Alexandra Silber stars as Guenevere in the Washington DC Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of the Lerner and Lowe musical “Camelot,” just extended to July 8, 2018 following rave reviews and sold-out shows. Silber sings (and whistles) classic Broadway songs beautifully, including “It’s May” and “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood.” And her performance is radiant as the sheltered young woman who is inspired by her husband but cannot help loving his closest friend, Sir Lancelot. She was nice enough to take some time to answer my questions about the roles that have meant the most to her and the ones she is most looking forward to, and why the story of Camelot is more important than ever today.
You got a flat-out rave review in the Washington Post. Was there anything the critic noticed that was especially meaningful to you?
I always love to know that the production we’ve worked so hard on building is received so warmly.
I’m not alone in being an actor who does not read my own theatre reviews. I find they “mess with me head” and regardless of positive or negative feedback, they give me specific adjectives that stick in my mind and body that infuse my performance. The extraordinarily difficult thing about theatre reviews is that the actors have to RETURN to the work the reviewers love or hated the following day, week, month, etc., with the knowledge of those words and opinions.
In contrast, I do not feel this way about my book reviews! And I suppose I would feel similarly about acting work captured on film. The work, in those instances, is “over.” One cannot change it, it is preserved forever in the form it is, and is not a “living” work of art. The distinction of the living work is what makes reading reviews particularly difficult for me, and I suspect, for many others.
Can you really whistle as well as Guenevere? Was whistling on stage a challenge?
The whistling is present in Camelot because Julie Andrews (the original Guenevere) was a champion whistler! She also did some spectacular whistling in the My Fair Lady score if you recall.
Ken Clarke and I are both blessed to be likewise gifted so all the whistling is the real thing!
How do Guenevere’s feelings about Arthur change in the first scene?
To understand the first scene, we have to first understand Guenevere’s crisis; exemplified in her opening song “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood.” It is also the first moment that we meet her in this version of the story, and when she prays to St. Genevive, she pleads for a chance at her youth and childhood — “where are the simple joys of maidenhood?” I think what she’s really saying is, “I am a woman who is really a girl that has never had any experiences of my own. I have never even left my HOME until today. I’ve never made a single choice for myself.”
What’s so exciting about this, as a feminist, is being able to say, “She’s crying out to have that choice!” Even though the song and the lyrics are child-like as well as childish, they still come from a place of genuine yearning, of wanting independence and autonomy from the men that have controlled her all her life.
She has thus written an entire “story” in her head about how this Camelot place is an absolute hell — a dreary land where she is to be married off to an old, disgusting, controlling King and be his subservient slave-Queen. She’s not wrong! That kind of arranged marriage occurred al the time (and, let’s be honest, in many parts of our world still occur today). So when she comes across this sweet, befuddled handsome boy named “Wart” she is charmed by him, his chivalry, his innocence, his sweet desire to calm her and above all, she falls in love with Camelot by seeing it through his eyes.
How do they change about Lancelot after the joust?
There is something incredibly powerful about the aspect of her sexual awakening, as well as her awakening as a woman (as distinct from a girl) that Lancelot absolutely provides and symbolically represents.
As stated above, Guenevere has never had any human experiences, never had a choice in her life, never met anyone, been anywhere. When this pompous and earnest knight from France arrives in her world, she loathes his arrogance, self-confidence and claim that he is so pure he can perform divine miracles. I mean — if anyone met a person like that, they’d cringe. But Jenny is also threatened by Lancelot’s almost monk-like devotion to her husband, and Arthur’s enthusiastic and immediate devotion in return. Their “bromance” is alienating, and the discussions and world-building that once occurred between her and Arthur, are now taking place behind closed doors between Arthur and Lancelot. She is left out once again and it hurts her terribly. (It is very important to state that the first arm of the love triangle occurs between Arthur and Lancelot!) So Guenevere takes it upon herself to take Lancelot down a peg by setting him against the three best jousters in Camelot! How could he not be humbled?
But when Lancelot runs Sir Lionel through with his spear and then, through the power of God, brings him back from the dead — Guenevere is humbled. She “tips her king” to this godly man, believing him to not be arrogant, but simply, honest. She falls in love with him against her will, and her sexual and womanly awakening begins.
What I really love about Guenevere is that she’s human: flawed, loving, petty, hilarious, loyal, disloyal — nuanced. One of the things that T.H. White says about her is that Guenevere was “simply herself.” She was all of these things; she was a “real person.”
She truly has an incredible loyalty to Arthur. She respects him; she admires him. And, he is the father of her mind and her intellectual awakening as a woman, queen, and leader. But, they lack this very important part of being a human being and being a woman, which has to do with the physical experience and the fullness — and almost the spirituality — of sex that she experiences with the incredibly God-oriented Lancelot. Their relationship is not just based in the carnal, but in the Divine. So, I think that’s why she is a person to be admired: that, though the conventions of morality judge her, actually what she’s done is chosen to have a full life. While it’s still morally dubious, her actions are no less morally grey than her male counterparts — Arthur’s INaction is as destructive as her actions, and likewise Lancelot. It is interesting that we judge her most harshly, even today.
What makes Camelot especially meaningful today, nearly 60 years after it was written?
Hope. Hope for a better tomorrow based on the ideals of our past.
At Camelot’s core is a humble, human king; a leader, and a fallible man who is trying to make the world a better place through logic and compassion. He doesn’t always win. he ultimately fails. But his endeavor to do so is honest and genuine. I think that’s really why it’s universal.
Accompanying him along the way is the woman [Guenevere] who inspires him and gives him this platform to talk through the thinking that he’s been taught how to do by the world’s best parent, if you will: Merlyn, the man that represents all of his virtues and all of his ideals in human form. Ultimately what’s sort of incredible is that the two people that he loves most dearly [Lancelot and Guenevere] are the people that, through no malice, betray him.
When the musical came out in the early 1960s, the world was changing rapidly, and I think the reason it resonated so deeply with the Kennedy administration was that JFK in many ways represented the King Arthur I just described: this young man and his wife endeavoring to make the world better in new a vital ways.
I think that right now we don’t look at King Arthur’s ideals with sentimentality or wistfulness; we look at that with a sense of great urgency and outrage. And I think that is a very powerful environment (particularly in our nation’s capital) in which to present this musical again. So I think there’s something really crucial to be said there. Not to be overtly political, but perhaps covertly: the whole concept of King Arthur, of right vs. might, of doing everything possible to fight back against barbarism and hatred, is so antithetical to our current president and his administration. And I think that there’s something really powerful about just presenting that as a possible alternative.
What was your first paid job as an actress?
A few months after my father died I answered an advertisement on Playbill.com for a “Winter stock” job in Alpena, Michigan at Thunder Bay Theatre. We did The Mousetrap, The Fantasticks and The Pirates of Penzance. Five actors lived above the theatre, made all the sets and costumes, and raked in about $125 a week. I wrote extensively about how impactful those people and that experience were/was.
I didn’t get paid to act again until I made my professional and West End debut in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Woman in White, 4 years later. Suffice it to say it was a very different experience! But no less important.
You’ve performed so many classic Broadway musical roles, from “Fiddler on the Roof” to “My Fair Lady,” “She Loves Me,” and West Side Story.” Is there one song you never get tired of singing? Is there a classic Broadway role you would most love to get a chance to perform?
As long as I live I will never tire of singing “Will He Like Me” from She Loves Me. Amalia is a parallel of me in so many ways, and that song in particular is a battle cry of the deeply-feeling introvert (which I personally identify as). I’ve had the honor of playing her with a full symphony orchestra (the Orchestra of St Luke’s) opposite one of my oldest friends on earth, Santino Fontana.
I’m at the stage of my life where I am looking forward to a new tier of roles — moving out of the ingenue and into the role of the woman or “leading lady” as it is often termed. In the more immediate future I look forward to Sondheim’s Fosca in Passion, and in the more distant future I look forward to Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and Hello Dolly’s Dolly Levi (I see so much of my lover-of-life, widowed mother in Dolly and I’d love to honor her that way someday).
To always tell the truth. No matter how challenging.