If you grew up in the U.K. in the 1980s as I did, you grew up immersed in the world of Monty Python. At the age of 11, my friends and I would spend entire weekends glued to the telly, watching videotapes of the cult British comedy troupe's movies and network reruns of its sketch comedy show, Monty Python's Flying Circus. By 14, we were having regular "Python-Offs," competing against each other to see who could do the most convincing re-enactments of various pieces of the Python canon. Poking fun at the establishment and packed with explosive incongruities, labyrinthine digressions, and flagrant non sequiturs, the material appealed to our growing taste for the absurd. We never got bored of regurgitating such Flying Circus staples as "The Ministry of Silly Walks," "The Argument Sketch," and "The Lumberjack Song."
Just at the point in history when the name of Monty Python might have drawn a quizzical look from the average teenager rather than a compulsive urge to parrot the famous "Parrot Sketch," Python member Eric Idle took it upon himself a few years ago to reignite interest in the troupe's comedy through the creation of a Broadway musical. "Lovingly ripped off" — as the publicity materials trumpet — from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Pythons' popular 1975 feature film that spoofs the legends surrounding King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, Monty Python's Spamalot has been a critical and commercial success since its inception in 2005. Directed by Mike Nichols, the original New York production won three Tony Awards and garnered a whopping $18 million in advance ticket sales prior to its Broadway opening.
Monty Python nostalgia has doubtless been a major driving force behind the show's box office bravura. But although the San Francisco run of the touring production starring John O'Hurley (best known for his role as J. Peterman on Seinfeld) as King Arthur has happily helped me to scratch my longstanding Python itch, I can't help but wonder whether familiarity with the source material of such spoof-driven stage adaptations as Spamalot might ultimately be more of a hindrance than a help to audience members' enjoyment.
Like the film upon which it is based, Spamalot, which Idle composed with his longtime writing partner, John Du Prez, tells the story of King Arthur's quest to find the Holy Grail. The entire show plays like a compilation of Python greatest hits. All manner of gambits from The Holy Grail, such as the clapping of coconut shells to suggest the clip-clop of the knights' trusty steeds as they travel on their quest, the "Bring Out Your Dead" sketch that makes fun of bubonic plague outbreaks, and the now-legendary "Knights who say 'Ni'" episode find their way into the stage production, to the delight of audiences. The musical also directly or indirectly references material from other Python sources, including a sing-along version of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) and a nod to such memorable Flying Circus skits as "The Ministry of Silly Walks" and, naturally, "Spam." (The musical takes its title from the Holy Grail line, "We eat ham and jam and Spam a lot.")
Some of the sections culled directly from the movie — such as the quintessentially quotable scene in which Arthur and his knights, standing outside a castle, face a tirade of verbal abuse from an extremely smug French guard("Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!") — work well onstage. Matthew Greer delivers the lines with perfect timing and the requisite outrrrrageous French accent. The knights also imbue the scene with bombastic physical comedy when they move their heads up, down, and sideways along the battlement crenellations.
However, the audience's deep familiarity with The Holy Grail also impedes the success of its musical offspring. O'Hurley is a daftly likable King Arthur, but much less memorable than Graham Chapman. And the film's most brilliantly satirical scene, in which a couple of cynical Marxist peasants fail to be impressed by Arthur's far-fetched story of how he came to be king ("Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony"), falls flat onstage owing to cockeyed comic timing and ropey British accents.
Contrastingly, Spamalot derives its greatest strengths from moments that either reinterpret original Python material for the theater, or depart entirely from the source. The show's opening number improbably but beautifully combines two skits — "The Fish-Slapping Dance" and "Finland" — to create a zany song-and-dance number. Set against a faux-Scandinavian backdrop reminiscent of Solvang, California, and involving a bunch of jolly villagers waving oversize rubber carp and extolling the delights of Finland, the "Fisch-Schlapping Song" pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the show. Meanwhile, Spamalot's smattering of freshly written numbers, such as the Andrew Lloyd Webber parody "The Song That Goes Like This" (dramatically delivered by Merle Dandridge as the Lady of the Lake and, the night I saw the show, ensemble player Erik Hayden as Sir Galahad), the torch song "Find Your Grail" (performed with actual torches held aloft), and the tacky yet hilarious "You Won't Succeed on Broadway" (the musical's response to The Producers' "Springtime for Hitler") engage us more viscerally than the parts which attempt to regurgitate now-classic Python sketches and songs.
Part of the reason for Monty Python's enduring success over the decades is the incongruity between the theatricality of the humor and the naturalistic demands of the screen medium. Much of this delicious inappropriateness is lost when the already stagey material is transferred to the stage. It is only when Idle and his collaborators break loose of the Pythons' TV and film legacy and focus fully on creating live theater that Spamalot finds its grail.