Before there was The Gamers, before there was Fensler Films, the most quoted movie during D&D sessions was Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Years and years later, Eric Idle decided to redo the classic film into a musical-filled Broadway show.
The original Broadway show opened to great acclaim featuring an all-star cast: Tim Curry as King Arthur, Hank Azaria as Sir Lancelot the Brave, and David Hyde Pierce as Sir Robin the not quite so brave as Sir Lancelot. I had a chance to see the show, but then Spamalot won a bunch of Tony awards, booking it up completely for the entirety of its run.
Happily, the show came to Baltimore recently, and as soon as I saw posters for it, I jumped on the chance to see it once and for all. Last Saturday, instead of getting drunk on green beer, I saw the show at the Hippodrome in Baltimore. Here’s what I thought, paying special attention to how it compares to the original movie. (So if you haven’t seen the original, go rent it immediately.)
The show opens with the Historian setting the stage for King Arthur’s time, accompanied by a wall projection in the Terry Gilliam-style animation used on the show and in the movie. The dialogue of the historian is a complete recreation of his speech from the movie, but instead of ending with him being killed, a song about fish-slapping in Finland breaks out.
Afterwards, the beginning is a few scenes that appeared in the movie, beginning with the tower argument about how Arthur gets the coconuts that he uses for his horse, and where he got it from, and what kind of swallow could carry a coconut. Sadly, the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow question never shows up again as the Bridgekeeper from Scene 24 doesn’t make it into the show. Other knights join up with Arthur in ways that weave in some of the more random scenes of the movie into the central plotline. The man running the dead-cart turns into Sir Robin, the man bringing a not-yet-dead man is Sir Lancelot, and Dennis who sees the violence inherent in the system is actually Dennis Galahad.
In the scene at the autonomous compound, we are also introduced to the new character for the stage show: the Lady in the Lake. The Lady is the one who gave Arthur Excalibur, but in the stage show, plays the role of singing Diva. Her role becomes more important… in a way?… later on. She, along with her backup singers who are of course “The Laker Girls”, transform the Doubting Dennis into a knight, and the main cast is assembled. Missing here is the origin of the strangely flatulent Sir Bedevere, so no “she’s a witch” scene.
From there, the Knights head to Camelot, which is introduced by Arthur as “What happens in Camelot, stays in Camelot.” The set is completely done as a Vegas-style neon wonderland, complete with gambling and dancing girls.
It is at Camelot that the musical shows one of its major strengths that doesn’t kick into full gear until Act 3 (2 sir) 2. The musical song and dance numbers become completely over the top, with elaborate dancing and acrobatics. (Arthur, of course, tap dances by having Patsy bang together two coconuts, but everyone else does a full routine.)
After they leave from Camelot (it is a silly place, after all), Arthur is visited by God who gives them the Quest for the Holy Grail. God is portrayed as two giant feet and voiced by a recording of John Cleese. One thing to note that the show does very well is the use of sets: each one has a 3D feel to it that perfectly emulates the style of animation used in all the other Monty Python stuff. God’s feet, of course, are like the giant foot that crushed the logo every week on Flying Circus. But at the end of his speech, God’s feet shoot up like rockets in the first of many neat dramaturgical moments. One of the other great tricks that is used very much in the Python style is in order to show the knights traveling across various lands, two men in armor wrapped up in a tapestry spin themselves around to create and animated background behind the knights, kinda like an upright treadmill. It’s hard to explain, but the idea is brilliant and fits perfectly while bing hilarious.
I won’t go beat by beat in the story itself so as to leave something for you to be surprised at in the show itself. However, I will say that you should expect the French to appear in a big and hilarious way, erupting into a musical number that involves taunting, can can dancers, mimes, artists, the wooden rabbit, launching cows, and an almost Benny Hill-style chase.
Tim the Enchanter (held floating in the air “by no visible means whatsoever”), the murderous rabbit, a dying carving (that involves the audience in a neat way), and the Black Knight (yes, he gets everything chopped off!) all make appearances here. The Knight Who Until Recently Said Ni also show up, and give Arthur the task of putting on a Broadway show.
Where the musical really comes into its own is when it uses its own material to make fun of Broadway musicals, while of course being simultaneously an awesome Broadway musical. Sir Robin warns Arthur (through a surprisingly elaborate song and dance) that you can’t succeed on Broadway without any Jews. Earlier, the Lady of the Lake did a duet about a kind of song “that goes like this” that has to appear in every show. Then later on, she comes on stage to address the audience that she hasn’t been on stage in a while, in a song that channels Cher asking “Whatever happened to my part?”
Unlike the movie, Spamalot has an actual ending to the whole thing that is decidedly a happy ending as everybody finds their grail in the end (including a surprise about Sir Lancelot, that he discovers through song.)
The cast that I saw varied in quality. I was actually a bit disappointed in the performance of King Arthur that seemed a bit subdued, and Lancelot doesn’t do a great job being a murderous bastard (though did do a good job having a gyrating codpiece.) The real show-stealer was The Lady in the Lake, who exhibits tremendous range in singing ability. She both had to belt out high notes for long stretches and imitate various Diva musical styles.
I bought the soundtrack months ago when I found out I wouldn’t be going to see the show on Broadway, so the songs were not new to me. I was originally disappointed in many of the songs on the soundtrack itself, but it’s a far difference experience when they’re on stage. Not because of the quality difference, but there’s so much happening on stage that adds to the performance that the soundtrack doesn’t nearly do it justice. My favorite song is still “Knights of the Round Table” but many of the songs (especially during the second Act) are just amazing to see on stage due to the sheer amount of stuff going on. Even the song about lacking Jews was an elaborate affair involving dancing nuns (yes, nuns) and a giant Star of David.
Overall, I highly recommend Spamalot to both Python fans and Musical fans. You won’t find every line from the movie in it, but you’ll be blown away by the sheer spectacle of it all. The new material, which mainly plays off Broadway troupes, appeals to both traditional musical fans (because it’s so well done) and to Python fans (because it’s so hilarious.) If you get a chance, try to catch it in your area, or schedule a trip just to see it. It’s completely worth it.
For some video clips, pictures, tour dates, and much more, check out the official Spamalot homepage. And you can purchase the soundtrack through Amazon: