Friday, February 1, 2008

For one brief shining moment

Maybe it's because I'm going to see the touring production of Spamalot on Sunday, or maybe it was Barack Obama getting the endorsement of Caroline and Ted Kennedy, but I was thinking about the Kennedys and the origin of the Camelot myth and what it says about the theater.

I always thought about John F. Kennedy and Camelot in terms of politics. It never occurred to me before this week, but the connection may have been a watershed event in the history of American theater as well. I mean, how many times since then has a reference to a Broadway show entered our cultural vocabulary in such a meaningful way? Not many, I bet.

Here's the background: "A week after the assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy spent four hours talking to the journalist Theodore H. White. She acknowledged that before going to bed most evenings, Kennedy would listen to the melodramatic Broadway song ''Camelot'' on his antiquated Victrola. His favorite lines were: ''Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.''

Ok, maybe "Aquarius" from Hair is officially the last cultural reference taken from the theater, as kind of a shorthand for the youth culture of the mid to late '60s, but I don't think it has as much resonance 40 years later.

And I can't think of a Broadway show, or any recent musical, that could evoke the same feeling today. Sure, Wicked was featured on an episode of Ugly Betty, and on the Sopranos, they talked about going to see Jersey Boys. But it's not the same.

The way Camelot became shorthand for the Kennedy years reminds me of something I heard on the PBS series Broadway: The American Musical. Show tunes once were America's Top 40. And for one brief shining moment, a work of musical theater had the power to capture the popular imagination.


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Pity about the show itself. I've seen it twice and just never found it satisfying. But the lore certainly lives on thanks to its positive association with JFK.

Esther said...

I just think it's interesting that the association is with a musical, as opposed to a movie or a tv show. It just made me think about the extent to which show tunes were popular music 45 years ago.

I've only seen the movie of "Camelot." I've always liked the legend of King Arthur, I've always been a bit of an Anglophile, and "The Sword in the Stone" was the first movie I remember seeing as a kid.

Plus, you know, I am represented by a Kennedy and I do live in one of the few states where Camelot still has some resonance.

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, Don't kid yourself. Nearly 45 years after our real life Camelot came to a tragic end, it still resonates far beyond the reaches of New England!