You Cannot Be Serious: The Reinvention of the Holy Grail as a Musical Is Another Triumph for Satirical Theatre. Michael Coveney Reports from New York
Coveney, Michael, New Statesman (1996)
In the mild early evening light, there was a queue snaking around the block in the heart of Broadway's theatreland. It was just 24 hours after the opening night of Spamalot, a new musical based on the dreadfully (and deliberately) amateurish 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The first reviews had been good to mixed, but the air was thick with a mood of "this show's a must-see". Spamalot, which cost $11m, opened to an advance of $20m and, on the day the reviews came out, took another $2m in bookings. There were ten guys working behind the grille at the box office in Shubert Alley, and no one was about to go on a coffee break.
This is the new smash hit, the new Producers, and, like Mel Brooks's show, it is based on a cult film that bombed. Thirty years ago, Monty Python and the Holy Grail grossed less than $2m in the US. And yet the audience at my Saturday matinee was packed not just with the usual crowd of obese Midwesterners and shell-suited upstate weekenders. There was also a huge contingent of college kids and comedy geeks who knew everything about the Monty Python TV series in general and this film in particular: a dozy King Arthur and his search for the Grail, the chain-mailed French taunter on the battlements ("I fart in your general direction"), the giant knights who say "Ni" and demand a shrubbery, the flying killer pig, and the ridiculous debate about migrating coconuts.
All the original surviving Pythons--Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam and John Cleese--as well as an urn allegedly containing the ashes of Graham Chapman, who died in 1989--joined their colleague Eric Idle, who wrote the musical with the composer John du Prez, for the opening night. Idle has never tired of exploiting his Python history, but this time he really has done something special. With the legendary director Mike Nichols--whose career spans comedy sketches with Elaine May and such epoch-defining films as The Graduate and, most recently, Patrick Marber's Closer--he has improved the film by turning it into a parody-rich satire of musical theatre and a glorious, spectacular treat in its own right.
The show taps the fashionable taste, started by The Producers three years ago, for irreverence and comedy in musicals, after decades of quasi-operatic hits such as The Phantom of the Opera (still running on Broadway, and deliciously sent up here with "a song that goes like this" and then changes key without warning), Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. Other musicals that have appealed to people "who don't like musicals" have been Urine-town, a satire of civic inanity, and Avenue Q, a sort of Muppet Show with a soft-to-medium sex quotient. …