Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Monty Python has a Broadway hit in 'Spamalot'


Michael McGrath plays Patsy, left, and Tim Curry is King Arthur in Monty Python s Spamalot.


NEW YORK - The Holy Grail, any assertions of a recent popular novel to the contrary, is to be found in seat A101 of Broadway's Shubert Theatre.

Or seat B101, or some other seat nearby, depending on which performance of Monty Python's Spamalot you attend.

(SPOILER ALERT: The ending is revealed in the next sentence.)

The inhabitant of the lucky seat is brought on stage to be celebrated for solving the mystical mystery of the ages. But the musical's creators found they'd better vary the lucky number when tickets for seat A101 started going on eBay for $1,500. The change required additional set pieces, but it was worth the expense just to see the face of the holder of A101 when it wasn't selected.

All of which goes to prove that you can't buy the Holy Grail on eBay.

But you can find it at a hit Broadway musical, because, as Spamalot makes clear, the grail is not really a gilded cup, but Broadway success itself. Why not? Surely pursuit of show-biz gold has motivated as many artists throughout history as the search for the cup used at the Last Supper or whatever else the mysterious grail may be.

And the drive to create "a great big Broadway hit" (an entirely relevant allusion to Mel Brooks' The Producers) is the unspoken motivation of every musical. But Spamalot doesn't leave it unspoken. Early in Act 2, just when the grail quest of King Arthur's knights is losing its early zest, Arthur learns from the voice of God (John Cleese) that he's really been searching all along for Broadway, even though it's a thousand years in the future in a country that hasn't yet been discovered.

So that quest takes over the plot. And in this search, as with the grail, the physical prize turns out to be really a symbol (cue the Monty-Pythonesque crash of cymbals) of some quality of heart and soul.

In Tennyson, Malory, T.H. White, and the other grail mythographers, that quality is purity. You can't expect to find real purity on Broadway, but Spamalot has a convincing substitute in the delicious silliness and musical comedy innocence of script and cast.

For example, which do you watch with more delight: the standard choreographic gyrations of the knights-and-maidens ensemble or the dogged approximations by dancing neophytes David Hyde Pierce and Hank Azaria? Just as in the grail legends, Spamalot is most triumphantly successful when true to its own heart and least so when most crassly aping the thing it desperately wants to be.

That heart, of course, is the 1975 movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which the Arthur of the late Graham Chapman leads the other five Pythons, playing multiple roles each, on a joking journey through the debris of medieval legend and romance.

Python Eric Idle and composer John Du Prez took that script, added songs (including the inspired theft of Idle's own "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from the film Monty Python's Life of Brian), added the quest for Broadway (always write what you know), and engaged director Mike Nichols and his Midas touch to whip it all into shape.

And have I yet said what a great shape it is? Spamalot is wonderfully silly, irreverent, P.C.-bashing musical comedy in the same throwback mode as The Producers, a great big deserving Broadway hit.

Its shtick is in the baggy pants tradition, extending from Plautus to vaudeville to Larry Gelbart and Brooks. Many of the biggest laughs come from milking one character's disbelieving reaction to another's silliness. But there is a brainier humor in the gleeful debunking of stereotypes, whether of medieval or Broadway romance.

That's the unsecret secret of all those inspired bits from the movie. The key one is Arthur's early dispute with two subjects, Dennis and his mum, about the source of the king's power. "I am your lord," he says with fatuous self-satisfaction, describing his anointing by the shimmering Lady of the Lake. Then they proceed to debunk that with a travesty of democratic doctrine. So both medieval hocus-pocus and modern political earnestness are mocked - ditto in the plague cart, French taunter, killer rabbit, and other sequences from the film.

The show's humor flags only when it sells out its medieval lunacy and switches to Las Vegas razzmatazz. But there is always that engaging klutziness of Pierce, Azaria, and company to bring it back into focus.

Tim Curry, as Arthur, has a different secret. The musical theater pro is full of smarmy satisfaction. Curry's Arthur does have a more satiric glint than Chapman's, but his very world-weariness functions as a kind of charming innocence.

Inheriting most of Idle's and Cleese's roles are Pierce and Azaria, but they suffuse them with their own humor. Azaria supplements his stolid Lancelot with his zany French Taunter (mockery of the French is a favorite meeting ground for Americans and Brits), Knight Who Says Ni, and Merlinesque enchanter. To his wary Sir Robin, Pierce adds a bemused monk. Both exemplify the comic quest and transformation motif with a coming out - Sir Robin as a show-biz wannabe, Lancelot as a gay hoofer.

For Arthur, transformation comes via the curvaceous Lady, played with diva-bashing zest by Sara Ramirez. Shape-shifting comic support comes from Christopher Sieber (Sir Dennis Galahad, mainly), Steve Rosen (Sir Bedevere), Michael McGrath (Arthur's faithful coconut clapper, Patsy) and Christian Borle, who is a comic utility-player deluxe, ranging from weedy historian and dewy Prince Herbert to exultant Not Dead Fred and taunting Minstrel.

Sets and costumes are by Tim Hatley, but the presiding motifs are taken right from the Python iconography of Terry Gilliam.

The most successful motif added to the movie origins is a running parody of musical theater. Joining the French as chief parodic target is Andrew Lloyd Webber: Galahad and the Lady glide in on a mist-shrouded boat to sing "The Song That Goes Like This," a soaring anthem of Webberesque sound and vapid lyrics. There's also a grail version of the bottle dance from "Fiddler on the Roof" and an umbrella number reminiscent of Gene Kelly. I caught references to Les Miz, La Mancha, and West Side Story - doubtless there are more.

In this, as in the Copacabana-style number for Lancelot and Prince Herbert Miranda, Spamalot shows us how much it wants to be at home on Broadway. It is.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Christopher Rawson is the Post-Gazette drama critic.

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