From roughly 1943 to 1960, the Broadway musical entered its Golden Age, a period of commercial success and aesthetic innovation that matched great theatrical leaps forward of prior centuries. And like the English drama of Elizabeth and James, the Spanish Golden Age of Ferdinand and Isabella, and French neoclassicism under Louis XIV, the coming-of-age of the Broadway musical walked hand in hand with America’s geopolitical rise as a global power.
From 1945–1955, individual wealth in America tripled (predominantly among white men). By the modern measure of gross domestic product, it was the greatest increase in per-capita income in the history of Western civilization. Soldiers returning home enrolled in college and bought houses in unprecedented numbers, creating a prosperous large middle-class. Babies boomed. Drawing on a progressive tax base, the war hero President Eisenhower built a transcontinental interstate, a “highway” from coast to coast that promised a bright future for every American with a car and a dream. In 1960, the youthful and handsome President Kennedy was elected with an inspiring message of public service, promising to advance the rights of man at home and around the world. As the great Woody Guthrie wrote in 1944, this land was made for you and me.
The Broadway musical matched these advances step for step, supplying a stylish vision of American life and an artistic sophistication all its own. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!(1943) codified the “book musical,” a fully integrated work of art in which every element (yes, even dream ballets) served the story. Songs emerged, seemingly miraculously, out of character and situation, allowing the drama to remain naturalistic while sublimely heightening emotions. Unlike earlier musicals exemplified by Cole Porter, witty wordplay and sexy spectacle were now subsumed within a dramaturgy, instead of rambling across a loosely plotted revue. Unlike 19th-century opera or the Victorian operetta of Gilbert and Sullivan, repetitive sung-through recitativewas jettisoned, allowing a new generation of fast-thinking and faster-talking book writers to flex the dialogue muscles they had gained while working in the screwball salt mines.
Put simply, there had never been anything quite like the Golden Age Broadway musical, and for a brief period it reigned supreme across American popular culture. Original cast LPs were the best-selling albums of the day. Songwriter-lyricist teams outfitted the American songbook with showtunes. And the Hollywood studio MGM, with classics such as The Wizard of Oz (1939), On the Town (1949) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952), used the movie musical as an instrument of international cultural propaganda, broadcasting iconic images of the American sublime around the world.
If others pioneered the form, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick “Fritz” Loewe arguably perfected the mid-century musical with their milestone My Fair Lady, which ran on Broadway for a then-record six years and 2,717 performances. There had been successful musicals before, but never an international, multi-year blockbuster like this. Its cast album was the bestselling album of 1956, and the production made, in all its various manifestations, the modern-day equivalent of over $8 billion dollars. Based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, it was equally successful in artistic terms. Native New Yorker Lerner transformed Shaw’s witty dialogue into equally cunning lyrics, while the Vienna-born Loewe’s melodies suffused American optimism with continental elegance. Keeping with the times, they changed the original play’s ending, refashioning Shaw’s class-conscious allegory into the stuff of archetypal romantic comedy. On Broadway in the late ’50s, happy endings confirmed American optimism as the natural state of existence.
Camelot was My Fair Lady’slong-gestating follow-up, employing the same creative team of Lerner, Loewe, director Moss Hart and Julie Andrews as Guenevere. As Lerner wrote, the first draft “took 21 months and 21,000 miles,” with the pair meeting for marathon writing sessions at Loewe’s home in Palm Springs, California, on vacation at the Palm Beach Casino in Cannes, and at Lerner’s home on Sands Point, Long Island. Over protracted tryouts in Toronto and Boston, Lerner developed a bleeding ulcer brought on by amphetamine abuse and Hart suffered the second of a series of heart attacks that would ultimately end his life.
The show originally ran longer than four hours and was laboriously reworked over many months. The resulting strain led to the end of Lerner and Loewe’s fabled partnership, with the exhausted composer retiring after the Broadway opening. “Excessive length is not a disease,” Lerner wrote of his attempt to wrangle Camelot’s book. “It is a symptom.” The symptomatic patient, the script of Camelot, was standing in for the American body politic itself. Lerner was trying to fashion a canvas large enough to accommodate the dream of America, its complicated appetites and multifarious energies.
Camelot functions as a twilight of the gods in other ways, a bookend to the story of the Golden Age musical. In its glamorous depiction of Arthur’s court, where “the climate must be perfect all the year,” Camelot is Lerner and Loewe’s love letter to American Eden. The love triangle between Arthur, Guenevere and Lancelot befits an era of plentiful romantic appetites and sexual intrigue, off and onstage. (“Marriage is like a besieged fortress,” wrote the eight-times-married Lerner. “Everyone inside wants to get out and everyone outside wants to get in.”)
The darker second act, meanwhile, evokes the Oresteia, as the violation of personal and political taboos leads to the disintegration of the nation. Camelot’s final moments, in which a future Avalon is promised, speak to the eternal optimism at the heart of the American project. As the musical warns prophetically, there may always be an inclination toward violence and selfishness in human affairs, but there is also an eternal need to believe in a Round Table, the Brotherhood of Man and the rule of law. The musical ultimately pays tribute to the dream of a system of governance fit for one and all.
In late November 1963, a week after the president’s assassination in Dallas, Theodore H. White (Lerner and Kennedy’s Harvard classmate) went to Hyannis Port to interview Jacqueline Kennedy for Life magazine. The mourning widow told a story that has become inextricable from this musical, and from America’s narrative of itself. Remembering Jack’s fondness for Broadway cast albums, she quoted his favorite lines from the end of his favorite show:
“Don’t let it be forgot,
That once there was a spot,
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot.”
Repeating the lines twice, Jacqueline concluded, “There’ll be great presidents again… but there’ll never be another Camelot again.”
The former first lady was right in more ways than one. By the end of the decade, the counterculture, civil rights movement and quagmire of the Vietnam War had put a sudden end to visions of American Eden. Two of the defining musicals of the ’70s—Grease (1971) and Rocky Horror (1975)—look to rock music for stylistic cues and boast attitudes of hip and unapologetic irony. The new era’s greatest talents diverged sharply: Stephen Sondheim took the musical book to new heights of sophistication but to a salon audience, while Andrew Lloyd Webber filled massive theatres by looking back to 19th-century operetta and European melodrama and sideways to heavy metal and progressive rock.
The culture had moved on. Tastes had changed. No longer would the Broadway musical reflect the vital energies and idioms of American life in its purest showtune form, without importing influences from outside the theatre—as our current era of Disney, jukebox, comic book and hip-hop musicals vividly testifies. But for one brief shining moment in American life and letters, there was a Camelot.