December 23, 2012

Camelot: when May was semi-lusty

Virginia Opera hasn't been in the musical theater business for several years, but the 2012-2013 season sees us diving back in head-first with two classic productions: Rogers & Hammerstein's Carousel in May, and Lerner & Loewe's Camelot coming soon in January.

"The Lusty Month of May" Evanston High School, 1968

I've had personal experience with both shows. In the late 1980's I music-directed a college production of Carousel, an experience I'll be blogging about on these pages a few months from now. But here my subject is the musical about Arthur, Guenevere and her bari-hunk boyfriend Lancelot. As it happens, Camelot was my introduction to the theater world, as a member of the chorus for Evanston Township High School's spring production in 1968,

All teen-agers go through a period of rebellion. For many, it's experimenting with drugs, alcohol or sex. For some, it's joining a street gang or indulging in petty crime.

For me, it was auditioning for a show.  Wild child, yup, that's your Humble Blogger...

You must understand, I had spent the first 15 years of my life with my fanny plastered to a piano bench, drilling Hanon, Czerny, Beethoven, Chopin and others into my fingers. My childhood, apart from schoolwork and the normal quotient of TV shows, was largely made up of hours of practicing, weekly lessons, and a succession of keyboard competitions and recitals.

 Leslie Fox Pai today: still "all that"

So as a geeky, socially-underdeveloped sophomore at ETHS in Evanston, Illinois, I was unable to resist the siren song of music theater. And when I saw that I had been chosen for the chorus, clutching my mimeographed copy of the rehearsal schedule in trembling fingers, I experienced a thrill that ignited a lifelong passion for music theater and its cousin, grand opera. You'd have thought that I was starring in a Hollywood film or making my debut on Broadway itself; so glamorous and exciting did this venture appear to me.

This was the 1960's remember; Camelot was still a fairly new show, having premiered on Broadway in 1960. The Richard Harris-Vanessa Redgrave film version had only been released in 1967. We were being oh-so-contemporary and "happening", baby! And what a production it was - the theater department pulled out all the stops: there were two casts, including - get this - a double-cast chorus. The lavish costumes cost ten thousand dollars, a suitably royal sum in 1968.

When my thoughts turn to that long-ago production, the first image that comes to mind is the one I'm sharing with you in this post. It's a memory that causes my adult self to smile ruefully but compassionately at my awkward teen-aged self. And it has to do with Guinevere's perky number from Act I The Lusty Month of May, the scene in which she is first introduced to the newest knight of the Round Table, Sir Lancelot.

It's a lively, frivolous number with whimsical lyrics having to do with , er, *cough cough*...

Tra la! It's May!
The lusty month of May!
That lovely month when ev'ryone goes
Blissfully astray.
Tra la! It's here!
That shocking time of year
When tons of wicked little thoughts
Merrily appear!
It's May! It's May!
That gorgeous holiday
When ev'ry maiden prays that her lad
Will be a cad!
It's mad! It's gay!
A libelous display!
Those dreary vows that ev'ryone takes,
Ev'ryone breaks.
Ev'ryone makes divine mistakes
The lusty month of May!


Naturally, we members of the chorus were plunked around the stage in boy-girl pairings while Lynn Kearney (the Guenevere in my performances) warbled prettily, waiting to pipe in harmoniously on the refrains. But of course, the number would fall flat if we just sat on our duffs staring at our Queen; it's the job of the director to get the chorus members to look engaged; to keep things lively; in a word, to act.

Our stage director, William Ditton, made no bones about his intention for the chorus "business". Young Glenn listened somewhat aghast as Mr. Ditton told us to - how should I say it? - make out with our partners. "Really go for it, ladies and gentlement", he said (or words to that effect), "I want to see some passionate hugging and kissing from you guys. Okay?"

Now, with these instructions in mind, bear in mind the following factors:
  • I, Glenn Winters, having been (as mentioned above) the prisoner of the piano prior to this moment, had never been on a date. At all. Ever. Did I like girls? Oh yes, brother, but from the position of "worshipping from afar".
  • My partner was a radiant, impossibly drop-dead beautiful girl named Leslie Fox. Leslie was blessed with a gorgeous mane of red hair, a lovely face and bushel-basketsful of poise and elegance  She was the type of girl who would logically date the captain of the varsity football team. Let's sum up: she was the product of a first-class gene pool, and could have dropped out of school to pursue modeling had she chosen. She was, to use a phrase not yet coined in 1968, "all that". 

I was p.e.t.r.i.f.i.e.d. of this girl. Make out with her?!? I was afraid to LOOK at her! Seriously, I don't have any memory of my bony, scrawny self even daring to make eye contact with her during rehearsals or performances. Kiss a girl in front of all those people? THIS girl? You're kidding me, right? Mr. Ditton might as well have asked me to parachute from an airplane or run with the bulls in Pamplona.

Of course, we choristers had also been bidden to smile, smile, smile during the number. It is the curse of amateur choruses that they tend to go through their paces with frozen faces devoid of affect, resembling hostages or prisoners on death row. So my most vivid memory of Camelot consists of the following tableau during opening night's performance of Lusty Month:

The stage lights shine down blindingly, making the audience difficult to see through the glare. Lynn Kearney is singing her heart out in her best Julie Andrews persona. I, Glenn Winters, have my mouth stretched in a crazed, frozen grin making the Cheshire Cat look like the Mona Lisa. My right cheek, straining to hold the expression, develops a twitch that I can't quiet. While other chorus members are necking in near R-rated frenzy (or so I choose to believe), I have three or four fingers tentatively perched on Leslie's left shoulder, with a good twelve inches of empty space separating us. I keep my eyes focused on the glare of the lights, singing for all I'm worth.


Leslie deserved better. What must she have been thinking? To her credit, she exhibited no impatience or inclination to ridicule; she sat there, doing her best, tolerating my shyness with good grace. Through the wonder of social media, I've made contact with her in the last couple of years. She accepted my" apology" for my hopeless helplessness of all those years ago with good humor. 

And she's clearly still "all that". Tra la, yo!

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