Since March 2020, members of virtually every profession around the globe have had to figure out how to go, well … virtual, in some form or another.
In terms of moving to an online presence, some careers are quite conducive to that model. But sharing a stage with fellow cast members in front of a packed theater house is definitely not one of them.
Which is why the performers appearing in Bay Street Theater’s upcoming production of Lerner and Loewe’s musical “Camelot,” which begins this week, are extremely optimistic (as well as a touch uncertain) as they take their first steps back into the arena of live theater.
After all, a year and a half is a long time to be out of one’s element.
During a break in rehearsals recently at Bay Street, the cast members explained that they were only a day into the process and for the first time in more than a year, found themselves acting not on a screen in their living rooms, but in person in an actual theater space.
So how do they think it’s going to go?
“We’re about to find out,” laughed Deven Kolluri, who plays Sir Lancelot in the production. “It’s good to be in a rehearsal room again, flexing those muscles and realizing where atrophy set in and getting back into the practice of it.
“There’s also a sense of camaraderie. Jeremy and I have been chumming it up a bit.”
Jeremy is Jeremy Kushnier, who stars as King Arthur, Lancelot’s best friend until their mutual love interest complicates things.
“I totally agree. The reason I got into theater in the first place is I discovered these are like my people, my tribe,” said Kushnier. “I might not have fit in in school, but in a show I realized these people felt the same way I did.
“It’s nice to be back with crazy people.”
Rounding out the lead roles is Britney Coleman who plays Queen Guenevere, King Arthur’s bride and Sir Lancelot’s lover. She is reprieving the role at Bay Street, having come to the East End fresh from an outdoor production of “Camelot” mounted by Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida, this past spring. Like that show, Bay Street, too, will be taking “Camelot” to the great outdoors — specifically, a field just off on Montauk Highway in Bridgehampton across from Bridgehampton Commons.
After more than a year, while Broadway has yet to reopen its doors in the face of the pandemic, Coleman is finding that it’s smaller theaters like Bay Street that are finding creative ways to bring back live performances.
“In terms of work, regional theaters are really leading the way,” Coleman noted. “I love working outdoors, there’s something romantic about it. We even have a moon reference. It’s a really special show to me and to be able to do it outside is amazing. It also asks, what does it mean to be a good leader when the kingdom is falling apart, divided and polarized?”
That’s certainly an apt description of where this country is today and despite the fact this play is over 60 years old, there’s a lot to unpack in the messaging. “Camelot” premiered on Broadway in 1960 (with Julie Andrews starring as Guenevere), and is, of course, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical retelling of the legendary tale of King Arthur and his knights of the roundtable who set out to establish a new ruling model — one in which justice and peace are the guiding principles. But of course, as is the case in any idealistic society, complications arise that derail the utopian vision — specifically, the illicit love between Queen Guenevere and Sir Lancelot, Arthur’s best friend. With the idealized dream destroyed, the play plants a seed of hope that one day, King Arthur’s vision will become a reality.
Lerner, a Harvard classmate of President John F. Kennedy, wrote the musical’s well-known score, including songs like “I Loved You Once in Silence,” “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight,” “If Ever I Would Leave You” and, of course, the title number “Camelot,” which was said to have been a personal favorite of the president. In an interview with Life magazine shortly after her husband’s 1963 assassination, Jackie Kennedy referred to JFK’s administration as a real-life Camelot. It was certainly an apt metaphor at the time, and while many musicals from that era don’t translate to 21st century sensibilities, Kushnier finds that is not the case with “Camelot.”
“A lot of them don’t hold up. Not that there aren’t moments in this piece that aren’t uncomfortable,” he said. “As an actor, I want it to be a story that I want to tell. If we’re going to tell a story, tell one that’s relevant and hopefully we all leave the theater a little better than we came.
“We’re talking about storytelling, which is what we’ve been missing these past 15 months,” he added. “We’re sharing in a moment, a piece of art that only exists in one moment in time.”
“One thing I’m really interested in is the deep humanity that exists in this show,” added Kolluri. “It shows the best and worst part of humans — setting the energy toward an ideal and getting it wrong in the process, and that the ball keeps rolling. That’s what we’re trying to do in the moment as artists and what we’re hoping to investigate, how to set the trajectory and how to get it wrong.”
Bay Street Theater’s Artistic Director Scott Schwartz, who directs this production of “Camelot,” finds that getting to the core and substance of the story is key. Not exactly a full-blown musical extravaganza nor a totally pared-down version of the play, Schwartz describes Bay Street’s version as “somewhere in between.”
“We call it a concert staging,” he said.
These are exactly the kinds of productions Bay Street has been focusing on in recent years — big, well-known musicals that are stripped down to reveal the essence.
“It’s a more minimal and conceptional way to reveal the truth and nuance you don’t normally see on Broadway,” Schwartz said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing with ‘Camelot.’ It’s outdoors, staged with an amazing cast and a wonderful band. I feel it’s similar to the kind of work we did with ‘Evita’ or ‘My Fair Lady’ or ‘Grey Gardens.’
“What’s different is the natural environment which is contributing to the show,” he added. “One of the main reasons I selected ‘Camelot,’ a show I’ve been obsessed with and wanted to do at Bay Street for a while, is I felt the outdoor setting would contribute to it.”
Schwartz also finds in this moment in American cultural and political movements an opportunity to revisit the themes of polarization and idealism that the musical presents.
“The way I’m approaching it is both contemporary, in that it reflects on the protest and violence and strife that America and the whole world has been going through in past year, and jumping off from that point of view,” he explained. “But it’s also looking at the Arthurian story and legends of 400 to 800 A.D. pre-Norman conquest where nature was a huge part of people’s lives.”
Schwartz points to the important role spirituality and nature played in the lives of people in Gaelic, Celtic and Druid societies and notes that it’s one of the reasons why the outdoor Bridgehampton setting is so ideal.
“We’ve done productions under the stars before and there are moments where the breeze will blow at the right time or a flock of birds will fly over the stage and somehow speak to the work being performed on stage. It’s the magic of nature,” said Schwartz, who adds that though it’s right off Route 27, the field where “Camelot” will be performed is surrounded on three sides by trees, creating something of a natural amphitheater.
“The trees are part of the set. It has this amazing, very private feeling where the stage and audience will be,” said Schwartz, explaining that the property belongs to Bay Street board member Carol Konner who offered as a location for the production.
“And we were glad to take it,” he said.
It turns out that, in terms of directing “Camelot,” this production is one that has been in the cards (and the stars) for Schwartz for decades.
“I’m an Arthurian legend nut. My parents took us on a trip to England and I dragged them to every standing stone, castle and ruin,” recalled Schwartz in acknowledging how incredibly indulgent his parents were of his quest. “I always loved the story and it’s one of the greatest romances of all time. King Arthur, who may or may not have existed, wanted to make a more just and egalitarian society. He changed the perspective to be about his statement ‘might for right’ as opposed to ‘might is right’ — meaning using power to do good and make the world a better place.
“In the end, human frailty makes it fall apart, but the young people are encouraged to go on and recreate the dream,” he added. “I think that story is so exactly speaking to where we are right now. Our country is still going through a time of real upheaval and change. Whatever side of the political spectrum you’re on, I think you can look at the country and say between the pandemic and the racial awakening we’re going through, it’s a very challenging time and we’re trying to figure out how to move forward and make our country fairer.
“I felt it was an incredibly timely piece,” he said. “Plus, ‘Camelot’ just has a fantastic score.”
Bay Street Theater’s production of “Camelot” begins Thursday, August 5, at 7:30 p.m. in the field at 2011 Montauk Highway (Route 27) in Bridgehampton, next to Carvel Ice Cream. Parking is available. Shows are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. through August 29. Tickets start at $45 at baystreet.org. In addition to Jeremy Kushnier, Britney Coleman and Deven Kolluri, the cast includes Amaya Grier, Kyle Lopez Barisich, Aaron Dalla Villa, Hope Hamilton, James Harkness, David LaMarr, Cecelia Ticktin and Kevin Wang.