Broadway's 'Holy Grail' quest

When "Monty Python's Spamalot" officially opens on Broadway next week, it will mark a first for the Python franchise - and a coup for canned meat.

Directed by Mike Nichols, and starring Hank Azaria (as Lancelot), David Hyde Pierce (Sir Robin), and Tim Curry (King Arthur), the production is as much a splashy party as it is an homage to the 1975 film on which it's based. Even the makers of Spam couldn't resist joining the festivities, producing special "Spamalot" tins featuring a new flavor: golden honey grail.

The idea for the show came from Eric Idle, a member of the six-man British comedy troupe responsible for the film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" and other productions bearing the Python name. That particular movie - an amusing collection of sketches featuring knights who ride pretend horses and sing about eating Spam - was perfect fodder for a musical according to Mr. Idle.

"It just suddenly occurred to me," he says in a recent phone interview while in New York. " 'The Holy Grail' ... starts off like a musical - you know there are three songs in it - and at every point you could easily burst into song."

Broadway also seemed primed for a visit from Python. When another funny-movie-turned-musical, "The Producers," became a hit in 2001, Idle knew the timing was right. As he puts it, the musical comedy had returned.

"I felt that producers would be ready. You could actually sell them something as silly as 'The Holy Grail' on Broadway, because Mel [Brooks] had done it." (Idle had also had the idea for turning "The Producers" into a musical back in the 1980s, but couldn't get Mr. Brooks interested.)

Like "The Producers," "Spamalot" pokes fun at the very form it's in, with numbers like "The Song That Goes Like This," which mocks the predictability of musicals. That's the ditty that won over the other Pythons - John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones - who had to give their approval before the show could go on. (Graham Chapman, the other member of the group, died in 1989.)

"It made them laugh and surprised them," he recalls of their reaction to the song he wrote with composer John Du Prez. "That's the essence of Python ... not to be predictable, and always to make you laugh."

Even the actors can't always keep a straight face in this newest Python incarnation. Light on plot, the story follows King Arthur as he recruits knights and goes in quest of the Holy Grail - only now the search includes having to put on a Broadway show. The title comes from a verse in one of the movie's original songs: "We dine while here in Camelot/We eat ham and jam and Spam a lot."

Also making it to the stage are the familiar characters from the movie such as the French soldiers who taunt Arthur's men ("Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries"), the Knights who say 'Ni,' and even the cow catapulted from a castle.

"There are enough gags that are similar to entertain a fan base, but it's a very different experience," says Gary Martin, a New Yorker, who saw the show in previews here. Mr. Martin is Jewish and says he was only mildly bothered by a big dance number that suggests you can't succeed on Broadway without Jews. "They skewered everybody," he notes.

By design, "Spamalot" is targeted not just at fans. It includes plenty of surprises for the audience, especially at the end. Idle argues that you can't make a Broadway musical solely for people who know the original material.

Those in the cast say that's been obvious from the start. "It's not an elitist thing. They've always wanted to appeal to everybody," says Christian Borle, the actor who plays the narrator and several other roles. "They spoofed what it was like to make a movie in the movie," he says. "Here, the only thing that they can do is spoof what it is to be on stage."

Idle suggested to Mr. Nichols, a Tony and Oscar winner who is an old friend of his, that they find unknown actors for the ensemble cast. But Nichols had other ideas.

"He wanted Hank Azaria first and foremost. David Hyde Pierce asked [Nichols] to be in it, and John [Du Prez] and I suggested Tim Curry, because we'd been working with him on a movie we never got to make," Idle says. He adds that Nichols then found "very funny people" to fill the cast out, like Sara Ramirez (in a new role as the Lady of the Lake), Mr. Borle, and Christopher Sieber (whose roles include Sir Dennis Galahad and The Black Knight).

Borle and Mr. Sieber admit that in high school they memorized lines from "The Holy Grail" - which cut down on what they had to learn for the show. Monty Python material was always so funny because the guys always played it so seriously, says Sieber, adding that translating the material to the stage is harder than it looks.

Other Pythons were tempted to get more involved, but eventually decided to leave the show to Idle. Mr. Cleese has a cameo role - as the voice of God. Idle himself finds it difficult not to perform.

"Opening night in Chicago, I went round and said, 'Oh, I wish I was coming on stage.' " Eventually, he did go out during a matinee to deliver one of the narrator's lines during that pre-Broadway try-out. The audience went crazy, according to cast members, who note that the response they get to the show is unlike any they've experienced.

Says Sieber, "The general feeling of the audience is they want to be up there with us having a ball."

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