‘Look On the Bright Side of Life’: Spamalot Giddy and Smart

It’s a pleasure to celebrate Spamalot a lot. For one sensational thing, it has the silliest, riskiest opening number to any musical comedy I’ve seen.

Enter a bow-tied historian with a map of England. “England 932 A.D.,” the man announces solemnly. “A kingdom divided. To the West, the Anglo-Saxons; to the East, the French. Above, nothing but Celts and some people from Scotland.”

And so it goes, until he explains: “Legend tells us of an extraordinary leader who arose from the chaos to unite a troubled kingdom. A man with a vision who gathered knights together in a holy quest. This man was Arthur, King of the Britons. For this was England!”

The scene then cuts to Finland. In the first hilarious coup de theatre of the evening, we appear to be in the wrong country and the wrong show. Folkloric Scandinavian peasants are seen merrily dancing and singing in the mountains as they slap each other with dead fish.

“I said England!” the historian protests.

“Oh, sorry,” say the fish-slapping Finns, as chanting monks enter hitting their foreheads with thick books and King Arthur rides in on an imaginary horse. Arthur’s servant, Patsy, follows him beating two halves of a coconut together.

“Steady,” the King says, approaching a low hedge. “And over we go.”

Now, as openings to musical comedies go, you have to say it’s unusual. Spamalot has been lovingly ripped off from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Hard-core Python fans know the hallowed sketches backwards, of course-the French taunter on the castle ramparts (“I fart in your general direction!”), the Black Knight who refuses to admit defeat though he’s lost all his limbs (“‘Tis but a scratch”). But you don’t have to be a Python groupie to enjoy the high art of low comedy.

They say you can’t go home again, but with Spamalot I was home. Raised in England, I half grew up on the insane delights of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the early 1970’s. Those were the bygone pre-video days when we all stayed in to watch the Pythons on TV, as Americans did with Saturday Night Live. Even today, if I catch a grainy Monty Python on late-night telly, I’ll pray a favorite sketch comes on. The Canadian Mounties’ “Lumberjack Song” always; John Cleese’s eternal Ministry of Silly Walks; Eric Idle’s pub bore in a blazer: “She’s a goer! Know what I mean? Nudge-nudge. Say no more.” The greater the comedy, the more it bears repeating, as all classic vaudeville routines were repeated and handed down over the years like precious family heirlooms.

I’m glad to admit, then, that I’m completely, utterly, shamelessly biased about Spamalot. If I can’t be, who can? The book and lyrics are by the one and only Mr. Idle, who also wrote the witty pastiche Broadway score with John Du Prez. This is the year of Eric Idle! But I wouldn’t be throwing my tutu in the air in celebration of the show quite so enthusiastically if the Mike Nichols production hadn’t turned out so well.

Massed celestial choirs have been known to sing the “Hallelujah Chorus” at the mere mention of Mr. Nichols’ name as all within a hundred-mile radius of him kneel in worship. The sainted Nichols can do no wrong, even when he does. But he’s paced Spamalot perfectly, and he’s caught the giddy Python atmosphere. He’s also cast the show extremely well. Mr. Nichols-who knows a thing or two about the art of comedy-has seen to it that no one runs riot, except when absolutely necessary.

How good to have Tim Curry back with us again. Mr. Curry’s King Arthur anchors the surrounding mayhem with his extraordinary calm and command. Reticence is this fine performer’s ace. He’s a perfect example of underplaying wild comedy. The excellent Hank Azaria sparkles in a number of virtuoso roles, including the closeted gay knight, Sir Lancelot, who leads the ensemble in a glitzy Peter Allen number. “His name is Lancelot / And in tight pants / He likes to dance a lot …. ” Nobody said Python humor was subtle.

It’s clever, though. The deadpan David Hyde Pierce is the not-so-brave Sir Robin, who brings down the house with “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway (If You Don’t Have Any Jews).” Mr. Idle reaches Cole Porter heights with the lyric, “There’s a very small percentile / Who enjoys a dancing gentile.”

In its manic way, Spamalot is a love letter to Broadway (as The Producers affectionately is). The Producers has been a good influence on Mr. Idle. So has a favorite show of mine, the long-running satire Forbidden Broadway. You see Forbidden Broadway particularly in Mr. Idle’s send-up of a typically overwrought Andrew Lloyd Webber duet, entitled “The Song That Goes Like This,” and sung with heartstopping fervor by Sir Dennis Galahad (Christopher Sieber with flowing blond hair) and The Lady of the Lake (the heaving, fantastic Sara Ramirez). But of all the Pythons, Mr. Idle has always been the stagestruck one.

There was his cool showbiz compere and romantic crooner in the original Monty Python series. He’s also an ironic social philosopher of intellectual import. Hence Dennis Galahad’s indignant rebuttal to King Arthur and the rights of kings when they first meet. “Oh, king, eh? Very nice. And how’d you get that, eh? By exploiting the workers. By hanging on to outdated imperialistic dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society! If there’s ever going to be any progress …. “

To which his mum adds, “I didn’t know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.”

If we wish to up the intellectual ante–and we do-Mr. Idle can also be an absurdist worthy of Ionesco, if you please. Here’s King Arthur and Sir Robin discussing where coconuts come from:

“The swallow may fly south with the sun,” says Arthur, “or the house martin or the plover may seek warmer climes in winter, yet these are not strangers to our land.”

“Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?” Sir Robin asks incredulously.

“Not at all-they could be carried.”

“What? A swallow carrying a coconut?”

“It could grip it by the husk!”

“It’s not a question of where he grips it! It’s a simple question of weight ratios …. “

But when all is said and intellectually done, Python humor goes to the root and heart of England’s love of sheer silliness. As the rousing Spamalot lyric goes, “Become a knight and you’ll go far / In suspenders and a bra.” Or “What happens in Camelot, stays in Camelot.” Americans enjoy silliness, too, of course-see the Marx Brothers-but love of the silly is the historic safety valve of the buttoned-up Brit.

It comes from a great tradition. John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks is a direct link to the nutty music-hall tradition known as “eccentric dancing.” Mr. Idle reveals a fondness for vaudevillian sentiment and repartee, and memories of ritual pilgrimages to annual Christmas pantomimes. (The discovery of the Holy Grail at the end of Spamalot is a loving tribute to an old panto trick). The Pythons themselves grew out of British loons called goons. The most popular loony-tune on BBC radio’s Goon Show was entitled “The Ying Tong Song.” So Spamalot has its Knights Who Say Ni. They sometimes cry out, “Ni Peng! Ni Wong!” But only when they feel like it.

All I can add by way of explanation of the totally insane is the wise motto in verse from the “Knight’s Song” itself:

Some for some

None for none

Slightly less for people we don’t like

And a little bit more for me.

Do I have any criticisms of this terrific show? If you prick me, do I not bleed? I’ll whisper them. There’s one too many send-ups of Mr. Lloyd Webber’s big ballads (for he never wrote a small one). Ms. Ramirez’s second-act “Whatever Happened to My Part” is pushing her luck just a bit. But Ms. Ramirez is an outstanding performer-an exciting discovery. I wondered at the close of the show approached whether Mr. Nichols, Mr. Idle et al. would try to top, let alone equal, The Producers’ fabled “Springtime for Hitler” finale.

But, alas …. It’s likely that no one ever will come near to the showstopping close of The Producers-in itself a deliriously inspired tribute to vaudevillian absurdity. The farewell number of Spamalot is the only pro forma moment of the entire evening-a traditional end to a most untraditional show.

Say no more! The outstanding kitschy sets and costumes are by Tim Hatley, and the choreography by Casey Nicholaw marks his fine, and fun, Broadway debut. Spamalot gives us all a boost. It’s an exuberant, mad pleasure of a show. You return home happily after a sing-song with the cast of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”:

When you’re chewing on life’s gristle

Don’t grumble, give a whistle!

And … always look on the bright side of life.

What could be sillier? What better?

‘Look On the Bright Side of Life’: Spamalot Giddy and Smart