With a revised book by Aaron Sorkin, the actor says that the upcoming Broadway production feels like a new musical, rather than a revival.
Four years ago, director Bartlett Sher asked Jordan Donica to star in a one-night-only gala performance of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot at Lincoln Center Theater. Ever since, he’s been digging into the character of the dashing Lancelot and will soon turn all his preparation to action in the upcoming revival of the musical at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.
Donica previously graced the Broadway stage as Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera and Freddy Eynsford-Hill in the 2018 production of My Fair Lady; on regional stages, he’s starred as Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette in the Angelica tour of Hamilton. As the actor realized mid-conversation, “I’ve played a lot of French people.” It’s one of a few coincidences for Donica, who returns to the Vivian Beaumont for his second Lerner and Loewe musical there.
Based on the novel The Once and Future King by T.H. White, Camelot tells the story of the mythical land and the love triangle between King Arthur, Queen Guenevere, and the knight Lancelot du Lac. It’s about the mission to improve a society, and the tragic struggles between love and loyalty which catalyze the kingdom’s fall. This new Broadway revival will begin previews March 9 and open April 13 with Andrew Burnap and Phillipa Soo leading the cast alongside Donica.
But this Camelot is vastly different from its original because of revisions made to the book by Aaron Sorkin, who has “a very specific style and cadence to his work and to his rhythm,” in Donica’s words. The West Wing scribe is writing a version of the Camelot book that makes the characters more realistic, more human. “You’re seeing a man struggle with what he knows, what he thinks he knows, and what he doesn’t know,” the actor shares. “And you’re seeing someone who is praying for a better world. Lancelot is very aware of the ‘evils’ of the world around him. He considers himself a part of that evil, which is a very Catholic viewpoint: the idea of original sin, you’re born evil, nothing you do can fix that.” It’s a deep dive into Lancelot’s worldview which is a natural move for the actor, who studied religion and philosophy continuously throughout university. How the revised book shifts the whole story’s tone, for Donica, has created a production that feels more like a new musical rather than a revival.
The development of the characters isn’t the only way the production is leaning into realism. This new version portrays Camelot not as a fantasy tale or a fable, but a story about real people, with flaws and failures. Here’s how Donica puts it: “The story has evolved into something that is very fantastical and magical, filled with embellishments that make the story that much cooler. If you distill that down to what the reality probably was versus what the story is years later, that’s essentially the version that you’re going to get from us. You’re gonna get the reality of the story.”
It’s perhaps not a surprise that the charming Donica has starred on Broadway as some of musical theatre’s dreamiest lovers. Donica grew up with the music of Lerner and Loewe, having sung numbers from several of their musicals in voice lessons growing up. As Freddy Eynsford-Hill in My Fair Lady, he sang their famous love song “On the Street Where You Live,” and will sing another as Lancelot: “If Ever I Would Leave You.” His pick for a favorite Lerner and Loewe love song? Brigadoon’s “Come to Me, Bend to Me.” But, Lancelot is quite different from Donica’s previous dreamboat roles, in the actor’s view. He doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve like Raoul or Freddy; as an honorable knight, Lancelot falling in love with the married Guenevere is a violation of his oath. That struggle is what Donica finds so compelling about the role.
“Lancelot is much more reserved in his love, how his love manifests is entirely different than how Raoul’s love manifests. He’s not the type who would come and walk your street every day in the hopes of seeing you,” says Donica. He goes on to explain, “Lancelot thinks it’s embarrassing to be loved. So, there’s a lot of psychological play at work with, ‘OK, well, if it’s embarrassing to let others love you, how then do I express love? I know I feel love. But how does that expression manifest if I don’t believe I am worthy of love?’”
The actor traces the character’s mindset back to his religious nature and Lancelot’s subsequent belief that he isn’t good—and his analysis comes with textual evidence. Pulling from The Once and Future King, Donica shares, “There’s a line in the book that says in his deepest parts, he was disabled. He loved Arthur and he loves Guenevere, and he hated himself … That’s the seed of toxicity that I’m working with, that’s planted deep within Lancelot.” It’s that self-hatred that drives his ambition to try and become a good person, creating a struggle that Donica finds absent in Raoul and Freddy.
Though it’s arguable that Camelot will find Donica at his fittest: He’s put on 15 pounds of muscle, since Lancelot is a sword-wielding knight. He also mentions how he has been getting to know Burnap and Soo as the three, all near each other in age, build that chemistry in what many theatre fans on Twitter are calling “sexy Camelot.” “For the last few months, we’ve been building a rapport and it’s been easier for me now to make choices knowing who I’m going to be working with. They’re also reading the book, so we all have a language and dialogue with each other that is very centered around our characters,” he says.
As he works through making those decisions, the actor faces a challenge in one song: “C’est Moi,” because it’s usually played as a joke song, which might run counter to Sher’s serious conception of Camelot. “The trap of a song like ‘C’est Moi’ is to be over the top and to play into the perceived comedy of it all. When, really, it’s just a guy saying exactly who he is,” explains Donica. “It can sound conceited, but for him, it’s just the truth. That is both a blessing and a curse. Exploring both sides of that within the song and within the character of ‘I’ve never ‘failed,’ How much pressure does that actually put on someone?”
Donica’s constant stream of questions to interrogate Lancelot’s strengths, weaknesses, wants, and motives all reflect an ambitious drive to flesh out his version of the character as much as possible.
As he digs into his character, Donica also keeps focus on what the production as a whole is communicating to theatregoers. He wants the musical to open the audience’s eyes to their own agency, because at its core, Camelot is about the nature of being human. These are the questions the cast have been asking themselves as rehearsal commences: “What are we doing? How do we end up in the same destructive cycles? What are ways that we can actually communicate and give each other space and time and love?”
These questions guide a Camelot which is more realistic in the very nature of how diverse the cast is, rather than the white-focused story it has frequently been: Donica is Black, Soo is Asian, Marilee Talkington is legally blind, and Anthony Michael Lopez uses a prosthetic, to name a few of the cast members. This diversity has led some on social media to compare this new Camelot to Bridgerton, though Donica doesn’t quite agree with the comparison. “It’s real people telling a real story, and not in the Bridgerton sense, but in a sense that allows people to reframe and expand what they think they know about history,” Donica says.
The actor’s emotional investment in that mission carries over into how he believes real art can be created. For Donica, acting should be about getting the right people to play roles that hold up a mirror to humanity, and that the only thing it should be about is the character—not race, age, gender, or any other factor which as a society we categorize people by. Identity politics doesn’t interest Donica. Audiences should be connecting with the characters.
“That’s where art is found,” Donica says. “At the end of the day, people are people. And people just want honest storytelling. And if you are an honest storyteller, people see people, they don’t see anything else. And that’s always been my mission in life since I was a kid.” By focusing on the right people, Camelot has a cast with the kind of diversity that makes this formerly mythical story more immediate to today’s audiences. “Your average everyday person is also being represented on that stage here. And that is something I’m so proud of personally,” Donica says, before exclaiming with joy, “Oh my god, I’m gonna cry. It’s really cool.”