Last night, Katie and I joined my parents at the fourth NYC preview showing of Spamalot, “a new musical lovingly ripped off from the motion picture ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’”, at the Shubert Theatre. This is my best attempt as a full-fledged review.
There are light spoilers below, so don’t read on if you want to be completely surprised when you see the show.
The story runs very much parallel to that of the movie, although with a fair number of changes. The introduction of the knights are consolidated into characters from other bits, thus streamlining the first act. There are a number of bits removed from the story just because it’d be difficult to cram it all in and add musical numbers – more on this later. Finally, as there is a large amount of riffing off musicals in general, there is a subplot involving…well, Broadway.
Tim Curry plays King Arthur; David Hyde Pierce takes on the role of Sir Robin and some ancillary characters; Hank Azaria (in his Broadway debut) plays Sir Lancelot, Tim the Enchanter, the primary Knight of Ni, and the French Taunter. There are five other primary cast members, most noticably the newly-added Lady Of The Lake, played by Sara Ramirez. There are sixteen ensemble members in a variety of roles. The only Python member actually used in the musical is John Cleese, who provides the voice of God (admittedly, not live).
The show runs just over two hours, including a fifteen minute intermission. Tickets are currently ranging from $35 (back of the upper balcony) to over $100 for orchestra.
Repeating Material – The Purist Problem
There are very few people who only merely like Monty Python. Most every fan can quote excessively from the shows and/or the movies. A large number of the purists will, by this point in their lives, know Holy Grail by heart and frequently bother their co-workers by quoting it at great lengths. I am a moderate purist, able to riff on most sketches and movies and even some of the CD material. I feel I have a good grounding in Python.
A lot of purists will be confused by this show, because a number of very famous bits from the movie have been cut out. Here’s a quick breakdown:
In The Musical: The Opening Credits (see next section), You’ve Just Got Two Coconuts, The Monks With Boards, Bring Out Your Dead, Dennis the Peasant, The Historian, Camelot, A Blessing From The Lord, The French Castle / Wooden Rabbit, Sir Robin and his Minstrels, The Black Knight, The Knights Who Say Ni, Prince Herbert, Tim The Enchanter/The Killer Rabbit
Not In The Musical: She’s A Witch, The Three Headed Knight, The Castle Anthrax, The Old Man In Scene 12, The Bridge Of Death, The Great Black Beast Of Aaauugh, The Castle Aaaagh
Note that a handful of those bits listed as still being in the musical have been modified from what you remember, especially Camelot and Prince Herbert, but also The Knights Who Say Ni, The French Castle, and much of Sir Robin’s material.
Of also questionable effect to the purists is that a number of portions of other Python bits have been inserted into the musical. There are a variety of references to The Parrot Sketch, Silly Elections, The Fish Slapping Dance, The Lumberjack Song, and plenty of others I’ve probably forgotten by now. And strangest of all, Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life makes not only an appearance but also gets a karaoke-sing-along reprise. (Having never really been a fan of the original song, I don’t think it’s a great choice here, but all the other references made me snicker at the least.
So the issue is this – if you are a hardcore Python nerd, you will likely hate this show, as many things you know and love have been changed or left on the cutting board floor. Your enjoyment of this show may hinge on one or two bits being exactly the way you remember them, or at least being in the show – please use the guide above and save yourself potential pain if you’re the sort of person I’ve been describing. Personally, I thought the changes were fine.
If you’re not familiar with Holy Grail or haven’t seen it in a while, there’s a good chance you will greatly enjoy the content of the show.
One final issue: There’s a lot of audience cheering in recognition of certain bits.
This is a spoiler: There’s a great fakeout at the beginning where the cast misheard “England” as “Finland” and the opening scene is a full Finnish fish-slapping song (complete with appropriate dance), followed by some singing from Finland, Finland, Finland. There’s also a good four pages in the playbill written by Michael Palin about the show you’re seeing – “Dik Od Triaanenen Fol (Finns Ain’t What They Used To Be)”. In fact, there’s a lot of comedy scattered around the playbill – read it cover to cover.
When I had originally heard the casting, I was strangely curious, as I couldn’t picture David Hyde Pierce fitting in with Tim Curry or Hank Azaria to mesh into a Python show. But as it turns out, the three of them are perfectly cast, and not because they’re all fine actors. The reason this show clicks so well is that each adapts into the roles of existing Python players seemlessly. Tim Curry perfectly captures the slightly arrogent royality that Graham Chapman played in the movie. David Hyde Pierce picked up the Eric Idle portions, and his mannerisms are spot on. Hank Azaria sort of draws a double duty, getting both Michael Palin and John Cleese’s parts, and as a guy with a huge range of voice talent, he swings through it all perfectly.
In fact, I’m going to throw an extra shout out to Hank Azaria, because for someone who’s entirely new to Broadway as of this show, he could’ve fooled anyone in the audience. He truly looked like this was old hat, and seemed to really be enjoying himself. He even threw in a “glaiven” at one point, much to the delight of the Simpsons fans. I will admit that occasionally the voices sounded a bit close to Moe, but that’s not the end of the world.
Azaria isn’t the only one in the cast who seemed to be enjoying himself – Tim Curry looked very close to breaking into laughter at least three times during the show, and David Hyde Pierce’s portions involved a heavy bout of hamming it up. So again, I have no quarrel with the three leads.
Another huge bout of respect goes to the one new part for the show – the Lady Of The Lake, played by Sara Ramirez. The woman has a simply amazing vocal range, great comedic timing, and fit in perfectly for her part. Cheers, huge cheers to Sara.
The ensemble cast all fit in well; the choreography was consistent, the voices were in key, and they flew from one scene to another without trouble.
The New Material
There are fifteen new songs for the show; one of them is a much revamped version of “Knights Of The Round Table”. There are also four reprises. A few of the songs are on the short side, but they all work well.
Three of the songs tie into a strong subplot that mocks the Broadway formula; “The Song That Goes Like This” mocks the Andrew Lloyd Webber-esqe sweeping balads that are staples of far too many musicals. Later, the Lady Of The Lake tells King Arthur that to find the grail, he’ll have to open a musical on Broadway. This is followed by the funniest number, “You Won’t Succeed On Broadway” has Sir Robin (DHP) singing to King Arthur about how there is no way they can succeed on Broadway without any Jews. The song spirals out of control with more and more Jewish imagery – jewish dancing girls give way to a jewish line dance which gives way to a giant lit-up Star of David that comes from the top of the stage. I’m not kidding. Finally, Lady Of The Lake makes her return in Act Two with “The Diva’s Lament”, where she loudly complains that she’s been offstage for far too long and inquires where her part went.
This subplot can be a little too inside-jokey at times (I don’t follow a lot of Broadway shows, so there were musical references I missed), but is routinely hilarious and doesn’t falter.
The Prince Herbert sequence has been radically changed with a massive twist which leads to a song and dance number; I refuse to spoil this. Trust me, if you see the show, the sudden change in direction of the scene will have you laughing pretty hard.
If you’re the sort of person who liked Avenue Q, who digs Python, or just enjoys some Broadway stylings that doesn’t take itself even close to seriously, go see Spamalot. It’s a good time for all.