Eric, the mu­si­cal Python, has not lived up to his sur­name, writes Matthew West­wood

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

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

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