Monday is “Grab Bag” day here at Entertainment Legends Revealed, with each Monday featuring a different area of the world of arts and entertainment (that is not featured on the other four days of the week, that is). They’ll eventually repeat, but for now, we’re still on the initial installments of each of the various “Grab Bag” legends!
This is the first in a series of examinations of legends from the world of musical theater and whether they are true or false.
MUSICAL LEGEND: The Kennedys being referred to as “Camelot” came about directly because of the musical Camelot.
When John F. Kennedy was elected as the President of the United States in 1960, he was the youngest man ever elected President (he remains today the youngest man ever elected President). Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, and their two young children, Caroline and John Jr., were soon the most recognizable family in the United States.
In 1956, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederic Loewe debuted their classic musical, My Fair Lady, which was one of the most successful musicals of all time (and remains one of the most popular musicals ever). So their follow-up project was one of the most anticipated musicals that you could imagine. They ultimately decided on adapting T.H. White’s take on King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, The Once and Future King.
Titled Camelot, the musical starred Richard Burton as King Arthur, Julie Andrews as Queen Guenevere and a young Robert Goulet as Sir Lancelot. It opened in 1960, just one month after Kennedy was named the next President of the United States (the show’s run ended in January 1963).
After a bit of a false start, it was buoyed by a performance of four of the songs from the musical on the Ed Sullivan Show, leading to Camelot also becoming a rousing success.
For years, the Kennedys have been referred to as “Camelot.”
I know I, for one, felt that that was just some general term that some reporter had applied to the family, due to the sort of almost royal quality that the clan was treated with at the time, with JFK, Jackie and John’s younger brother, Bobby Kennedy. It just sounds like something a newspaper columnist would have coined. And while I certainly figured that the musical being popular at the time would have played some part in the naming process, I also figured it was more a matter of the term “Camelot” just being part of the general zeitgeist of the time.
However, not only was the musical expressly involved in the coining of the term, the term was actually coined by, of all people, Jacqueline Kennedy herself!
On November 29, 1963, just one week after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, his grieving widow, Jacqueline, in some sort of attempt to deal with her grief, called in noted political journalist/author, T.H. White (yes, he had the same initials as the guy who wrote the King Arthur stories – weird, right?) for an extensive interview, some of which were published in a Life magazine feature the next week, but the rest was held back until a book White wrote in the late 1970s.
Be forewarned, these are the expressions of a woman dealing with a great deal of grief you’re about to read…
But there’s this one thing I wanted to say… I’m so ashamed of myself… When Jack quoted something, it was usually classical… no, don’t protect me now… I kept saying to Bobby, I’ve got to talk to somebody, I’ve got to see somebody, I want to say this one thing, it’s been almost an obsession with me, all I keep thinking of is this line from a musical comedy, it’s been an obsession with me… At night before we’d go to sleep… we had an old Victrola. Jack liked to play some records. His back hurt, the floor was so cold. I’d get out of bed at night and play it for him, when it was so cold getting out of bed… on a Victrola ten years old—and the song he loved most came at the very end of this record, the last side of Camelot, sad Camelot… “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”…There’ll never be another Camelot again…
Do you know what I think of history? … For a while I thought history was something that bitter old men wrote. But Jack loved history so… No one’ll ever know everything about Jack. But … history made Jack what he was … this lonely, little sick boy … scarlet fever … this little boy sick so much of the time, reading in bed, reading history … reading the Knights of the Round Table … and he just liked that last song.
Thanks to T. H. White for the wonderful interview. If you are interested in reading more, check out his book In Search of History.
Here‘s the first reprise of Camelot (the one that Kennedy is referring to is the second reprise, sung by Richard Burton, but since I can’t find that one, better to hear this one by Julie Andrews that has the same lyric than not have anything, right?).
MUSICAL LEGEND: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s song “Edelweiss” is based on an Austrian folk song.
“Edelweiss” was the last song that Oscar Hammerstein ever wrote. In fact, he was suffering from stomach cancer as he and his partner, Richard Rodgers, worked on the song, the final addition to their latest play at the time, The Sound of Music.
The pair were looking for a song that would express the feeling of loss surrounding Captain von Trapp having to leave his native Austria because of the Nazis. They wanted a song that could be performed as a folk song since the actor portraying von Trapp, Theodore Bikel, was an accomplished folk guitarist.
They settled on a song that was based on the German myths about the Edelweiss flower – a beautiful flower that young suitors would climb the Alps to get to prove their love for their sweethearts.
This matches the mood of the musical well, because it is a symbol of their homeland, but it is also something that you find on the Alps, and the von Trapps are about to travel over the Alps (in case you know nothing about The Sound of Music, it is about an Austrian Captain who is a widower with seven kids – he is depressed over the death of his wife, but slowly, due to the children’s peppy new governess, he learns to love music and life again – but all of this takes place against the backdrop of the Nazi rise to power, so the newly happy – and newly re-married to the governess, Maria – von Trapp escapes with his family over the Alps).
Here are the lyrics:
Every morning you greet me
Small and white, clean and bright
You look happy to meet me.
Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow
Bloom and grow forever
Bless my homeland forever.
The “problem” is that Rodgers and Hammerstein did SUCH a good job evoking the feel of a folk song, a great many people believe that it WAS a folk song, and not written in 1959!
In fact, perhaps due to the fact that people seem to think that it is a very old song, the song has attracted some controversy when some Christian churches began performing the song (with new lyrics, of course) during the 1970s as a benediction – “May the Lord, Mighty God.”
Those alternate lyrics were:
“May the Lord, mighty God,
bless, preserve you and keep you.
Give you peace, perfect peace,
courage in every endeavor.
Lift up your eyes and see His face,
and His grace forever.
May the Lord, mighty God,
bless, preserve you and keep you!”
Coming up with religious lyrics to classic melodies is not a new thing, but almost always, the melodies are public domain ones, not ones still protected by copyright.
In the case of “Edelweiss,” Rodgers and Hammerstein were quite explicit in their instructions that the song was a single song and was not to be performed as a melody with different lyrics. And since they control the copyright, they can challenge any unauthorized use of the song, including using the melody without the lyrics.
The administrators of the Rodgers/Hammerstein copyrights (Williamson Music) send the following to anyone requesting the use of only the melody:
Thank you for your recent request regarding the above mentioned composition. As you are aware, “Edelweiss” was written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Ever since its inception, people have requested the use of its melody with other lyrics for liturgical purposes in houses of worship of many different faiths.
As with any song created in modern times, this song enjoys protection under the copyright laws which state that original works may not be used in any manner inconsistent with the creators’ intentions. Both Messrs. Rodgers and Hammerstein II felt strongly that they did not wish their contributions to any song be separated and used with other words or music. Such is the case with “Edelweiss.” Therefore, your request must be denied.
This was something that Rodgers pursued during the 70s until his death in 1979, so you know it is something that he felt strongly about.
Thanks to David J. Benedict for the helpful information!
MUSICAL LEGEND: Cole Porter worked on song lyrics while lying crushed underneath a horse.
STATUS: I’m Leaning Toward True
Cole Porter is one of the all-time great songwriters, known for such classic songs as “Night and Day”, “I Get a Kick out of You” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” as well as the smash Broadway musicals Anything Goes and Kiss Me, Kate.
Porter was especially noteworthy in the sense that he was one of the few Tin Pan Alley songwriters to write the music AND the lyrics to his tunes.
Although he is a legendary music figure now, and certainly was a popular songwriter at the time, as well, Porter was not without his share of bombs. In fact, Porter (who was born in 1891)’s first two musicals in the late 1910s were both bombs. It was not until 1928 that he had a successful show on Broadway (the musical Paris, with the practically scandalous for its time hit song, “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love)”).
Even after having his most popular musical, Anything Goes, in 1934, Porter followed with a string of lackluster musicals (until finally having a comeback of sorts in 1948, with Kiss Me, Kate).
One of those lackluster musicals was called You Never Know. While the musical as a whole was not one of his best, it did include one of the last GREAT songs written by Porter, the subtle and beautiful love song, “At Long Last Love.”
If Porter ever had a built-in excuse for a lackluster musical, You Never Know was it. While working on the musical in late October, 1937, Porter went horseback riding. During the ride, he was thrown from the horse. The horse then proceeded to roll over on to Porter, crushing both of his legs. Doctors first thought that he would need at least one leg amputated, but luckily, Porter was wealthy enough to get the best surgeons available, and after a ghastly THIRTY surgeries on his legs, they were able to be saved, but he would be in agonizing pain for the rest of his life. Ultimately, a few years before his death in 1964, the legs WERE amputated.
In any event, Porter claims that while he was lying there, crushed by the horse, he was in such shock that, presumably to keep his mind off of the situation, he actually began to come up with lyrics for “At Long Last Love.”
Now, examining the situation, we do know that “At Long Last Love” was copyrighted as an unpublished number a couple of weeks before the accident, so we do know that he WAS working on the song at the time.
We know that he specifically claimed that it happened.
We know that the song was finished soon after the accident.
So I dunno. I know a lot of folks feel that the claim is an outlandish one – even Charles Schwartz’ book Cole Porter: A Biography seems to doubt Porter, but I really don’t think that the claim is THAT out of the ordinary. It also seems like an awfully odd thing to lie about – combine that with the fact that the time frame all checks out, and I’m inclined to say true.
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org