Monty Python's Spamalot

Spamalot on Lake

As a follow up to this Dave Eggers interview, here is a brief history of Monty Python, found in the latest New Yorker (that I've received anyway, Chicago mail service being what it is), as a prelude to the Spamalot review....

When “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” first began taping in London, in the fall of 1969, studio audiences were totally unprepared for what the were about to see. People brought in off the street, expecting to watch one of the BBC’s comedies or variety shows—most of them broad and campy—were given, for example, a sketch about sheep who try to fly, and how flying sheep, with the right engineering, might be made to accommodat human passengers and used for economical mass transit. Older ladies, bused in and anticipating domestic comedy—or even an actual circus—wer given a play-by-play account of Pablo Picasso’s efforts to paint a masterpiece while riding a bicycle. That segment, filmed in the suburbs of Londo and shown to the studio audience, included references to Chagall, Miró, Brancusi, and Léger—and marked perhaps the first and only time that Kur Schwitters has been used as a punch line. Did the audience laugh? Not much

After the first handful of episodes aired in Britain—late on Sundays—few people knew what to make of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” BBC executives were concerned, the family members of the group were concerned, and, for the most part, the members of Python were concerned. “Do you realize,” John Cleese said to Michael Palin before the first taping, “this could be the first comedy show to go out with absolutely no laughs at all?” When the comedy was big and wet—sixteen-ton weights falling onto cast members, would-be soldiers killed while attacking each other with bananas and raspberries—the response was warm. Much of the time, though, the studio audiences were respectful but confused. BBC executives shuttled the show into ever-changing time slots, and hoped it would disappear.

“Monty Python’s Flying Circus” was a sketch show written and performed by six men—Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, and Michael Palin—all of whom (except for Gilliam, an American) had attended Cambridge or Oxford, writing and performing in college revues. After college, they enjoyed successful careers in TV, including stints on the droll news sendup “The Frost Report” and a children’s show called “Do Not Adjust Your Set.” When they joined forces, they created a program that combined startling erudition, theatrical precision, and utter madness. All the while, the Pythons employed a brazenness about what they considered funny that went unmatched until the early days of “Late Night with David Letterman.” In any given episode of “Monty Python,” there are usually only a few segments that would be considered ha-ha funny by a wide swath of people. These sketches, involving silly walks, nudges and winks, and songs about cross-dressing lumberjacks, share equal time with those segments which are disquieting—like the sketch wherein a son takes his dead mother to the undertaker and, after considering various burying and cremation options, decides to eat her. Some bits were just willfully odd. A man in full armor hitting a man with a rubber chicken, for example, may have been preceded by a sophisticated satire of the British judicial system, with a cameo, for no discernible reason, by Cardinal Richelieu.

“Monty Python” was always closer to Dada than to “Laugh-In,” and as the show matured the episodes became ever more conceptually advanced. In 2000, A&E reissued, on DVD, all forty-five episodes of the show in one boxed set, and watching them in order reveals a steady progression: at first, the group seems generally eager for the audience’s approval, even mugging occasionally; over the course of seasons two, three, and four, the writing becomes braver, angrier, stylistically restless, and more likely to go for long stretches without overt attempts at humor. Monty Python’s goal was not only to make audiences laugh but, just as important, to tear apart the medium of television with extreme prejudice. As a whole, the series, which ended in 1974, has no competition for being the most consistently bizarre program ever aired on TV.

Was it a British thing? That was the assumption by some, and it remains the explanation offered by those for whom Python’s humor does little. In the early days, there were various halfhearted attempts to bring the show over to the United States—Lorne Michaels reportedly sold “Saturday Night Live” as “‘Monty Python’ meets ‘60 Minutes’”—but the first major exposure American audiences had to Python was via Johnny Carson. After a highly successful Canadian stage tour in 1973, the group was invited to do a series of sketches on the “Tonight Show”—hosted by Joey Bishop on that particular night. The result was dropped-jaw silence. The curtain went up and Chapman and Idle performed a piece involving the burying of a cat. Idle: “I just spent four hours burying the cat.” Chapman: “Four hours to bury the cat?” Idle: “Yes, it wouldn’t keep still, wriggling about, howling its head off.” It was a while before network television came calling again. Did the Pythons care? Not much. Then and always, they cared if people laughed, but they didn’t care if everyone laughed.

In 1974, a group of PBS stations bought broadcast rights for the first three seasons, and soon enough the show was sluicing its way into the brains of, according to Palin, “insomniacs, intellectuals, and burglars” in North America. In addition to the expected audience of college students—who understood the show as a collision between a comedy-variety show and surrealism in its purest form—others just liked to laugh at the funny men dressed as middle-aged women. The show wasn’t always easy to find in the United States, but its following became central to any effective PBS pledge drive. The Pythons were heroes to the Second City contingent, and had made their way to Graceland. Elvis Presley, a big fan, was known to quote Idle’s “Nudge Nudge” skit to his friends.

read the rest here, or barring that, here...

With a growing audience came attempts to conquer the United States through movies. Their first film, “And Now for Something Completely Different”—essentially a string of extant skits filmed and stitched together, with better production values—didn’t make much of a splash at the box office. “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” was released in 1975, after the completion of the fourth and final season, when the members of the group were already considering what their post-Python personas would be. The film, an account of King Arthur assembling his knights and their quest for the Holy Grail, was filmed in Scotland, on a budget of about two hundred thousand pounds. Unable to fund the movie through established production companies, the group, popular in the rock world, secured investments from members of Pink Floyd, Genesis, and Led Zeppelin, who chipped in some twenty thousand pounds each. The five-week shoot was brutal. It rained most days, and the Pythons spent much of their time in faux-chain-mail costumes made of heavy wool, soaked through. For their suffering, and for their writing and acting services, each member of Monty Python was paid about four thousand pounds.

“The Holy Grail” did a decent business, as did their next film, ninety minutes of vicious and brilliant heresy called “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” (1979). The story of a man (Chapman), who is mistaken for the Messiah, it was as much a satire of religious zealotry as it was a comment on Middle East factionalism in the seventies, featuring the inevitable and deadly battle between the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front. Protests by Christian leaders preceded it everywhere it went, and it was banned in Ireland.

The group’s final movie, “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life” (1983), marked a return to an episodic format, and was the angriest thing the group had ever created. It included a sequence wherein Graham Chapman is chased over a cliff by a pack of topless women wearing helmets, and “Every Sperm Is Sacred,” possibly the most elaborate Catholic-mocking Busby Berkeley production number ever committed to film. “The Meaning of Life,” too, was banned in Ireland, but it was sent to Cannes as a British entry. On landing in France, Terry Jones, who had directed the film, declared that Monty Python would win a major award, because the group had bribed the judges. “The Meaning of Life” actually did win the Special Grand Jury Prize, and in his acceptance speech Jones (whose suit jacket bore the words “eat more pork”) let the judges know that the money was in the bathroom, behind the washbasins.

At that point, the group called it quits and went their separate ways. Idle and Cleese eventually moved to California to act in movies and do their own writing. Gilliam went on to a successful career as a director of films, among them “Brazil” and “Twelve Monkeys,” often employing former Pythons. Palin appeared in “Brazil,” for example, and also wrote novels and guidebooks, and hosts a series of BBC travel shows. Jones directed his own movies, including “Personal Services”—also banned in Ireland—and “The Wind in the Willows,” and at the moment is writing op-eds for the Guardian. Chapman died in 1989. The Pythons have appeared together only twice in the past eighteen years.

...This was the chair in which the first pages, and the pages in the middle, and, later on, the last pages of “Spamalot,” the musical-comedy adaptation of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” were written.

Above both Idle and the chair, questions hovered. Was Idle anxious? Nervous? Sick to his stomach? After all, in a few days he would fly to New York, where rehearsals of “Spamalot”—an eleven-million-dollar production starring Hank Azaria (of “The Simpsons” and “Huff”), Tim Curry (of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”), and David Hyde Pierce (the Emmy-winning co-star of “Frasier”)—were to begin, under the guidance of Mike Nichols, winner of various Tonys, Oscars, and Emmys. Was Idle wishing he were working with a more experienced cast, a more seasoned director? The musical would begin previews in Chicago on December 21st, and move to Broadway in February. That much was certain. But the unknowns persisted: Would Broadway audiences take to the Pythons’ particular brand of humor? Would they be able to understand all the words, if spoken with accents—one of them French? And, perhaps most important: Could a low-budget film, wherein King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table pretend to ride horses with the aid of pages banging coconuts together, be adapted for the stage, thirty years later, with the world at war?

Eric Idle looked at the chair, but on that day the chair offered no answers.

Idle had just finished giving a tour of his Los Angeles home, a sort of museum of Python paraphernalia. His basement is full of Python-themed toys, including various “Holy Grail” figurines and a Black Knight with removable limbs (bloody). There were Monty Python records and books and an action figure of Mr. Creosote, the blowsy gourmand who explodes in “The Meaning of Life” after ingesting one simple mint, wafer-thin. The only problem with the toy Creosote is that the vomit it expels is green and viscous, whereas it’s commonly known that in the movie Creosote’s vomit is peach-colored and has the consistency of watery paste.

“That, uh, hadn’t occurred to me,” Idle said, politely. “But look at this.” He pointed to a facsimile of King Arthur’s chain-mail crown apparatus, resting on a candelabra in his foyer. “It’s far more elaborate than the one we used in the film. We used tin, or some light metal. People, you know, are insane.”

It would be easy to imagine that as a founding member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus Idle would have conflicting feelings about the group. Last year, they published a book, extraordinary in its candor, called “The Pythons Autobiography by the Pythons.” It’s told in an oral-history format, and contains all the fights and struggles—power and personal—one would expect, including Chapman’s difficulty first with coming out as gay and later with alcoholism. Though the members of the group have obvious familial affection for each other, dozens of disagreements simmer on the page—chiefly those involving the direction of the group during and after its heyday. One is left with the impression that most of the group’s members were, at various times, ready to put their Python days behind them. John Cleese in particular seemed anxious to make a break. He chose to leave Python before the group’s fourth season (going on to “Fawlty Towers”), and, years later, it was Cleese who put the kibosh on the idea of another Python movie.

But Idle has always, it seemed, been happy to have been a Python, happy to talk about Python, happy to revisit the group’s glory days. Even though he’s gone on to his own work—dozens of films, plays, TV shows, albums, books, and screenplays (including a yet-to-be-produced parody of a Merchant-Ivory film, called “The Remains of the Piano”)—he is perhaps the most active standard-bearer for the group. It was Idle who toured extensively in 2000 and 2003, performing Python songs with a band and backup singers. He went on the road first with the Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python Tour, then with the Greedy Bastard Tour, which was documented extensively on the Python Web site he launched in 1996.

Idle was perhaps the most musically inclined Python, and wrote the majority of the songs the group produced over the years. He now has about a hundred and fifty songs to his credit, among them some of Monty Python’s most famous, including “The Galaxy Song,” from “The Meaning of Life,” and “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” sung by Idle at the end of “Life of Brian” as his character is crucified on a Jerusalem hillside. Idle’s lyrics tend, in that song and elsewhere, to be jolly in their open-eyed optimism (“When you’re chewing on life’s gristle / Hey, don’t grumble, give a whistle”) while cut with profanity and a relatively dark world view (“Life’s a piece of shit / When you look at it”).

A composer named John Du Prez played trumpet on that recording, and became Idle’s longtime collaborator, co-writing music for “The Meaning of Life.” Idle had been thinking about writing a musical comedy with Du Prez for years, ever since he’d starred as Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, in the English National Opera’s 1986 production of “The Mikado.” Two years later, he was in the Los Angeles office of Mel Brooks, pitching a stage adaptation of “The Producers.” Brooks declined, wanting to concentrate on films, and being unsure, in any case, that such a thing would work.

“I was right about ‘The Producers,’” Idle said, now sitting in his chair. “I was there on opening night, and I knew it was going to be a gigantic hit. And at that point I had had the idea for the ‘Holy Grail’ musical, but I dismissed it because of the Python business thing.”

Long ago, the Pythons made an informal agreement that any one of them had veto power over possible Python projects. Over the years, this has protected them from a variety of ill-advised spinoffs or misuses of the Python name, but the requirement has hampered many other endeavors. In 1998, the Pythons reunited at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, in Aspen, for an onstage panel discussion hosted by Robert Klein. Midway through, the purported remains of Graham Chapman were brought out and placed on a coffee table around which the Pythons sat. Not only did Gilliam knock over the urn, sending dust everywhere, but after it had been righted it began talking—or rattling, from within, answering questions with one knock or two. In the wake of that event, there was talk of a tour, with the group reënacting stage versions of some of their most famous skits. But the notion fizzled when Michael Palin backed out. “There’s always someone saying no,” Idle said. (He’s said no himself in the past.) “I suppose it was for the best this time. We didn’t all turn out to be disappointing old farts—people saying, ‘I went to see them and they’re all so old.’”

Given the fickle and hypercritical nature of the group, in conceiving “Spamalot” Idle had to manage his expectations. He prepared intensely on his own, before even telling the other Pythons he was working on the musical. Determined to assemble the most polished presentation possible, he sent the Pythons not only a draft of the script but half a dozen studio versions of the songs.

Idle got out of his chair. “You want to hear the song that did it?” He was already at his computer, looking for the tune. He then played a song called “The Song That Goes Like This.” It was simultaneously a perfect booming Broadway ballad and a ruthless taking apart of the booming Broadway ballad.

Idle was not supposed to be revealing details of the show, but he seemed too excited to hold back. He retrieved some of the early sketches for the production and showed those. Then he was back at the computer, where he played an iMovie version of the musical, assembled by the set and costume designer, Tim Hatley. Using Gilliam-style cutouts, the animated mockup ran through all the set changes and production numbers. There were dozens of people working on costumes and sets—even the transformation of the outside of the Shubert Theatre, which would be made to look like a castle. “Just watch,” Idle said. “They’ll be using hand-tooled coconuts flown in from Bali.”

After sending out the “Spamalot” songs and script, Idle waited for the Pythons’ approval, expecting that it might take weeks or months. Palin was in the Himalayas for the BBC; Cleese was in Santa Barbara; and Jones, when he received the package, was in his garden in London with Gilliam. Somehow, Idle heard back from all of them in short order. Terry Jones organized a conference call to talk about it, and later sent an e-mail to Idle. “There was an unnerving degree of agreement,” he wrote. “Terry G. and John were both (surprisingly) tempted to get more involved in the project because they thought it was so good, but were tempered by the feeling that it is really your project and that you wouldn’t appreciate interference from superannuated, white-haired ex-Pythons.”

Idle received notes of encouragement and constructive criticism of the script from the Pythons, but for the most part they have been operating on the assumption that this is Idle’s project, for better or worse. “If it flops,” Idle said, sitting down again in his chair, “they can just blame me. They can walk right away: ‘Well, Eric fucked it up.’ If it succeeds, though, they’ll be there opening night.” Then he laughed for a long time.

"Twenty years ago, we might have been a bit more precious about it all,” Terry Jones said, “but now we’re more relaxed.” Jones was talking y phone from London, where he’d just returned from a screening at the National Film Theatre of two unearthed episodes of “The Complete and Utt r History of Britain,” a TV series he wrote with Michael Palin in the sixties. Watching it now, he was horrifie

“Everyone was laughing tonight, but I was so furious!” he said. The pacing had been off, the soundtrack all wrong; the material he and Palin had written was wrecked. “It was doing ‘The Complete and Utter History of Britain’ that got me really convinced that you have to control everything,” he said. “You not only act in the things—you’ve got to actually start directing the things as well. When we were doing ‘Python’ the TV show, I was a real pain in the neck. I would plant myself next to the director, Ian MacNaughton, and impose myself.” After MacNaughton directed “And Now for Something Completely Different,” the Pythons decided to guide the next project themselves. Jones and Gilliam, co-directors of “The Holy Grail,” were still learning their craft, though, when the first cut of the film was shown to investors. “It was a disaster, an absolute disaster,” Jones said. “People laughed for the first few minutes, then just silence all the way through the rest.”

The film was reëdited, and given a new soundtrack. The first, very serious score was replaced by tinny, faux-heroic music, which made the film funny again. Jones directed the next two films, each of them more complex and expensive than the one before. “The Meaning of Life” included seven songs, three of them with elaborate staging, including the finale, a horrifying Broadway-meets-Reno number called “Christmas in Heaven.” Jones is an aficionado of musicals, and he recently helped bring “The Play What I Wrote,” a successful British production about a pair of music-hall comics, from London to New York. It was co-produced by Mike Nichols, but it closed after two and a half months, and left Jones unsure of just what works onstage in America. With the TV show and the films, Jones always knew who the audience was: the Python audience, first and foremost, was the Pythons themselves.

“If all six of us laughed at something, then we all felt, That’s O.K., we can go ahead with that. And for me it was just a question of getting that on the screen, getting that moment of us sitting around the read-through, that moment where we all laughed, all six of us saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s funny.’”

“To understand Python, you have to understand the six people within, and how we all changed and developed,” Michael Palin said, when he was reached in England. “There was a very light touch in the first series, I grant you. There was a wonderful feeling of play—Hey, we can do it, we’re free! And then we became slightly more self-conscious about that freedom as time went on, and we began to think, Where do we go from here? You can’t always have sketches about flying sheep—you have to move on. Where are they flying to?”

Each of the members of Python had specialties and sensibilities—“checks and balances,” Palin said—with Chapman and Cleese inclined toward the more shocking material, and Jones and Palin to longer, more narrative-driven pieces. Idle, who often wrote alone, was good with one-liners, characters, music, and titles. (His original title for “Life of Brian” was “Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory,” Palin said.) But, whatever their strengths, they wrote for the group, generally not deciding who would play what part until the writing was finished—unusual in group comedy. In fact, though it would be easy to assume that Python’s influence has been wide and pervasive, it’s hard to see extensive evidence of it. In terms of sheer scope and intelligence and willingness to hit the extremes of high-brow and low, only a few shows have come close: the late-seventies show “SCTV”; “The Kids in the Hall,” a Canadian show that ran into the mid-nineties; and “Mr. Show,” the recent HBO series starring David Cross and Bob Odenkirk.

“I think we had a negative effect,” Terry Jones said. “Python shows were very, very packed, and we covered such a lot of subjects and styles. And afterward people began to say, ‘Oh, we can’t do that—Python already did that.’”

“That was a strength of Python—not trying to just please and broaden the audience more and more,” Palin said. “We sort of felt it was our duty not to be soft.” By the time “The Meaning of Life” came around, the members of Python, all now hovering around forty years old, moved in a direction that would seem counterintuitive. Though they wrote the film together, in Jamaica, the humor was pitch-black throughout. “Maybe just the fun had gone out of Python a bit,” Palin said. “To convince ourselves we were doing something good and strong, we had to make it punchy and more shocking.”

Palin acknowledges that he’s usually painted as the villain for squashing the idea of a stage tour after the Aspen festival, but he’s cautiously supportive of the adaptation. “Knowing what I know about Broadway, which isn’t a lot, it seems like quite a risky venture,” he said. He counted this in the musical’s favor. “This is really breaking new ground with ‘Spamalot,’ taking Python material but not doing it with the Pythons. There was a time when I would have minded, and would have felt very defensive about what we’d done, protecting every single aspect of its writing and performance. But this is a move on, to see if Python can be given a new life. I watch with some excitement, trepidation, and delight.”

In mid-October, Idle was eating lunch in a midtown Manhattan sushi restaurant, and he looked a bit wan. It was cold in New York, and he’d bee up much of the night before, revising Act II. “Spamalot” rehearsals had begun three days earlier, and during the first read-through with the complet cast Idle was dissatisfied with the flow of the show. In Los Angeles, he’d pointed to a page of his notebook that said, “Never mind the plot—it’ Python!” But he realized that the demands of a large-scale musical comedy are different. The movie, for example, ends quite suddenly when th actors are arrested by police for the murder of the TV historian who, early in the film, while narrating a documentary, is hacked to death by marauding knight

“We thought about ending with the cops,” Idle said, “but it’s a downer. We want people feeling good when they leave the theatre to get their dinners.”

Nichols, in particular, was adamant that the show be more than an assemblage of Monty Python’s greatest hits. It had to make sense, had to tell a story, and, at the same time, had to please many disparate groups at once: the longtime Python fans, the sometime Python fans, and people who might, even now, think they were going to see an actual circus. Idle leaned over the table and shaped his hands around an imaginary small animal.

“There are some things you know will be there—killer rabbits—but you also need to feel that you’re getting somewhere, that it isn’t just a random revue.”

The waiter, a tall man with halting English, came to the table and greeted Idle. When the waiter saw a tape recorder, he began whispering. He crouched near Idle, and whisper-asked if he would like some water. Idle picked up the cue. He leaned away from the tape recorder—as if it were a sleeping baby not to be woken—and whispered that he would. The waiter seemed confused, but soon came to the conclusion that, given Idle’s whispering, he, the waiter, should not speak at all. He mouthed a “sorry” and left. For the rest of the meal, whenever the waiter approached, Idle spoke to him sotto voce. In response, the waiter nodded gravely and served in absolute silence.

Idle was tired, but optimistic. John Cleese had been in town the day before, and walked into the rehearsal just as the cast was singing “Knights of the Round Table,” the lyrics of which Cleese had written with Chapman in 1974. “He had this big grin on his face,” Idle recalled. The song, which in the film is the biggest production number, is played in “Spamalot” as a Vegas-style bombardment of sight and sound, complete with a line of showgirls in body stockings. “Who would have thought we’d have all these people taking it so seriously—learning the lines, learning the steps? Thirty years later, to see people doing this stuff—it’s touching. It actually makes you want to cry.”

But certain logistical problems persisted. In the movie, Cleese, at six feet five, played the Black Knight, who refuses to grant King Arthur the victory in a sword fight, even after Arthur has chopped off all four of his limbs. Idle and Nichols had been discussing how to make the Black Knight work onstage.

“We thought we’d be able to get a pair of dwarfs, but it was prohibitively expensive,” Idle said. “You’d think you’d be able to get them for half price, but no.”

A prevailing theory among many of those involved in “Spamalot” is that the success of a string of offbeat musicals—“The Producers,” “Urinetown,” “Avenue Q”—bodes well for a Python extravaganza. It’s difficult to imagine investors lining up a decade ago, with “Cats” and “Les Misérables” dominating Broadway.

“To me, ‘The Producers’ is the punch-back of the comedy musical,” Idle said. “For years, there was nothing to laugh at, just Andrew Lloyd Webber and the plates on people’s faces. I refuse to believe people really enjoyed it, though they would say, ‘Oh, it’s wonderful—all that fog!’” Still, he was aware that there needed to be certain concessions. “There are one or two deliberately Broadwayish-type songs,” he went on. “But that’s the joy of it, that Python thing. Each thing we do also mocks the form that it’s in. The books, the records, the films—that’s part of what we do. We recognize the form that we’re in. That’s postmodernism, isn’t it? And I think we were there before postmodernism. We precede . . . was it Deru— What’s his name, the French guy?”


“Right. We precede him. In fact, I think he stole his stuff from ‘The Holy Grail.’ You know, that movie is still playing in France. There’s apparently a thirty-seat cinema in Paris that’s played ‘The Holy Grail’ for three decades. That explains a lot.”

Two hours later, the “Spamalot” cast was filing into a rehearsal room that looked exactly like what a rehearsal room for a Broadway musical shoul look like. The windows were gigantic and overlooked Forty-second Street, the floors were wood, and there was a floor-to-ceiling mirror occupyin one wall. The actors wore sweatpants, sweatshirts (some ripped), and even leg warmers. There was a piano in the corner, with a man playing it and woman turning pages for him. Mike Nichols was overseeing it all, Jedi style, unshakable, smiling benevolently

“I knew going in that musicals are the closest thing to hell on earth,” he said. “I have too much experience to ever think that doing a musicalcould ever be fun, but this is as close to that as it’s possible to come.” Nichols had a movie, “Closer,” approaching its première, yet he was spending most of every day directing a musical with a cast of twenty-three and a crew of fifty-one. “When they asked me to direct it, I said, ‘I can’t see it.’ They said, ‘Will you just come and listen to a read-through?’ And I did, and of course I laughed my ass off,” he said. “A friend asked me to explain how we were adapting the movie for the stage, and I thought about it and said, ‘O.K., you know how, in the movie, there’s a cow that flies out of a castle and lands on a page? Well, in the musical, the cow has a singing part.’”

While Idle originally pictured a cast of unknowns, Nichols handpicked a group of actors—Azaria, Curry, Hyde Pierce—to play the leads, and every one of them said yes immediately, and has committed to eight performances a week for up to a year. Azaria has known “The Holy Grail” by heart since he was fifteen; Hyde Pierce can pinpoint the moment when he first saw “Monty Python” as a teen-ager: “I remember explicitly that I was home and I was up late. I turned on Channel 17, the PBS station in upstate New York, and they were doing a skit called ‘The Dull Life of a City Stockbroker.’ Michael Palin was in a bowler hat, and he would step out to get the paper and unbeknownst to him a Zulu warrior would pop out of the bushes and try to stick him with a spear. And the stockbroker’s day continues that way, with all of these near-death experiences. It was astounding—the combination of absolutely dry wit and total anarchy.”

The cast settled into a semicircle, each with a new version of the second act of “Spamalot.” This would be their first read-through. Against the barre, at a long table, Idle and Nichols sat side by side, with John Du Prez; Casey Nicholaw, the choreographer; and about a dozen others.

When the read-through began, it became immediately clear that the dialogue in the act, much of which hadn’t been changed from the original film, was holding up well, even with different actors, almost all of them American. It’s easy to forget that the Pythons were writers first, performers second; thus the script of “The Holy Grail” is funny on the page, as is “Spamalot.” Tim Curry (not American) was playing King Arthur dignified and oblivious, just as Chapman had, but because Curry has to sing, he’s added both more camp and more melancholy to the role. David Hyde Pierce, playing Sir Robin, Idle’s character in the movie, read the same lines, and he was very funny, while playing a different Robin—less the utterly spineless coward and more a bumbling, misunderstood wuss. Hank Azaria was playing both the French Taunter and Sir Lancelot, and while Lancelot is now more murderous, he’s also somewhat sexually disoriented.

While the principals read their lines, they laughed at each other, and they laughed at the readings of the actors with secondary parts, and Idle and Nichols laughed at everyone, even though they’d heard most of the lines many, many times. When the knights were faced with the peril of the Knights Who Say Ni!, suddenly “Ni!”s were coming from all over the room, and it became evident that Idle himself was providing some of the stabbing, high-pitched “Ni!”s. As Nichols, seventy-four, sat next to him, red-faced from laughing, Idle, sixty-one, was almost out of his seat, yelling “Ni! Ni! Ni!”

Meanwhile, though, a handful of the dancers were not laughing. They had scripts on their laps and were reading along, but they did not laugh once in the forty minutes of Act II. While most of the room was breaking up, these dancers read along with confused, frozen smiles. They either weren’t listening, were too tired, or weren’t getting it.

Though there are undoubtedly more insomniacs, intellectuals, and burglars in the world now than when the show first aired, Python will always leave some people bewildered. Here in the Jerry Zaks rehearsal room—two floors below the studio where Billy Crystal was rehearsing “700 Sundays,” wherein he does impressions and tells sentimental stories about growing up—there were a bunch of adults practicing a musical-comedy version of a thousand-year-old quest for a golden goblet. This production will make absolutely no sense to a certain segment of the population, but to those who see the point—the absurdities of history, the absurdities of royalty and religion and warfare and songs and stages and lines and outfits and audiences and living—it will mean everything in the world.

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This page contains a single entry by Seth A. published on January 3, 2005 5:06 PM.

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