Monty Python’s

Book and Lyrics by Eric Idle
Music by John Du Prez & Eric Idle
A new musical (lovingly) ripped off
from the motion picture
Monty Python And The Holy Grail
Directed by Mike Nichols
Starring David Hyde Pierce, Tim Curry and Hank Azaria
Shubert Theatre / 225 West 44th Street

Reviewed by David Spencer

There are three camps into which "Spamalot" viewers fall:

(1) Giddily pleased Monty Python fans, grooving on an A-plus cast recreating key scenes from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", the film from which the new musical has been "lovingly ripped off" (that’s the contractual credit, folks) by its principle author, Python veteran Eric Idle and co-composer John du Prez;

(2) Forgiving theatre lovers who turn a blind eye to the show’s lack of cohesion and give over to the gestalt of happy anarchy that pervades the Shubert Theatre; and

(3) Musical theatre fans and pros who, understanding that no trails would be blazed in the art form, were geared enthusiastically for at least the Pythonesque equal of Mel Brooks’ "The Producers"–and found themselves terribly, even sadly, disappointed.

I have to tell you: I fall into the third. And while the audience response and the preponderance of rave reviews would seem to indicate we’re a minority, we’re not a small one.

Nor, I hasten to add, are we a hostile or angry or even disgruntled one, which is why we’re barely detectable. I, for one, am second to nobody in my affection for the Python œuvre, and like many, I know great swaths of their bits, including the "Holy Grail" movie, by heart, or nearly so. Thus it isn’t painful sitting through "Spamalot", for it has certain joys.

The primary one is the aforementioned recreation of key scenes. The imitations of the original Pythoners are not slavish, but the cast of funnymen (with one significant exception, women here are but rousingly decorative showgirls–actually the exception is pretty rousing too) are too savvy not to understand that their laughs lie in rendering the characters faithfully; and the iconic rhythms and accents don’t leave much for the genuine comedy ear to figure out. You go where they take you (if you know what’s good for you). However, David Hype Pierce (as Sir Robin, among others), Hank Azaria (as Sir Galahad, the outrageously accented French sentry and others), Christopher Sieber (as Sir Galahad, among others), Steve Rosen (Sir Belvedere, among others), Michael McGrath (Arthur’s vassal Patsy, among others) and Christian Borle (Prince Herbert, among others), have been given enough additional material upon which to spin their own variations that they have the opportunity to add their own iconic readings of new lines to the classic readings of the old. Tim Curry, alone among his Broadway cohorts, pretty much gets to wholly re-invent his principal (and sole) character, King Arthur (created in the film by the late Graham Chapman)–owing to the fact that Arthur, despite his funny bits and royal obliviousness, is often straight man and foil to those more extremely loony than he. So as long as he sets his cohorts up properly–and one must say, Curry does it brilliantly, with a wide-eyed naïveté that begs for mockery–Arthur can pretty much claim his territory. The previously mentioned woman among the lead players is powerhouse belter Sara Ramirez as The Lady of the Lake: here rendered as a scat singing, all encompassing pop stylist. It’s a star making turn, and Ms. Ramirez leaves no stone unturned in her savvy, sexy exploitation of it.

But the alleged musical that houses these delightful performers and classic set pieces is where the evening falls crushingly apart.

Granted, there’s not much structure to the film; the quest for the Holy Grail is used as an excuse for Arthurian sketch comedy. But that kind of free-wheeling chaos (deceptively crafted chaos though it may be) has never been musical-theatre friendly, because it defeats the escalating forward motion toward a primally motivated goal (Sweeney’s revenge, Mama Rose’s showbiz triumph, John Adams’s American independence, Max Bialystock’s lucrative flop). This also means that the songs are likewise gimmick songs. They don’t really need to be there, emotionally or narratively, you could remove them with no damage to comprehensibility and very little to the evening at large. (A musical should no longer make sense when you remove the songs, otherwise it’s a play with interpolated music.)

Even this infraction might be tolerable, though, if the songs were "real" songs. Alas, Mr. Idle is the most rudimentary of "hummer" tunesmiths (he hums to a partner–in this case John Du Prez–who does the actual homework of harmonization and arrangement); and he has created an unnecessary passel of songs that barely even have the melodic sweep to qualify as songs; they're mostly ditties ("Producers" ghost-composer Glen Kelly is also on board, though even his formidable talent is hard pressed to create the illusion of substance around Mr. Idle’s slender filaments of melody); and the songs lyrically never develop past a one-joke premise. You’ve read much about the song "You Won’t Succeed on Broadway (If You Don’t Have Jews"), but it never tops the first joke because it has nothing to say about why this premise should be so (true though it may be!). And–assuming you know the film–did we really need a song called "Run Away" or one called "I Am Not Dead Yet" to enhance the original bits? Even the lauded Andrew Lloyd Webber parody, "The Song That Goes Like This", is lyrically flat beyond its first A section, depending upon "exterior" gimmicks like modulating into keys higher than Galahad can negotiate, for additional laughs.

Furthermore, there is no interesting subtext to the songs, they’re all declamatory or stylistic commentary.

Which brings us, sort of, to the direction of the redoubtable Mike Nichols. Sad to say, in its own very polished way, it’s as chaotic as everything else. Set pieces from the film aside (those he has directed inventively and cleverly, finding theatrical equivalents of cinematic effects), the bits in between consist of a lot of group running about–rushing on, racing off, dancing madly–to no cumulative purpose. Brilliant as he is, Nichols was never a musicals man: in the mid-60s, Jerome Robbins was brought in to help him with out-of-town tryouts for "The Apple Tree"; in the mid-70s he produced (and some say shadow-directed) "Annie", but from all accounts, no matter what unknowable input Nichols may have had behind the scenes, it was Martin Charnin who ran the rehearsals and got the commensurate program credit–and more than a quarter of a century has elapsed since then. A musical dramatist colleague of mine commented, "Spamalot" "isn’t really a musical–it’s a music hall entertainment"–which is, I think, as valid as description as you’ll hear anywhere. Nichols’ formative roots being in standup comedy and later directing some signature works of Neil Simon ("The Odd Couple" etc.), that probably attests to why the things in the show that are strong (the film routines) are so strong, and the things that are weak (the musical routining) are so weak.

But all this said, remember where we started. There are three "Spamalot" camps, and I am but a member of the minority third. I review the show thus not to dissuade you (I wouldn’t dare even try–nor, come to think of it wish to)…but merely to help the buyer beware. Know the grail out of which you may drink…

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