is still now, and powerful. Nobody else seems to notice him until he strides to front and sings out "Camelot! Camelot! Camelot!" Applause and cheers break out. There's just enough gloss that we believe him.
Camelot runs at SF Playhouse (450 Post near Powell) from July 16 to September 21. Find out more here.