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King Mike and The Quest for the Broadway Grail

In “Spamalot,” Mike Nichols and Eric Idle bring Monty Python to the stage. How do you set decapitated knights and flying cows to music?


Knights and maiden of Spamalot: Sir Robin (David Hyde Pierce), the Lady of the Lake (Sara Ramirez), Kin Arthur (Tim Curry), and Sir Lancelot (Hank Azaria).  

February 15, 2005 A.D.
Eleven o'clock P.M.
Famous Restaurant in the Theater District

The Wry King is played by Mike Nichols
The Cheeky King is played by Eric Idle

And so they had bravely fled, the wry king and the cheeky knight, amid the thick and merry exodus of celebrants. Past the second-night johnnies camped at the portals, past the giddy purchasers of commemorative coconut halves (instructions for use included), they had galloped not so much as strode briskly down the block and over a little, to seat themselves at their Square Four-Top—a table Round not at all, any way you look at it—in a dim corner of Orso, where their salads now arrived.

The king quizzically regarded the knight’s garnish.

“White anchovies,” the knight explained.

“I see them,” said the king. “They’re lovely.”

“Would you like one?”

“No, thank you,” said the king. “I just like looking at them. They’re very much like what they bring you in Tokyo for breakfast. They brought us this terrifying fish and they prostrate themselves. Fuck that.”

“Oh, I like it,” said the knight, happily. “The prostration’s good over there! You know, we went to No. 1 in Japan at one stage back in the eighties. We were called ‘Gay Dragon Boys.’ ”

The king inquired, “Who made that decision?”

“That’s how it was translated into Japanese.”

“It’s such a nightmare,” the king groused, empathically. “In France, they tried calling Closer ‘Between Consenting Adults.’ I called them up, and I beat the shit out of them.”

“I saw that film!” said the knight. “It’s on our porno channel back at the hotel! Between Consenting Adults.”

The king continued, pointedly: “My favorite film title of all time is Fear Eats the Soul. They ought to call most movies that.” Whereupon dark, knowing laughter burbled between them, as though they understood all too well how fear eats souls, be it in life or in film or during late supper on the second night of Broadway previews for an $11 million grand storied caprice ultimately all their own, featuring human decapitation, deadly cows, serial incontinence, and happy songs. In fact, it is more than certain that fear had been eating their souls right then and there, at the Square Table of Orso—just feasting and gorging away, most probably. And as fear ate their souls, this king and knight ate rigatoni and mussels, and waiters couldn’t replenish the breadbasket often enough, and there was rice pudding and biscotti to follow, so it really was quite the banquet, all in all. And I remember thinking: These guys can eat Fear under the Table! And so it was.

Meet Arthur, if you will, king of the Britons, alone in the snowy wood, answering the rhetorical concern of his people, who fancy him ever buoyant and chipper: “Well, I’ll tell you what the king is doing tonight! He’s scared. Oh, he’s scared!”

Such was Richard Burton, suffused in song by Lerner and Loewe, as Arthur of the Majestic Theater, circa 1960–63, in Scene One of the seismic musical production Camelot, a Broadway landmark that bears no significance here in the least, other than to suggest Arthur has changed little in 45 years, and also that it’s sort of funny the way Camelot rhymes with Spamalot—known in full possessive as Monty Python’s Spamalot, or roughly translated to Japanese as Gay Dragon Boys’ Spamalot. Much more than an abundance of pressed pork meat, Spamalot is what pressed pork meat has forever dreamed of becoming: a riotous, tuneful, splendidly crafted stage-sprawl, based on (or, per proper subtitle, “lovingly ripped off from”) the cheaply made 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, whose sold-out previews began Valentine’s Day at the Shubert Theater after weathering its exultant holiday-season tryout in Chicago, the city from whence sprang The Producers four years ago. (“I have seen the next Producers, and its name is Spamalot,” trumpeted Richard Roeper in the Chicago Sun-Times on January 13, thus unleashing eastbound thunder.) Opening on St. Patrick’s night—“Everyone will be drunk and sleeping,” predicts producer Bill Haber—the show arrives gloriously spawned of Comic Pedigree so rarefied and swell that its shininess all but blinds, sort of like a Grail. Certainly, it is the Comedy Event of this particular Year in Christ, A.D.

To wit: As with the commingling of Pork and Ham, Minced, Spiced, Canned, there is strange heady hybrid at play here, whereupon the legendary imported genius that is Monty Python’s Flying Circus meets the legendary domestic genius that is Mike Nichols, and together they make babies (and kill many of them as they go, but we’ll get to that), while scalpers ask $500 a seat from anyone desperate to behold the miracle.

The Pythons, of course, simply remain the Beatles of comedy. They banded together in May 1969 at the British Broadcasting Corporation to create 45 renegade Surrealist half-hour programmes through 1974. That same year, select American PBS stations began televising episodes late Sunday nights, forever impressing upon a fresh continent of acolytes the madness of “The Lumberjack Song” and “The Dead Parrot Sketch” and the Ministry of Silly Walks et al. Know What I Mean, Nudge-Nudge? Bright adolescent boys, please note, were especially affected by the phenomenon: “You didn’t want to be around me on Mondays,” says the Queens-bred Hank Azaria, who is Spamalot’s Sir Lancelot. “Me and my middle-school friends would come in and repeat all the lines.”

Even as American entertainment fell sway to this foreign infection (Saturday Night Live debuted, under deep influence, in 1975), the Pythons themselves—five Brits, who were Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin, and one Minnesotan, Terry Gilliam—had quit television as a whole, shifting group focus to the very occasional film. Of the five they made, Holy Grail was the first of any consequence, shot over five weeks on a £200,000 budget around grim Scottish castles. “It was just cold and wet and miserable,” Idle would recall. “It was fucking awful. It was no fun at all. I don’t think there was any fun.”

Seized with the fond memory, Idle burned to relive the magic. As chief flame-keeper among the Pythons—all of them somewhat crotchety, except for Chapman, fifteen years dead and less crotchety—he had long seen much merit in adapting for the musical stage the tale of stoic Arthur, his nincompoop Knights of the Very, Very Round Table, and their oft-detoured anticlimactic search for the Holy Grail, which ended onscreen with multiple arrests for the murder of an impaled narrator. In his newly published memoir, The Greedy Bastard Diary, Idle cites the timeless allure of the film: “It’s endearingly silly. It has a freshness and a simplicity which is rare. I think it has some of the same charm as A Hard Day’s Night: young men ignorant of what they are doing but supremely confident about doing it.” Plus, there were already three songs in the movie, and, he also realized, “several points which seem almost to demand a song: ‘I’m not dead yet!’ ‘Run away!’ ‘I fart in your general direction!’ Well, a Python song, anyway.” (Incidentally, each of these immortal utterances from the film turned play is emblazoned on souvenir buttons presently on sale in the Shubert lobby. Collect them all!)

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