A VERY SILLY MUSICAL
Eric, the musical Python, has not lived up to his surname, writes Matthew Westwood
FROM its origins as a television sketch show, then in movies, books and recordings, Monty Python became one of the best known comedy acts in the world. It almost certainly was the silliest. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before Python humour nudge- nudged its way into musical theatre and classical music.
The musical is Spamalot , a hit show in Britain and the US, created by Eric Idle with the surviving Pythons’ blessing. Its origins are the Python film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail , with music by John Du Prez and, as Idle points out a little too often, a lot of dancing girls and spangly costumes. The title comes from Holy Grail ’ s knights of the Round Table: ‘‘ We dine well here in Camelot/ We eat ham and jam and Spam a lot.’’
Spamalot is about to open in Melbourne. Idle, whose first wife was Australian and whose son lives in Queensland, will be coming for the opening and says he is looking forward to an extended Australian sojourn. While here, he’ll also appear in another Python- inspired spin- off, Not the Messiah ( He’s a Very Naughty Boy) .
Australian audiences will be among the first in the world to see this ‘‘ comic oratorio’’, which had its premiere with the Toronto Orchestra in June. With apologies to the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian , and certainly to George Frederick Handel, Idle and Du Prez have created a musical narrative around the story of Brian, the boy born next door to the messiah.
The music is a concoction of menacing Shostakovich themes, doo- wop and Gilbert and Sullivan. It wouldn’t be complete, of course, without a hallelujah chorus: here called Hail to the Shoe , rendered in mock- Handelian tones.
Spamalot sprang from similar mischief. It’s a Broadway musical that gloriously sends up the Broadway musical.
The centrepiece is a number in a style that Andrew Lloyd Webber might recognise, The Song that Goes Like This (‘‘ It starts off soft and low/ And ends up with a kiss’’).
‘‘ That’s a Python thing,’’ Idle says on the phone from Los Angeles. ‘‘ If we did movies, we’d end up mocking movies; if we did books, we’d end up mocking books; if we did records, the same thing. I knew that one of the things the Pythons would have done, were they writing this musical, would be to send it up.’’
Idle bought rights in the Holy Grail from the other Pythons. The comedy group — originally Idle, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, John Cleese and Michael Palin — last worked together in 1983, on the film The Meaning of Life . Chapman died in 1989.
‘‘ I’ve made them very wealthy,’’ Idle says of Spamalot ’ s success. ‘‘ They’re quite happy with it. Once ( they saw) it isn’t really a Python thing, but something evolved from Python, their worries and concerns have relaxed.’’
The musical must owe its success, at least in part, to the popularity of the Holy Grail movie: its brilliant one- liners and sustained absurdity. Although the film appears improvised and made up on the spot, Idle says it was very carefully written.
‘‘ I always think of it as Python’s Hard Day’s Night ,’’ Idle says. ‘‘ We were young men, not really knowing what we were doing, but with great enthusiasm. There’s an enchanting, youthful naivety about it all, which is very much people making their own film, making it up as they go along. Not literally improvising, but seeing if they could do it.’’
Idle and Du Prez had been wanting to develop a stage musical for at least two decades. Du Prez wrote the music for The Meaning of Life , and the two collaborated on a radio musical for the BBC, The Back Page , ‘‘ about sex, royalty and cricket, the three things the English love most. We even tried to get a dog in it.’’
One possible subject for a musical, Idle thought, was the 1968 Mel Brooks film The Producers , another irreverent send- up of Broadway. ‘‘ In 1983 I went to Mel Brooks and asked him if I could adapt The Producers as a musical: ‘ Why don’t you be Bialystock and I’ll be Bloom, and Jonathan Miller will direct and we’ll put it on at the Old Vic?’. He said, ‘ I’m just enjoying being a film director at the moment.’ ’’
Brooks, of course, went on to write his own highly successful stage version of The Producers . ‘‘ When I was at the opening night of The Producers , I was thrilled,’’ Idle says. ‘‘ Now they would take me seriously, and I would be able to find finance for Spamalot .’’
Idle and Du Prez worked with the film and theatre director Mike Nichols, formerly one half of the comedy duo Nichols and ( Elaine) May. They were determined that Spamalot should not be a sketch show writ large: the killer rabbits followed by the Knights of Ni followed by the dismembering of the Black Knight (‘‘ ’ Tis just
a scratch’’). Characters had to be credible, the storyline cohesive.
‘‘ Like all comedy, you must play it seriously, and for real, otherwise it is just silly entertainment,’’ Idle says. ‘‘ When I went into rehearsal, it was on draft 12, and when we came out it was about draft 16. I did three drafts of Act II during the six weeks of the rehearsal process.’’
The show had to have Broadway production values, even as it was taking the mickey out of musical theatre. Was there a risk that Spamalot , on a Broadway stage, could lose the spirit of sheer inventiveness of Holy Grail , the sense that it was all held together with hope and sticky tape? Idle points out that low- budget films and multimillion- dollar musicals are different art forms that carry different sets of expectations.
‘‘ You can’t put on a cheap musical; people will go away,’’ he says. ‘‘ The point of Broadway, somewhat, is excess and flash and razzamatazz. If you’re going to send that up, or be part of it, you have to have all of those elements. If you’re doing musical numbers, you want the girls in spangly costumes and the sets to look great and the lighting to be terrific.’’
Spamalot opened in New York in 2005 ( winning the Tony Award for best musical), London in 2006 and Las Vegas earlier this year. It has reached audiences that other musicals can’t by tapping a vein of undergraduate humour that appeals to young males. Just as so many Python lines have entered the vernacular, amateur renditions of The Song that Goes Like This have found their way on to YouTube.
‘‘ Very simply, it’s funny,’’ says Idle. ‘‘ It has tender moments and touching moments, but essentially it’s silly and goofy in an odd and pleasing way at this time of history.’’
Musical theatre had become earnest and sentimental; missing from the stage was the joy and irreverence of musical comedy. Spamalot could be the antidote to The Phantom of the Opera , the sickeningly talented dancing boys of Billy Elliot and the hardly laugh- a- minute tale of the Vietnam War, Miss Saigon .
‘‘ The musical had ceased to be a comedy musical,’’ Idle says. ‘‘ It became a musical about helicopters and props and MTV. It was only when Mel Brooks opened up with The Producers that musical comedy was back. It was a form I was always convinced would come back, because it is the most agreeable.’’
And there may be something in the Zeitgeist that is craving the Pythonesque. A special episode of Britain’s The South Bank Show , about Spamalot , makes the observation that when it was released in 1975, Monty Python and the Holy Grail offered some relief from the horrors of Vietnam. Spamalot could be the same welcome distraction for an audience disillusioned by the debacle in Iraq.
‘‘ It’s hard to say why things at certain times are appealing,’’ Idle says. ‘‘ Comedy obviously always has a certain kind of appeal. But I think Always Look on the Bright Side is a good anthem for the time.’’ A soft- shoe shuffle with a pleasingly optimistic tone, the song nevertheless attained a certain notoriety.
Idle sang it in the final scene of The Life of Brian while being crucified. Idle also leads the singing of it in the finale of Not the Messiah .
Considered blasphemous by some, the film was banned by several local councils on its release in Britain and was picketed at cinemas by the religious.
Idle says the protesters misunderstood the film’s target, which was not Jesus but false idols and unearned celebrity.
‘‘ The people who attacked it had never seen it, and misunderstood it,’’ he says. ‘‘ They thought we were laughing somehow at Jesus, who appears in the movie twice. We clearly differentiate between the historical figure and this other poor schmuck who gets mistaken for a messiah.
‘‘ In a sense it’s laughing at mankind’s constant putting of people on pedestals who shouldn’t be there . . . They’re now on television, you see them all the time.’’
Not the Messiah , performed in concert, is without the images that some people found objectionable. Du Prez will conduct the Australian performances, with opera singers Bradley Daley, Kirsti Harms, Michael Lewis and Sharon Prero and the Cantillation choir.
‘‘ The oratorio caused not a single qualm,’’ Idle says. ‘‘ I think ( the controversy) had something to do with the images of people on crosses, whereas we’re in white tie and tails, doing it very formally and straightly.
‘‘ There’s nothing for people to think that we’re mocking them, and that their deep beliefs are being exposed to ridicule. This is an openhearted experience. Jesuits have come along and enjoyed it.’’ Does laughter have a place in religion? ‘‘ I don’t know, because I don’t really understand what religion is,’’ Idle says. ‘‘ I think laughter has the most important place in life because laughter is a survival mechanism that teaches us what is true and not true.
‘‘ The religious impulse is a moral impulse that we’ve learned as we evolved from animals: how to behave morally. But laughter is the honing device that teaches us whether anything is full of bullshit or not.’’ Spamalot opens at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, December 1. Not the Messiah ( He’s a Very Naughty Boy) is at Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, December 5; Sydney Opera House, December 9 and 12; Perth Concert Hall, December 20 and 21.
Knights in right satire: Idle performs in the US premiere of Not the Messiah
in New York earlier this year, left; a scene from the hit musical Spamalot , adapted from the Pythons’ Holy Grail movie
Wham, bam, thank you Spam: Eric Idle is delighted by the return of musical comedy