An honorable knight who remains on the scene long enough may eventually become the king. That's the royal lesson Robert Goulet has learned owing to his lengthy association with the musical "Camelot."
In the original 1960 production of this Lerner and Loewe show, Mr. Goulet played Sir Lancelot to Richard Burton's King Arthur and Julie Andrews' Guinevere. The role made him a star.
In the touring version of "Camelot," opening Tuesday at the Lyric Opera House, he'll wear King Arthur's crown as he gives orders to the Knights of the Round Table. Having first made the switch from Lancelot to Arthur back in 1975, he's had plenty of time to get accustomed to his kingly duties.
Just as Mr. Goulet's career has been defined by "Camelot," the show itself is part of any emotional definition of the Kennedy administration. The word "Camelot" was widely mentioned in the media coverage of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' death last week.
Mr. Goulet explains that this close association dates to when "Camelot" debuted in New York.
"It was because we both came on the scene at the same time. Kennedy was elected two weeks before we opened on Broadway," he says in a rich baritone voice from a tour stop in Wichita, Kan. "Journalists used a few of the lines from the show. They called it the 'Camelot' presidency, and Kennedy liked the idea. They've always kept talking about him that way, and even tried to bring in Clinton's presidency as 'Camelot II' -- but nobody bought it."
Mr. Goulet freely confesses he never bought into the Kennedy/"Camelot" association.
"We didn't call our musical 'the Kennedy show.' I was a Jack Kennedy fan, but the connections between him and the show are vague. Certainly, the ideals were there for both persons. And the Kennedys had their share of pain, just as King Arthur in Camelot also knew pain and challenges."
Speaking of pain, the 60-year-old Mr. Goulet recently had his own brush with mortality. After prostate surgery late last year, he says, "I was very fortunate to return to the show so quickly. Doctors told me to take five or six weeks off, and I only took three weeks off."
Indeed, his overall stamina has been impressive, considering he will have performed in 75 cities in the United States and Canada by the time the two-year tour of "Camelot" ends this summer. And while we're doing the numbers, he estimates that his many appearances over the years as either King Arthur or Sir Lancelot are approaching the 1,700 mark.
That being the case, does he get just a tad tired of doing this particular show?
"Hell, no!" he booms with genial bluster.
Even so, how does he manage to keep it fresh night after night, decade after decade?
"The point is, I'll keep doing it until I get it right. I try to make it real for the audience every night, and I never say the same phrase the same way twice. Take a line like 'Come now, both of you,' " he offers, demonstrating various line readings that make it by turns firm, angry and bemused.
Of those emotional possibilities, Mr. Goulet most often goes for a humorous approach to the role.
His King Arthur is generally considered to be less severe than the Arthurs of Richard Burton and Richard Harris.
"I never saw Richard [Burton] doing the role in the sense that I was either on stage with him and too close to really watch it as a performance, or I was offstage completely and didn't see it at all. Harris was a little more dour as the king. I do it my own way and go for more laughs. I keep it lighter than he did and don't do that brooding."
If Mr. Goulet brings a light touch to the material, it doesn't hurt that his early career provided such ample preparation. During the 1950s, he appeared in musical after musical -- "Carousel," "Finian's Rainbow," "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," "The Pajama Game" and "Meet Me in St. Louis" among them. In subsequent theatrical outings, he won a Tony Award for Kander and Ebb's 1968 musical "The Happy Time" and appeared in a highly lucrative revival of "South Pacific" that brought him to Baltimore's Lyric Opera House in 1988.
He has also recorded more than 60 albums -- including at least three Christmas albums -- and as a nightclub performer qualifies as a Las Vegas institution.
There have been occasional movies, such as "Atlantic City," "Beetlejuice," "Scrooged" and "The Naked Gun 2 1/2 ," and innumerable TV appearances on series, specials and talk shows.
Because his image as a smooth crooner has been out there for so long, it's inevitable that on occasion he has been sent up. Perhaps the funniest example came in the play "Tru," when Robert Morse, as writer Truman Capote, said he hated poinsettias and termed them "the Bob Goulet of botany."
Not that Mr. Goulet hasn't occasionally been in on the fun himself, as when he parodied his club persona in Louis Malle's movie "Atlantic City."
When the "Camelot" tour ends this summer, Mr. Goulet was to have traded in one king for another. He was slated to star in a new musical about King Henry VIII written by Leslie Bricusse, but now says the project is "in abeyance."
Instead, he'll take a few weeks off and then return to the concert circuit.
"I'm looking forward to those weeks off. It's been two years, my friend, and I'm tired. This is rough stuff."
GOULET IN 'CAMELOT'
Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.
When: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.; from May 31 to June 12
Call: (410) 625-1400