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22.02.08 Woller, From Camelot to Spamalot

22.02.08 Woller, From Camelot to Spamalot

While Arthurian scholars have for the last two decades produced a plethora of books, essay collections, and articles on what Kevin Harty has called “cinema Arthuriana,” their more ephemeral cousin, the Broadway musical, has received scant attention. Though such celebrated collaborators as Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, and Eric Idle and John DuPrez have all created musicals that brought Arthurian narratives to the Broadway stage, little attention has been paid by scholars of medievalism to the musical as music in either contemporary popular film or stage. Drawing on adaptation theory, From Camelot to Spamalot: Musical Retellings of Arthurian Legend on Stage and Screen takes on twentieth- and twenty-first century musical reworkings of Arthurian legends on the Broadway stage and in Hollywood films with the aim of exploring not only the changes made to traditional Arthurian narratives, but also the narrative exchanges between films and stage musicals, as they adapt and rework one another. Megan Woller, a musicologist, tacks back and forth between the two, foregrounding the role of music in Arthurian musicals on both stage and screen, asking how music shapes the narrative choices that interpreters of these Arthurian narratives make in reconstituting the legend for contemporary audiences.

Looking at stage and film musicals as music, alongside their techniques of adaptation, Woller, following Linda Hutcheon, argues that adaptations are palimpsestuous works in which traces of overwritten narratives may be glimpsed alongside the new. The pleasures afforded audiences by adaptations lie in this oscillation between the familiar and the new. Hutcheon’s observations may be even more true for Arthurian texts for which there is really no ur-text. Arthurian works from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century Historia Regum Britanniae to the present day have always been adaptations of other texts, endlessly repurposing the familiar as the new across every imaginable medium and genre.

From Camelot to Spamalot is divided into three sections, each dealing with an associated set of musicals and films. Part 1 explores musical adaptations--both stage and cinema--of Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. In two chapters, Woller covers first the 1927 opening and 1943 revival of A Connecticut Yankee, as well as a 1955 television production, and then the 1949 Paramount film A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a vehicle primarily designed to showcase Bing Crosby’s musical persona and style. The differences between these two chapters highlight the affordances of the two media under consideration. The film, while endlessly repeatable as an event, remains static and fixed, the same (though differently interpreted by different audiences), while the musical is adapted anew with each revival, and arguably with each performance. The adaptations in these texts are complex, having to balance the demands of medieval Arthurian texts, Twain’s novel, and the conventions of musical theater. Denuded of Twain’s political and social satire, more Tin Pan Alley than medieval romance, both musical and film adaptations become vehicles for conveying the superiority of American individualism, ambition, and inventiveness as superior to Old World European ideals of aristocratic chivalry.

Part 2 examines two musical adaptations of T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. Chapter 3 compares Lerner and Lowe’s Camelot, which opened on Broadway in 1960, with Joshua Logan’s 1967 film adaptation of the musical, while chapter 4 takes on Disney’s 1963 animated feature, a simplified version of T. H. White’s opus, The Sword in the Stone (1963). In the turbulent sixties, all three of these works presented sanitized and Americanized adaptations of Arthurian motifs that focused on the popular culture differences between Americanness and British value systems, attempting to rehabilitate American exceptionalism, celebrating American democracy and individualism, at a time when these were very much contested ideals. In these chapters, Woller shows the power of song to shape characterization and drive plot. She notes how Camelot’s first three songs create the love triangle between Arthur, Guenevere (an undeveloped character in White), and Lancelot, or how Guenevere’s songs indicate her maturation from maiden to woman. Music (underscoring) and song are much simpler and more conventional in Sword in the Stonethan in Camelot. Disney’s songwriting team, Robert and Richard Sherman, while responsible, Woller notes, for the sound of Disney in the 60s, were no Lerner and Loewe. In Sword and the Stone, they reproduced the Disney ideology in song, wedding fantasy to pedagogy, magic to education. [1]

Part 3 bookends Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and its 2005 Broadway adaptation, Spamalot. Woller examines the film’s complex parodies of both medieval and medieval film tropes, parodies that are echoed in the film’s music. The underscoring, which used stock music from the deWolfe Music Library, calls to mind the Hollywood medieval epic, rather than the medieval musical signifiers identified by John Haines in Music in Films on the Middle Ages: Authenticity vs. Fantasy. And, while the “Pie Jesu Domine” chant evokes medieval plainchant, the film’s other original songs parody the Hollywood musical. With Spamalot, Eric Idle has left Holy Grail’s play of contemporary and medieval musical styles; its music is entirely within the tradition of American musical theater. It is a parodic meta-musical, a musical about being a musical.

This last section is the only section of the book in which the direction of adaptation is reversed and the musical adapts an earlier film. Film to stage adaptations have become a feature of early twenty-first century Broadway for reasons that may be more economic than artistic. This reversal raises for me one of the underlying limitations of adaptation theory: its focus on the literary text and its assumption that adaptation moves in a particular direction, from literary text to other media. This brings me to my two caveats about the book. The first is that its organization is a bit diffuse, with summaries of alterations in the text dominating, often at the expense of the more interesting musical analysis. Remediation (the adaptation of narratives across media platforms) and genre theory might have provided stronger theoretical frameworks within which to understand the reasons for those changes, which depend on the affordances of the two media Woller explores: stage musicals and musical films. My other observation is that the musicological analyses might be advanced for interested readers unfamiliar with that field. Since musicology is not likely to be in the wheelhouse of the Arthurian literary scholars who seem to be the primary audience for the book, it might have been helpful to give readers a summary of the conventions of the musical as a genre and describe its musical styles (though, to be fair, Woller’s notes and bibliography do cite the scholarship on the American musical that might serve as further reading). That said, there is no doubt that this book is groundbreaking; it is a must read for Arthurian scholars and should spark productive conversations about the remediation of Arthurian narratives across both Broadway and Hollywood musicals.



1. See Susan Aronstein and Laurie Finke, “Discipline and Pleasure: The Pedagogical Work of Disneyland,” Educational Philosophy and Theory 45 (2013), 610-24.