Python and the Holy Grail is something of a cult classic. The 1975 film depicts
a series of absurd misadventures involving King Arthur and his Knights of the
Round Table. King Arthur pretends to ride a horse while his servant bangs two
coconuts together; a plague-ridden corpse being dragged into the street yells
"I'm not dead yet!" There's also a Black Knight who insists on fighting to the
death despite losing all his limbs, encounters with taunting Frenchmen, knights
who say "Ni!," and a killer rabbit.
For the first time ever, these antics have been brought to the Broadway stage.
Spamalot, which opened March 17, 2005 at the Schubert Theater, is a musical "lovingly
ripped off" from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. With a book and lyrics by original
Python member Eric Idle, and music by Idle with composer John Du Prez, Spamalot
takes the basic premise of Holy Grail and adds a bit more plot, a new character
or two, and some new songs, combined into a madcap premise that satirizes the
state of Broadway musicals today. Though some Python purists may quibble, Spamalot
is fantastic entertainment for fans of the movie who find musical theater in itself
to be, well, a bit silly.
The show stars Tim Curry as King Arthur, David Hyde Pierce ("Frasier") as not-so-brave
Sir Robin, and Hank Azaria ("The Simpsons") as Sir Lancelot. Original Python member
John Cleese (who, according to the program, has "had an aura of divinity since
his teens") provides the voice of God. Also starring are Sara Ramirez as The Lady
of the Lake and Michael McGrath as King Arthur's coconut-carrying servant, Patsy.
They are joined by an ensemble who portray a number of characters including knights,
monks, minstrels, ridiculous French people, bespangled chorus girls, a dancing
nun, and a rabbit puppet with big, sharp, pointy teeth.
Before the show even begins, audience members are treated to a bit of Python-esque
absurdity. The playbill contains a fake program, complete with cast and credits,
for "Dik Od Triaanen Fol," a musical involving the economic rise of Finland, a
sauna, and several moose.
As the lights go down, Cleese's voice lets the audience know that they may let
their cell phones and pagers ring, but the stage is full of heavily armed knights,
and they run the risk of being dragged onstage and impaled.
Spamalot keeps many of Holy Grail's beloved elements. There's a debate over whether
a swallow can, in fact, carry a coconut. The plague-ridden corpses still aren't
dead yet, and they have a whole song-and-dance number to prove it. There is, of
course, a shrubbery, as well as those monks who hit themselves in the head. David
Hyde Pierce, when stopped at the stage door, said the show had originally included
the film's oft-quoted witch scene, but this part was cut during their trial run
in Chicago for purposes of continuity.
Other, shorter bits have been expanded. One highlight is the "Knights of the Round
Table" number, from which the show gets its name ("We dine well here in Camelot
/ We eat ham and jam and Spam a lot!").
In Holy Grail, minstrels sing and knights dance on tables, but Arthur's knights
then decide to avoid Camelot because "it is a silly place." In Spamalot, Arthur's
knights go to Camelot, and Camelot is Las Vegas with medieval styling. The dancing
girls have a combination of a sparkly and medieval look, and the "round table"
is a roulette wheel that descends from the ceiling.
There are also some entirely new musical numbers, 17 in all. "Always Look on the
Bright Side of Life," from the Monty Python movie Life of Brian, is included in
the show. Sir Robin, whose minstrels sing about how he is not at all afraid to
be killed in nasty ways, gets an elaborate song and dance of his own that spoofs
Fiddler on the Roof and Mel Brooks musicals.
One major addition is The Lady of the Lake character, played by Sara Ramirez.
In the movie, The Lady of the Lake is only mentioned in passing, but in Spamalot
she's a full-fledged character who aids the Knights of the Round Table in their
quest for the Holy Grail. The Lady of the Lake is also a comic version of the
quintessential Broadway diva, belting out showstoppers and demanding more stage
time. Instead of a love song, she and Sir Galahad (Christopher Sieber) share a
self-referential send-up of all things Andrew Lloyd Weber ("The Song That Goes
Like This") where they clutch each other over a misty, candle-lit lake in mock
Phantom of the Opera style.
The Lady has another diva moment when she is left offstage for too long in the
second act and returns to the spotlight to lament, "Whatever happened to my part?"
Ramirez's vocal power and stage presence make for an impressive performance.
The other characters are a festive bunch. Tim Curry's King Arthur has a commanding
presence as the show's strongest central character. David Hyde Pierce lends his
comic timing to the wimpy, skittish Sir Robin.
Many actors play multiple roles as well. Hank Azaria plays the French Taunter
in addition to his versatile Sir Lancelot. Another memorable performer is Christian
Borle (also seen as the singing salesclerk in the "That's on eBay" commercial)
who plays a number of bit parts including Prince Herbert of Swamp Castle, a character
from Holy Grail who only wants to sing. Here, he finally gets his song.
The set has a style that is deliberately cartoon-ish. The stage includes a "mighty
portcullis" onto which animations are projected; up top, there are a number of
purposefully fake-looking clouds. The portcullis rises at various times on a series
of flimsy castles and a "very expensive forest." The character of God, represented
in the movie by an animated photograph of 19th Century English Cricketer W.G.
Grace, appears on stage as a pair of giant feet.
If there is any kind of meaning to be found in Spamalot, it's that we don't need
to take ourselves so seriously. The show cleverly undermines expectations by reminding
us that a show is just a show, but it does so with a style of humor that is not
as simple as it first appears. It seems this inspired silliness may lead to a
long and successful run. Already, ticket sales are causing speculation that Spamalot
may become as popular as a certain other big-name Broadway-mocking show based
on a movie, "The Producers." To that, I say, long live King Arthur - and that
killer rabbit, too.