Not much is known about the early career of the German-born musician Frederick Loewe (1901-1988) beyond his own fanciful accounts, but in 1942 he was clearly a promising theater composer in need of a good lyricist. He had already written three unsuccessful shows with Earle Crooker (The Illustrator's Show, 1936; Salute to Spring, 1937; and Great Lady, 1938), and their fourth collaboration, Life of the Party, was closing in St. Louis. Loewe asked Alan Jay Lerner (1918-1986), a Harvard-educated scion of a wealthy family of clothing merchants, who was writing radio scripts, for help on Life of the Party.
Lerner's contributions couldn't save Life of the Party, but he was ready to turn to the newly developing book musical in partnership with Loewe. Their initial musicals together - What's Up? (1943) and The Day Before Spring (1945) - did not do much better than the Crooker shows, but they scored an enduring hit with the romantic fantasy Brigadoon in 1947. Next came Paint Your Wagon (1951), the classic My Fair Lady (1956), and the Academy Award-winning film Gigi (1958), establishing the team at the forefront of the integrated musical.
These shows also developed something of a Lerner and Loewe model: a basically non-singing male actor for the central role, an ingenue female lead, and romantic ballads and comic patter from secondary characters. All of this came to troubled fruition in 1960 with Camelot. My Fair Lady was a hard act to follow and was still running on Broadway when Camelot opened, with Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, and Robert Goulet at the corners of the Arthurian love triangle. Lerner and Loewe feuded over the direction of the show, staged by Moss Hart. Loewe and Hart also had serious health problems, and the tragic aspects of the show confused critics and generated some unfavorable reviews.
But Camelot survived for a respectable initial run of 873 performances, though nothing like the record-shattering My Fair Lady. Based on T. H. White's The Once and Future King, this poignant account of utopian aspirations and passionate betrayals has found a lasting place in the repertory, including a filmed version in 1967. It was said to be John F. Kennedy's favorite musical, and it became a symbol of the idealistic potential associated with his tragically terminated presidency. Orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett, Camelot was one of the last great scores of Broadway's classic era.
The show's opening scenes introduce Arthur and Guenevere and their hopes. The subsequent scenes in Act I take place years later, and introduce Lancelot and the conflicts that will tear apart both the personal relationships and the dream of Camelot. Act II, which takes place yet a few more years later, brings to a boil all the conflicts between Arthur, Lancelot, and Guenevere, as well as those between Arthur and his illegitimate son Mordred. It ends with Arthur ruminating on the ruin of his dreams with an emotionally powerful reprise of the title song, remembering "that once there was a fleeting wisp of glory called Camelot" and reaffirming its generous spirit.