Camelot Is Over

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Those are the triumphant opening bars of Lerner and Loewe's musical Camelot — a show that opened less than a month after JFK was elected president. To hear its music today (even in the tasteful, scaled-down version recently heard at the Pasadena Playhouse) is to think back to the mythical American Camelot of the1960's, a time (we are told) when life seemed simple.

The days of Camelot are over, both on stage and off. These were my thought as I watched Pasadena's Camelot—and this was before it was announced two weeks ago that the theater was closing. Camelot is a dated piece of musical theater and it's telling that it was the show that happened to be running at the Playhouse when it shut its doors on Sunday.

Staging Camelot today (five decades after its Broadway premiere) is sort of like some theater in Vienna mounting a production of Strauss's frothy operetta Die Fledermaus in the aftermath of World War I. The empire has fallen, the world has changed — do people really feel like a waltz in the same way that they did 50 years ago when the kingdom was strong and times were good?

The answer is, of course, no and yes. There are always people who want things the way they used to be — and the Pasadena Playhouse has consistently catered to that audience. Some of these productions were good—last year they did a fine, old-fashioned revival of The Little Foxes—but many were not.

The most interesting wrinkle in the Playhouse's shuttering is that Camelot was only the first play of the Pasadena season, and it's not yet clear if and when the subscribers will be issued refunds.

What this makes clear is that all theaters — both on Broadway and bigger regional houses here like the Geffen or Ahmanson — need to forget about the notion that the subscription model can work in the 21st century. Subscriptions made sense when you had a stable middle class with lots of leisure time, who did a lot of business through the mail, and only three channels of television.

In today's Internet era, people can hardly make dinner plans more than a week in advance, so relying on a business model that requires people to pay hundreds of dollars to see something in the distant future is a large part of why the Pasadena Playhouse couldn't pay its bills.

fountain-arch.jpgThere is hope that the Playhouse, after shutting down and restructuring, will open again. Perhaps…the theater is a landmark, so it won't be razed for condos right away; but if the Pasadena Playhouse re-opens I hope that whoever re-opens it listens to recordings of Camelot. What they'll hear is something that no one under the age of 60 wants to hear three hours of. What they'll also hear is an album that was Number One on the Billboard charts — yes, it's hard to imagine, but fifty years ago, Camelot was popular music. You could hear its songs on the radio. If the future Pasadena Playhouse wants to mount a musical that will be heard in another fifty years time, they should think about what people today are actually listening to.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves — the lessons to be learned from the Pasadena Playhouse's closing are: 1) if you're a theatergoer and there is a theater that does consistently produce quality work that speaks to you, make sure you support it. If you don't, it may well disappear too. And 2) if you work in the theater and you see rows empty seats out in the house, its time to try something new. Make that, somethings new, very new. For theaters in Southern California, as of Sunday, Camelot is over. Welcome to the dark ages.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.