Without a Dead Parrot

April 24, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

So is "Spamalot" a series of "Monty Python" skits interrupted by irreverent musical numbers? Or is it an irreverent musical interrupted by "Monty Python" skits? The answer will probably depend on what your perspective is. This "new musical lovingly ripped off from the motion picture, Monty Python and the Holy Grail" clearly has the fingerprints of all the Pythons on it, even if only two are directly involved.

One of those two is Eric Idle, who handled the monumental task of adapting the movie to the stage and reformatting it as a musical. Idle gets credit for the book and lyrics while John Du Prez & Idle share the "music" credit. Meanwhile, John Cleese supplies his vocal talents to the production playing none other than "God." Since this role does not require him to be physically on-stage, Cleese was able to pre-record his seven or eight lines of dialogue then retire to his home in California and collect the royalties. The playbill describes him thus: "John Cleese has had an aura of divinity since his teens, and his services as the heavenly voice are much in demand... He has just founded the Church of JC Capitalist on his website (www.TheJohnCleese.com), where guarantees of entry into heaven may be purchased for $14.99 (vellum $49.99)." (The website is real.)

My guess is that the reaction to the play may be related on one's familiarity with the film and the Pythons' material in general. Die-hards will likely have a lot of fun during "Spamalot," but may tend to be a little overanalytical. For example, they may ask why certain skits were removed and may tend to compare the on-stage performances with the originals. Those who feel an almost-proprietary interest in Monty Python and the Holy Grail may be annoyed by some of the changes. This is me - I liked "Spamalot" a lot, but didn't love it. It was a fun two hours, but not the greatest time I have had at a Broadway musical.

Those lacking any familiarity with Monty Python will be totally lost. They will probably enjoy the songs more than the skit material, since the kind of humor embraced by the Pythons is an acquired taste. Actually, I'm somewhat surprised that someone who has never watched a Monty Python movie or television episode would even bother with "Spamalot," but the show has become such a must-see that these individuals are not hard to find.

Those who will enjoy the play the most are viewers who are in-between - familiar with Monty Python but not able to babble perfectly-intoned quotes. For the most part, these individuals will find both the skit material and the songs fresh, and neither aspect of the musical will take on a dominant position. This is my wife, who adored every second of the 135 minutes it was on stage (including intermission).

Some of the material from the film translates better to the stage than other material. The best parts are those that are dialogue-laden, including the discussion about swallows carrying coconuts and the French taunting. Other elements don't work as well - the catapault-throwing of animals, the Black Knight, and the rabbit come to mind. Still other sequences have been eliminated altogether, including the witch, the women in the castle, and the Bridgekeeper. (No "What is your name? What is your quest? What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?")

The songs are a mixed bag. Some are better than others. One, a vicious parody of Andrew Lloyd Webber's sappy tendencies (called "The Song That Goes Like This"), is brilliant. Two tunes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail make an appearance. "Brave Sir Robin" is pretty much unchanged, but "Knights of the Round Table" has undergone a face-lift. Idle also brings in the Pythons' most famous musical number, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" (originally from The Life of Brian), and even pays homage to "The Lumberjack Song."

The final 15 minutes of "Spamalot" don't seem like Monty Python, and the way that Eric Idle and director Mike Nichols choose to end the play is simply silly. Of course, this was understandably problematic, since the movie didn't have an ending, but their decision about how to wrap things up in the play is disappointing because it isn't particularly funny or irreverant.

Tim Curry does an outstanding job replacing Graham Chapman as King Arthur. And Hank Azaria has no problem with any of John Cleese's numerous roles. The weakest of the three principals is David Hyde Pierce, although he provides a top-notch Sir Robin. The real scene-stealer, however, is Sara Ramirez, whose Lady of the Lake wasn't even in the movie. She's on hand for about a half-dozen musical numbers, and makes an impression with each of them. (Most notably "The Song That Goes Like This" and "The Diva's Lament," in which she complains about her lack of stage time in Act II.)

"Spamalot" is a must-see for anyone with a degree of affection for Monty Python. The spirit of the original is present, and any potential staleness has been removed by the inclusion of more than one dozen musical numbers. This is not the Pythons' first time on stage, but it is their first trip to Broadway, and it looks like they'll staying for quite some time.