I went to see Eric Idle's Broadway show "Spamalot" recently.
I was looking forward to it immensely. How could one not love a Broadway show based on the film "Monty Python And The Holy Grail."
Very easily it transpired...
As the show unfolded I was surprised to discover that I truly hated it. It really was an end-of-the-pier pantomime show.
Eric Idle and Mike Nichols have created a very clever illusion. They have created the EXPECTATION that the production will be to "Holy Grail" what the Broadway adaptations of "The Producers" and "Hairspray" were to those films.
And of course the audience comes in primed accordingly - and thus willing itself to enjoy whatever comes up as long as it is proximate to the original movie - and moderately amusing.
But the difference is gaping.
The Broadway productions of "The Producers" and "Hairspray" were both very wittily written - both had 'heart' - and both very skillfully adapted the original material for the stage - with only minimal breaking of the fourth wall.
This show is so self-conscious and so self-aware - that it it is constantly elbowing you in the ribs with a big wink and saying "ey oop! This part is going to be really really good! Remember that bit in the film? Well they're going to do that skit now ON STAGE! Won't THAT be fun?!" It mugs shamelessly to the audience in a way that Python never did. Not on TV, on film, on record or on stage.
Ultimately this show is the opposite of ground-breaking. It reverts to the devices of the generation of comedy that preceded Python - and that the Pythons so skillfully dissembled and demolished.
It's an end-of-term Christmas panto version of some Python skits - the originality of the original skits reduced by the transformation rather than enhanced.
Tim Curry plays King Arthur as Widow Twanky. It's Python as performed by Dick Emery. [A cheesy British TV comedic actor.]
It's Python material traduced to the level of a Muppet Show skit (ie the show we're watching is actually all about the show that we will eventually have seen...) Future conditional pluperfect. "I am watching what I will have been entertained by..."
The show talks about what it will be - and by the time it is over - the audience has applauded its own anticipation - and then its own memory of what just was... Everything but the actual content itself.
It's like the way that the studio audiences for the present generation of TV talk shows (eg Letterman and Leno) now APPLAUD rather than laugh at the punch-lines of supposed gags. When Carson delivered a joke - it either made you laugh or not. But now audiences CLAP and HOLLER at their simple recognition of a buzz-word or reference point. It doesn't have to be funny per se. It simply needs to be a shared frame-of-reference. Something that you can glance sideways at the person sitting next to you as if to say: "I GET that reference! Wow! Did you also get that reference? Oh how much we both got that reference! We get it... Let's applaud the person who made a reference we both got - irrespective of the fact that what was said was not actually funny..."
And that's what "Spamalot" is. A great sleight of hand. But it's not a production. It's a confection.
And the audience's understandable DESIRE to enjoy itself (at $100 ticket prices) propels the illusion forward as effortlessly as a crowd might applaud a naked Emperor driving by - omitting to notice the total absence of the Emperor's ostensible New Clothes.
This is a view that incidentally is shared by Eric Idle's longtime Monty Python colleague Terry Jones. Even though Terry (as a member of Monty Python) naturally shares in the proceeds of the show based on a film he co-wrote and directed - he was impelled by his trademark honesty to describe "Spamalot" in fairly strong terms.
On May 6th the London Times and other newspapers quoted Terry Jones speaking at ceremonies at the Swiss TV Hall Of Fame near Lucerne. He was asked about the new Eric Idle musical - which he saw on its opening night. Terry Jones replied forthrightly:
“'Spamalot' is utterly pointless. It’s full of air.... Regurgitating Python is not high on my list of priorities.”
The dirty little secret of 'Spamalot'? There's no there there. Certainly no grail.
At some point the smoke and mirrors of all the media hype and hoopla will clear - and the giddy euphoria (fueled by the audience's natural desire to enjoy what it has invested $100-per-ticket in) will evaporate.
And the show will be seen for what it really is:
Monty Python And The Wholly Gruel...