The terrifying knights still say “Ni!” The dead? Well, they are not quite dead yet. And King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table (not dawn, not dusk, not late afternoon, but knights) still trot around to the sounds of coconuts banging together.
All that is to say: “Spamalot” is back on Broadway, and it is still quite silly.
The silliness was on display last month during a rehearsal at the Gibney Studios in Manhattan. David Josefsberg, one of the show’s standby actors, was having difficulty staying in character as the incompetent warlock Tim the Enchanter. The scene required him to adopt an outrageous accent to warn the knights about a scary beast, which ends up being a rabbit. (And the rabbit ends up being quite homicidal!) But he couldn’t keep it together as members of the cast and crew giggled while watching from the sides of the room. The giggles were contagious, filling the room throughout the rehearsal, including when the knights had to vary the banging of the coconuts between “trot” and “not trot.”
The actors have been breaking character “all the time,” Josh Rhodes, the show’s director and choreographer, said after the rehearsal.
“It’s lonely trying to land jokes. It’s a lousy thing to do to repeat it over and over again to a dead room,” Rhodes said. “Right now we’re still crafting it. So you want the energy in the room to still be a little silly.”
Rhodes has a personal connection to the show: His husband, Lee Wilkins, was a replacement swing in the original Broadway production, which opened in 2005. They married during the run.
For the uninitiated, “Spamalot” is a Monty Python-inspired spoof adapted from that comedy troupe’s 1975 cult film, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” A sendup of King Arthur’s mythical quest for the Holy Grail, the movie was written by and starred the group’s members — John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Graham Chapman and Terry Jones. It was Idle who had the idea to adapt it as a Broadway musical. (“Spam” is a reference to a Python sketch.)
Idle wrote the original book and lyrics, and wrote the music with John Du Prez. Mike Nichols directed, and Casey Nicholaw choreographed. It was a smash, winning the Tony Award for best musical and running for nearly four years. In The New York Times, Ben Brantley called the show “resplendently silly” and a “fitful, eager celebration of inanity.”
At the time of that initial Broadway run, it had been decades since any truly new Python material — the 1983 film “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life” — and the musical, which has since had productions in the West End and international tours, exposed a new generation to the quintessential British brand of humor. The revival, which opens Nov. 16 at the St. James Theater, is in a similar position. The last meaningful Python collaboration was in 2014, when the group united for a series of shows at the O2 Arena in London. (Two members of the group have died: Chapman in 1989 and Jones in 2020.)
Idle said he had “no idea” how Python’s brand of humor had continued to hold up today.
“Python is portmanteau comedy,” Idle, 80, wrote in an email via a spokeswoman. “It has a bit of everything. People always found it funny but they didn’t always agree on which bits. I think it survives because it was written by its actors and acted by its writers. It is executive-free comedy.”
This revival was the brainchild of the producer Jeffrey Finn, an executive at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Rhodes’s production of “Spamalot” had a critically well-received run there this past spring, and garnered enough of an audience response that Finn thought a Broadway production could overcome the ticket sale malaise that pervades the industry.
“What I feel like we proved at the Kennedy Center is that the escapism and the joy in the theater that this show delivers is what I feel audiences are looking for now,” Finn said. “Because it’s a crazy, harsh world out there, and having two and a half hours just to laugh and enjoy and be taken away by this lunacy, in the best way possible, is just joyful.”
The revival doesn’t update the book or music substantially, if at all, but the show does offer new staging, choreography and improv from a who’s who of Broadway notables, including James Monroe Iglehart (King Arthur), Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer (the Lady of the Lake), Christopher Fitzgerald (Patsy), Ethan Slater (Prince Herbert) and Taran Killam (Lancelot).
“Have you ever seen a person of color play the king? No,” said Iglehart, who originated the role of the Genie in the Broadway adaptation of “Aladdin.” (This is his first leading role on Broadway.) “I make a joke all the time that there are two kings on Broadway: Mufasa and me.”
At the rehearsal, the run-through was chock-full of inside jokes about Broadway and references to current events. But ultimately the troupe’s material — exhibited in several films, a television show, tours and albums — is still the backbone of the show.
Killam, the “Saturday Night Live” alum, called himself a “dyed-in-the-wool” Python fan and said that the “intelligent absurdist humor of Python is in my veins.” (Killam will be replaced by Alex Brightman in January. Brightman was in the Kennedy Center production, but the opening of the Broadway run conflicted with his current Broadway production, the play “The Shark Is Broken.”)
“They were a true variety sketch group,” Killam said. “There were six different voices with different points of view and different objectives. So that brought such good balance. I think the sort of life spirit of their comedy is absurdity and certainly aiming that absurdity at social and economical structures of power, be it the monarchy or the church or banks or a class system. There is an intelligence about their absurdity.”
The Python inclination to poke fun at institutions is present throughout “Spamalot,” as when God commands Arthur and his knights to find the Holy Grail. In response, a knight wonders why God himself — if he is all-knowing — doesn’t know where it is.
The biggest difference between “Holy Grail” and “Spamalot” is the Lady of the Lake character, who does not exist in the movie. The role has become a launching pad of sorts. Sara Ramirez won a best featured actress Tony for originating the role on Broadway. Hannah Waddingham, a star of the hit Apple show “Ted Lasso,” performed the part in the West End and was nominated for an Olivier.
Kritzer, a theater veteran who last appeared on Broadway in “Beetlejuice,” wasn’t as familiar as Killam with the work of Monty Python, but she did see the original production with Ramirez.
“I never thought of myself doing this role, simply for the fact that very tall women have played this part — and I am 5-foot-3,” Kritzer said. “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh my God, it’s perfect for you.’ And I was like, ‘Really?’ I always think of it as this tall person role. And then when I got into rehearsal, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is like my modern Carol Burnett showcase.’”
In this version, Kritzer said, “they let us improvise a lot. I’m doing things that were never in the original, ever, ever. Musically and otherwise.”
When Monty Python burst onto the scene in the 1960s, its brand of comedy was considered revolutionary. They broke the rules of traditional comedy at the time with unusually structured sketches that would routinely break the fourth wall, end abruptly and not rely on simple punchlines, not to mention Gilliam’s zany animations.
Now, “Spamalot,” at least in 2023, is a safe comedy with an enduring fan base who devour all things Python. This was apparent at an early preview, when Killam emerged as one of the Knights of Ni. The crowd started chanting “Ni!” before Killam said a word, prompting Killam to gesture to the crowd as if to say, “You get it.”
“Even in any of the comedies that I’ve done on Broadway, there’s always some like, ‘We’re going to learn something,’” Kritzer said. “We don’t really learn something in this. We just have a great time, and that’s OK.”
As to whether this will be the last-ever newish Monty Python project, Idle responded, “We can only pray.”
Quoted From Many Source