Sunday, July 16, 2023

Q&A with Susan Dormady Eisenberg





Susan Dormady Eisenberg is the author of the new book One More Seat at the Round Table: A Novel of Broadway's Camelot. She also has written the novel The Voice I Just Heard. She has worked in marketing and is also an arts journalist. She lives in Baltimore.


Q: What inspired you to write One More Seat at the Round Table?


A: I fell in love with the golden age musical Camelot in my youth when I first heard the 1960 cast album. But it wasn’t until I read Alan Jay Lerner’s memoir, The Street Where I Live, published in 1978, that I realized the out-of-town travails of Camelot had all the makings of a page turner.


In my years as a theater publicist, I also happened to meet John Cullum, who made his Broadway debut as Sir Dinadan and understudied Richard Burton, and I was enthralled by his stories. Finally in 2010 I interviewed Alan Lerner’s right arm, Stone Widney, for a 50th anniversary piece that I contributed to the Huffington Post, and his recollections piqued my interest.


During the Covid quarantine I was seeking a story that would keep me happy and busy, and I finally began writing my fictional tale of Camelot’s history. I’m proud to report that 99 percent of what I wrote about the show—names, dates, and places—is true.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I researched the book over time, as I said above, but once I decided to write my novel, I read everything in print about Camelot. There are many memoirs, feature articles, and reviews.


I wanted to give readers a “you are there” experience, so I acquainted myself with the theaters where Camelot performed: the O’Keefe Centre in Toronto, the Shubert in Boston, and the Majestic in New York. I toured the Shubert’s backstage and also visited the stage door alley of The Majestic while The Phantom of the Opera was in residence.


What surprised me, honestly, was the negativity and even the overt cruelty of the reviews in each city where Camelot opened, and since most of the barbs were aimed at Alan Lerner’s script, known as the "book,” I wondered how Lerner kept going in the face of overwhelming criticism.


He and Frederick Loewe had been the toast of Broadway a few years earlier after creating My Fair Lady, and it must have been a huge disappointment when Camelot was met with endless complaints. (Sadly, the stress took a toll and these fabled partners never created another musical together.)


Q: The novel includes both fictional and historical characters—what did you see as the right balance between fiction and history as you wrote the novel?


A: Readers need characters to root for, and I felt it was vital to introduce fictional characters whose thoughts, feelings, fears, and dreams I could definitively describe. With real historical characters—especially those who are still living—I was hamstrung by the historical record. Maybe some novelists feel differently, but the need for accuracy dictates my plot.


I will give you an example. Adrian, the real costume designer for Camelot, died in 1959. For dramatic purposes, however, I wanted the costume designer to die in 1960 while rehearsals were underway, so rather than change Adrian’s death date, I created a new character named Abelard. I made sure that when it came to real people, I had multiple sources for everything I wrote.


Obviously, I had far more leeway with my fictional characters so the real people in the book became supporting players. (Of those characters, my favorites were Julie Andrews and Moss Hart.)


Q: What do you think still intrigues people about the concept of Camelot, as well as the show?


A: The myth of Camelot with its young king striving for peace and justice through the creation of his Round Table has been popular for centuries. What intrigued Alan Lerner also intrigues me. In his memoir Lerner wrote, “The legend of King Arthur is far more than a love story…There lies buried in its heart the aspirations of mankind.”


I think that citizens of all countries yearn for a just and equal society, and each time we read about the legend of Camelot—or see the musical—we are reminded that we need visionaries like Arthur to make positive changes that will benefit all of us.


In the 1960 musical, Arthur talks about using “might for right,” and I think motto that resonates with theatergoers in 2023. much as it did during the Cold War era. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Since 2013, I’ve been working on a novel about the life and times of Annie Oakley and her thorny relationship with William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody when she joined his Wild West show in 1885.


Though Annie has been portrayed as an uncouth western woman like Martha “Calamity Jane” Canary, she was a prim girl from Ohio who overcame many obstacles to become the finest “trick shot” in Cody’s troupe.


Annie embodied all the refined traits of Victorian womanhood, and was often found seated in her rocking chair outside her tent on the Wild West grounds, smiling at fans while she embroidered. Yes, embroidered! She preferred to be known as a lady than a wing shot, despite her Olympic-level talent.


Annie received extraordinary attention from the press and various dignitaries when the Wild West traveled to London in 1887 for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, which caused tension with Cody, who was a vain, temperamental boss. This is the story I tell in my novel which should be published before the centennial celebration of Oakley’s death in 2026.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Writing has been my passion since my teenage years. It makes me feel whole, and I’m never more content than when I’m at my computer spinning yarns. I worked in theater for seven years after college, and my favorite sub-genre is the backstage novel. My first book (2012), The Voice I Just Heard, is one, and so is One More Seat at the Round Table.


My Annie Oakley novel, Little Sure Shot in the Wild West, is another backstage story! It takes grit and determination to perform, and I’m interested in what motivates actors, singers, and even exhibition sharpshooters to give their utmost for their audience. (It's not unlike what motivates authors, except that we have the luxury of writing in private and showing our work after we've rewritten it a dozen times.) 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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