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Friday, October 23, 2009

For Camelot!

I had planned to do a post about writing today, as I haven't written about my author-ish efforts of late, but then I watched Camelot, and decided I needed to write about that.
This isn't the movie version of Camelot; it's an actual stage performance that was videotaped. Richard Harris still plays King Arthur, although he's quite a bit older than he was in the movie, and Meg Bussert plays Guinevere. We've been watching this for school over the last three days (hey, c'mon, it's a LONG SHOW) and just finished it up today.
*Rubs hands together* Now, where do I begin?
First of all, let me say that I'm much more easily touched by watching stage performances than filmed ones. Yes, this stage performance was filmed, but it was still a stage performance. Whatever happened onstage that night, be it the perfect run or the show where everything fell apart, that was what was going on that tape. And what happened onstage was something magical.
As an actor, I think that one of the most important skills you can develop is having what I call a "range of emotions." This basically means versatility; the really astounding actors can go from heartbroken to outraged to lovestruck to ecstatic and everything in between, they can do it in a brief span of time, and--here's the clincher--they can do it believably. There are very good actors who don't have this quality; they're the ones who get typecast, or stick with the character bits where they can showcase their talents. Absolutely nothing wrong with that.
But if you want to talk about having a range of emotions, let's talk Richard Harris for a minute. Oh, my word.
King Arthur is such a legendary figure to begin with that tackling this role must be a challenge. Throughout the show Camelot, Arthur is everything; from an empty-headed schoolboy to a fearful husband fleeing from his bride, from a young king bursting with ambition to a weary, desolate king who has lost everything important to him. And everything in between.
Richard Harris pulled this off STUNNINGLY. Everything he did was textbook perfect. In the first act when he meets Guinevere for the first time, he was spry, energetic, and absolutely charming. In the second act after he argues with Guinevere over Lancelot he is nostalgic and tender. But the section that really blew me away was act thrree, when Arthur realizes that Guinevere and Lancelot are in love, his illigetimate son is plotting to take the throne, and his beloved round table is breaking up.
Take the scene when Guinevere is going to be burned at the stake for treason. Richard Harris walked onstage--no, really, he didn't say a word. He just WALKED OUT ONSTAGE--and you instantly knew everything he was thinking. His step was both despereate and exhausted, both tortured and uncertain. He turned to face the audience, and your heart broke. He didn't even have to speak!
And then there's the scene right towards the end, when Guinevere and Lancelot come to him just before the battle, begging to be taken back to Camelot and punished rather than face the coming war. Richard's face was soaked with tears by the end of that scene. Soaked.
...and I thought that I was hot stuff when I cried a little onstage for the first time last year during acting camp. Sigh.
His performance alone is enough reason to watch this rendition of Camelot, but it gets better. Although I do believe that he is far and away the best actor in the cast, his fellow cast-mates do measure up. Guinevere is very good, and although Vanessa Redgrave's performance in the movie might have been more fleshed out, Meg Bussert can SING! Woohoo! Richard Muenz as Lancelot is smouldering and passionate and a joy to watch; and Richard Backus is a positively eerie Mordred. (Hmmm...lotsa Richards in this show. Heh.) And don't even get me started on Barrie Ingham's King Pellinore--the second he walked onstage in act one with that dog, I was rolling on the floor with laughter. The sets and costumes are exquisite, too; I could wax eloquent on both, but fear that I've expounded the virtues of this performance long enough.
The bottom line is this: if you haven't seen either version of Camelot, see at least one of them (and I HIGHLY reccomend this version.) If you've already seen the movie version, see the stage version, too. It's SO worth it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Everybody's Got the Right

I've already mentioned that I'm a Sondheim fanatic. Last week I bought a soundtrack to one of his shows, Assassins. Take a look at the first verse of one of the songs:

"Everybody's got the right to be happy,
Don't be mad, life's not as bad as it seems,
If you keep your goal in sight, you can climb to any height,
Everybody's got the right to their dreams."

At first glance, this seems to be a lovely, inspiring, uplifting song, right? Okay, now that I've got you lulled into a false sense of security, take a look at the second verse.

"Everybody's got the right to be different.
If you wanna be different.
Even though at times they go to extremes.
Anybody can prevail, everybody's free to fail,
No one can be put in jail for their dreams."

Suddenly, something seems a little more sinister, doesn't it?
In truth, this is the finale of a show which is extremely creepy and sad, but also terribly thought-provoking. As the name of the show might suggest, Assassins is about all the people who have attempted to assassinate a president throughout history. From the successes (Booth, Oswald, etc.) to the failures ("Squeaky" Fromme, Zangara, etc.) they're all here.
...typical musical fare, right? Heh.
But anyway, the thing that I find so cool about this show is the way it looks at these historical misfits. The show definitely doesn't cast the assassins in a good light, but it doesn't make them out to be the villians, exactly, either. What it does is examine their motivations--and it highlights something in particular. Each one of these people feels cheated out of something they thought they were promised. The American ideals made them a vow, and for whatever reason, they feel that vow has been broken. So they set out to right the wrongs and settle the score.
Just look at those lyrics again. The words are ones we've heard every day since we first sat down in American history class--as Americans, we're promised life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But the way that the assassins have distorted the Amercian dream is positively eerie.
I talked before about how being an artist means that you look at the world a little differently. Assassins is a perfect example of this--try stepping back from something as world-shaking as Lincoln's assassination, and looking at it from the sidelines. Imagine forgetting about the immorality of the act for a minute and instead saying, "Why did Booth do that?" And if you can imagine that, try going one step further and saying, "How can I put this into lyrics and music without making light of it?" Sondheim accomplishes all of this beautifully, and when the song "The Ballad of Booth" comes on, you *almost* feel sorry for Booth--ensconsed in a barn, in pain, manically believing that history will vindicate him, before shooting himself dead rather than giving himself up to the authorities.
And then there's the song "Something Just Broke." This is the only song that doesn't directly involve any of the assassins--actually, it wasn't even in the original production. It was added for the London production, and was included in the 2004 Broadway revival. In this song, several citizens recount where they were and what they were up to when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot. I get tears in my eyes when I hear these lyrics:

"Something just left a little mark.
Something just went a little dark.
Something just went.
And I wondered--
I was scared--
What would follow...
Something to be mended.
Made me wonder who we are...
Something we'll have to weather--
It was seeing all those torches...
Bringing us all together--
He was me...
He was us...
--If only for a moment...
I'll remember it forever...
Nothing has really ended."

Goosebump-inducing stuff. Even though I wasn't alive when it happened, Sondheim's words and heart-aching musical themes make me feel the fear, the sorrow, the absolute uncertainty of what might come next.
If you ask me, this song is a great memorial for J.F.K.
If this show is ever in your neighborhood, go see it. It's worth it.