When is a Python Not a Python?


     ...When it's being handled by Mike Nichols.  For someone who is obviously a great fan, Nichols doesnt seem to get the essence of Monty Python.

My wife Sara and I went to see Spamalot, the stage musical adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in New York previews on Saturday (matinee), February 26, 2005, with my 14-year old son.  He and I are great Python fans, with Sara less so.  We sat up in the nosebleed seats, but it's Broadway, and if you aren't horribly nearsighted there are no bad seats.   The seat numbering, however, is appropriate to Dark Age farce.  The theatre is impressive, and the outer set is as well - windowed castle walls, tilted in, framing a portcullis curtain.

We immediately encountered the best part of the show (but that's not a good thing):  the playbill.  Following the general pattern of the movie, the first few pages are a playbill for a Finnish "Moosical," with background and cast and crew bios (plus the footnote requesting that patrons not smoke or speak Swedish).  Then, embedded in the "legitimate" section of the playbill, are many comic gems among the regular minutiae of actor and cast bios (including Monty Python "him"self).

After all were settled in, we received a very Pythonesque advisory about cell phones and pagers reminding folks that the theatre was staffed by armed knights, and the merriment commenced.  This will not be a scene-by-scene analysis, so Im jumping to overall impression - actually, Im jumping back to what lead all this off.

To fully grasp the genius of Monty Python, it helps to watch "comic actors" attempt to duplicate it.  David Hyde Pierce, Hank Azaria, and especially Tim Curry don't seem to understand that Python characters, for the most part, are not attempting to be funny - in fact, much of the humor comes from the investment they make in the absolute seriousness of their attitudes and situations.  In a way, they are all straight men for each other, continuously.  Graham Chapman's Arthur was never snarky, and his being King was all of his being (plus, I now realize, his ability to be superior without ever being condescending).  He was not just the plot center, he was the emotional center of the piece, whose earnestness, even heart, held everyone together.  Think about it - what makes Dennis, and Bedevere, even the Black Knight so funny is that the Python actors play them so straight.  Only the French Taunter is really trying to be funny, but playing against the knights is what makes that funny.  Python is not about punch lines (meaning scene punctuation rather than joke pay-offs);  they are either throwaways ("Its a fair cop.") or immediately defused ("Its only a model"; "Well, you have to know these things when you're King.")

The plot moves in and away from the original, mixing scenes in sometimes bizarre ways, with the additional conceit of the group being ordered to put on a Broadway production.  Several scenes from the movie are missing, some more understandable than others, to make room for production numbers.  Eric Idle, by himself, wasn't up to this task - one wonders what they might have been able to do if the group had collaborated once more in putting this together.  The additions are very standard Broadway, with only occasional irony.

These actors are trying too hard to punch the lines, to deliver them for the joke, for there to be a joke in them.  Curry, especially, seems incapable of being a straight man.  Hyde Pierce is inconsistent, but he's dealing with a character that varies from the old Python earnestness to a modern Neil Simonesque funnyman persona, so its harder to blame him.  Azaria suffers a similar fate, and maybe comes a little closer to the goal, but wanders weirdly from near-mimicry of the original performers to odd variations.  The non-"Names" in the cast fare better, for varied reasons.  Christopher Sieber, who plays Dennis (turned inexplicably into Galahad, which sort of works), the Black Knight, and Herbert's Dad,  and Steve Rosen (Dennis' mother, Bedevere, Concorde) put actual characters in play, and mine proper Python humor from much of their parts (although the Black Knight pay-off only works semi-well);  Christian Borle (Historian, Herbert, et al) does less well;  Michael McGrath's Patsy is funny in a Shakespearean farce kind of way (and probably matches what Terry Gilliam would have done with a bigger part - but that's why he never had one).  The major addition to the cast, Sara Ramirez as the Lady of the Lake, is quite impressive as the Broadway Cast Addition, but her humor is pretty anti-Python.

The songs are so-so, but that's no surprise - the deadpan irony of the best Python songs is hard to extend to musical-theatre dimensions.  Here, the songs are semi-parodies of Broadway "styles," and broad comic ditties, often funny (when the lyrics could be understood, but more on that later) but not really appropriate.  The one from the movie ("We're Knights of the Round Table...") is, for some reason, set in a Vegas casino version of Camelot - that alone conveys a lot about the sensibility at work here.

The peripherals are what one would hope for from Broadway - the sets are stunning and incredibly clever technologically, the lighting excellent, the orchestra first-rate.  Only the sound was a problem, and that might have been more an enunciation issue than something the crew could be blamed for.  Most of the dialogue was understandable (but then, I knew most of it), but song lyrics were often very hard to make out.

I expect that there's enough here to keep this running for a while, but I found it quite a disappointment, valuable mostly because there's a certain cachet to having seen it.  Today we're going to watch the movie - time for the real thing.


Copyright 2005, Michael McDarby.