Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

My Fair Spamalot or I've Grown Accustomed to the Movie

Let us think back for a moment of that loverly early Spring evening nearly 50 years ago when My Fair Lady made its historic debut on the Broadway stage. Shall we? Such controversy surrounding that show, wasn't there? Remember all the criticism about the lack of originality in the Broadway musicals of the mid-1950's? How Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe were just copying a pre-existing play which had already been made into a successful movie and simply repackaging it for the masses who take comfort in seeing something familiar when they go to the theatre? Musical theatre purists were outraged. Especially when it became apparent that the show was attracting mobs of Pygmalion groupies who really didn't care about musicals. They just liked that weird British humor and were there specifically to see their favorite Shaw characters sing and dance. Every entrance, not just Eliza and Higgins, but also Freddy, Pickering, Mrs. Pierce and assorted walk-ons, was greeted with wild applause. Some of them even cheered at Higgins' first mention of chocolates. Sure, plenty were disappointed with changes in the text (One angry patron was heard loudly complaining at intermission that Eliza's new line "Move yer bloomin' arse!" lacked the punch of the original Shaw line, "Not bloody likely!" and those who agreed spent the entire interval chanting "Not bloody likely!" in their best Eliza Doolittle impersonations.) but that didn't stop large sections of the audience from reciting their favorite lines along with the actors. And although My Fair Lady did have a long healthy run, it was mostly due to the show's pandering efforts to appeal to fans of the original play Pygmalion and its 1938 film adaptation.

Well... no. Actually, I'm lying. None of that happened. I wasn't even alive then. Sure, maybe a few Shaw purists did some pooh-poohing but for the most part My Fair Lady has been enjoyed and loved by millions without the need for any prior knowledge of any straight play or film.

And yet, there have been rumors flying around Broadway that if you don't brush up your Python you'll be completely lost at Spamalot. I would like to put an end to this rumor. This rumor is no more. It has ceased to be. It has expired and gone to meet its maker. It's a stiff. Bereft of life. It rests in peace. If you hadn't nailed it to the perch it would be pushing up the daisies. Its metabolic processes are now history. It's off the twig. It has kicked the bucket, it has shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible. This is an ex-rumor.

You see, the above paragraph contains the kind of inside humor you won't find in Spamalot. Oh sure, the audience is generally filled with fans who cheer the entrance of every single character, but the cast includes several professional actors who know how to be silent until the crowd quiets down. And yes, you may be stuck sitting next to someone who insists on reciting every line along with the actors, but I find that standing up and looking menacingly at the offender while yelling at the top of your lungs, "You're in a theatre, dammit! Show some respect and shut the hell up!" usually takes care of that little annoyance.

And once the show actually begins you may be surprised at how traditionally Broadway Spamalot really is. The flimsy plot (King Arthur and his knights go off on many tangents in their quest for the Holy Grail.) as an excuse for a string of comedy routines is a musical comedy practice that goes back to the days of The Marx Bros., Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn, and many others. And just like the current resident of the Shubert, the names of their shows (i.e. I'll Say She Is, Banjo Eyes, The Perfect Fool) often referred to a famous gag line or comic bit. The free-wheeling, irreverent style is reminiscent of Gershwin/Kaufman/Ryskind collaborations like Of Thee I Sing and Strike Up the Band -- when mindless fun required just a little bit of thinking. Using modern references in a medieval setting goes at least as far back as the 1927 Rodgers and Hart hit, A Connecticut Yankee and when the audience starts singing along with Michael McGrath, one of Broadway's more lovable song-and-dance funny men, as he starts crooning "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life", you can get the feeling this must have been a little of what it was like when Ray Bolger led the Where's Charley? crowd in "Once in Love With Amy".

Yes, if you're not accustomed to the Monty Python style of comedy it can require a bit of getting used to. Just remember, when the French soldiers attack the British by catapulting a cow at them, its not supposed to symbolize the ongoing cultural and political conflict between those two great nations. It's just a cow being catapulted at the British.

Director Mike Nichols seems to be right at home with Eric Idle's book focused on the type of verbal sketch comedy he used to do when teamed up with Elaine May. And the cast they've assembled is having an infectiously rollicking good time. As King Arthur, Tim Curry spends most of the evening with such a sappy grin on his face you'd think he was about to break into one of his Amadeus giggles. And although David Hyde Pierce and Hank Azaria are both marvelous fun in multiple roles, it's the musical comedy vets in the supporting cast who really steal the show. McGrath is adorably dour as Arthur's under-appreciated squire. I never get tired of Christopher Sieber's deadpan handsome routine and Christian Borle is fluttery fun as a prissy prince. Everything you've heard about Sara Ramirez nearly stealing the show is true. With a ferocious comic presence and a voice that can send signals to Mars she pulls off every vocal trick in the book to spoof annoying singers who insist on using every vocal trick in the book.

It's difficult for me to say much about Eric Idle and John Du Prez's score because Casey Nicholaw's gut-busting choreography had the audience laughing so loudly I missed most of the lyrics. Although I did catch a tasty morsel from the now infamous song about how Broadway success is dependent upon the number of Jews involved, which advises, "There's a very small percentile / That enjoys a dancing gentile."

Tim Hatley's goofy sets and costumes contribute mightily to the merriment, as do Hugh Vanstone's lights and Elaine J. McCarthy's delicious projections.

Eighty years from now musical theatre lovers may take a look at the script for Spamalot and react with a befuddled, "What the hell is this?", just as many today would react reading the book to a popular early Cole Porter or George Gershwin show. I suppose the only proper response is "You had to be there."

 

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Michael McGrath and Tim Curry
Middle: Christian Borle and Hank Azaria
Bottom: Christopher Sieber and Sara Ramirez

 


Related Articles

From This Author Michael Dale