TALE OF SPAMALOT - PART 1
I fart in your general direction….
Hans, your faithful Webmeister says that there has been an awful lot of bitching and moaning that there isn’t much activity on PythOnline currently and so of course he comes straight to me. As the parent of this site he knows that this is something I cannot ignore, so he has asked me to contribute a little something as a sop to you all, because he is worried about a lynching. I’m at the moment sitting in a wheelchair with a huge shocking pink cast covering my foot and ankle up to my knee; my dancing days may be over (Alas poor Twaila!) and, sadly, England will have to turn to someone else for soccer this season. An MRI revealed that an irritating foot injury from my Tour last fall (see The Greedy Bastard Diary) was a snapped tendon, and so now I’ve had major foot surgery, a weekend in the Valley on Morphine, several days of Vicodin which have left me as solid as Elvis, (All things Must Pass), and I have to sit around for a couple of months awaiting the awful hateful painful process of physio-therapy to begin. What a summer. No walks. No swimming. No trips to Europe to see Lance kicking butt. Grrr. Just writing and re-writing, so I have very little excuse not to write you something. So here you are then, a fairly excursive, exclusive, incomplete and far from utter history of Spamalot.
It’s April in Shubert Alley and hard by Broadway I’m stopped by a rough and ready street person.
“Are you really doing an adaptation of the Holy Grail for the stage?” he asks.
“Will there be a Killer Rabbit?”
“Then I’m coming” he said and went off gleefully shouting “Ni!”
Mike Nichols looked shocked. And impressed.
Another ticket sold.
Almost three years of my life so far on Spamalot and it still seems like a good idea to transform Monty Python and The Holy Grail into a musical. For several years I thought about it; after all, there are three songs in the movie and there are several points which seem almost to demand a song:
Well a Python song anyway. It’s practically a musical already. I am aware of what a hostage to fortune writing anything at all about Spamalot at this point is. ( Little did he know that it would close after only three minutes on Broadway…) None of us can foresee the future; even the Psychic network is, I believe, unreliable, so these notes are written in a spirit of fatalistic optimism. I know we can screw up, believe me…
Currently the show is completely written; culled directly from the movie, book by me, music and lyrics by John Du Prez and myself. We have Mike Nichols to direct, Casey Nicholaw set for the choreography, the most wonderful sets by Tim Hatley and a huge wonderful company all signed up and ready to go. Tim Curry is going to play King Arthur, David Hyde Pierce is playing Sir Robin (amongst other things) and Hank Azaria is going to give us Sir Lancelot and an hysterical French Taunter. Douglas Sills is a very funny Galahad, Michael McGrath is Patsy, Steve Rosen is Bedevere and Sara Ramirez is a super sexy siren who pops up out of a Lake. We begin rehearsals in NY in the fall and open at The Shubert Theater, Chicago, on December 21st. Then we move to the Shubert Theater in New York, for an opening night of March 10th 2005. Exciting? Yes. Terrifying? You bet. Tickets available? Yes. The Box Office opens in Chicago September 14th….
But how did it all come to be? Flashback to London in 1986 where I am playing Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, for Jonathan Miller in The Mikado at the English National Opera. Each night I would re-write the lyrics of The Little List Song reflecting what was currently in the news. I was getting big laughs. I became convinced that the musical comedy theater is not only the most fun in a theater but that it was certain to return to popularity after the long desert years of Andrew Lloyd-Webber, when there was little to laugh at but the acting…. I wanted to be ready and write one. John Du Prez and I spent the next fifteen years trying to create and sell a comedy musical. It was to be a long and frustrating period.
We tried first adapting an old screenplay of mine called The Road to Mars. This was a bit of nonsense about the future of show business known for a while nauseatingly enough as Outta Space! (Ouch.) It was about a couple of comedians on the road in space but the best moments featured a chorus of quite possibly gay Welsh Robots singing to a Diva they adored:
Still the first white gay Negro spiritual. Nobody bought it.
Our next venture was a musical version of The Owl and The Pussycat which we wrote as an animated film. I spun a tale from the Edward Lear poem and John and I wrote some funny songs in a tiny Cabanon in Provence.
In Hollywood, working on Casper, I pitched this project to Steven Spielberg, but no one on this side of the Pond had ever heard of Edward Lear and everyone kept mentioning Barbara Streisand. Ultimately I turned The Quite Remarkable Adventures of the Owl and the Pussycat into a book for my daughter, and John and I recorded it, with about ten songs, for Dove books, for which I later received a Grammy Nomination. (Of course I didn’t win. Charles Kuralt won it posthumously. I do think you should be alive to win an award. It simply isn’t fair competing with dead guys.)
In all these years of hopeful collaboration JDP and I managed to make one musical, albeit only on the radio. We began writing Behind The Crease at first called Sticky Wicket in March l986, originally for the stage. It was eventually recorded in front of a live audience for BBC Radio Four in April 1990. An original story, based on a real life experience of mine in the West Indies, this was a satire about the three things the British care most about: Sex, Royalty and Cricket.
“Couldn’t get a dog in it, could you Des?”
I played Desmond Boyle a seedy tabloid journalist on the trail of the sex life of a famous cricketer. We recorded it “live” in front of a BBC audience, with a small eight piece band conducted by John Du Prez. It got huge laughs and applause, and was eventually broadcast by the BBC. John and I were somewhat encouraged by this limited success, and there was talk of a TV version and options and even a couple of drafts for London Weekend Television, before this too slipped into the sand.
At some point over the long and frustrating years I had told John Du Prez about my Grail idea and he had loved it and was most encouraging. But would the Pythons ever permit it? The history of post-Python projects has been like middle aged courtship, fraught with frustration. Byzantine negotiations, hot flashes, disappointing flurries of enthusiasm usually ending in stalemate, and droopy disappointment. And would anybody ever back such a silly idea?
I became convinced that the Grail really might work on stage at the opening night of The Producers in New York. Sometime in the late 1980’s I had visited Mel Brooks in his office in LA. He totally embarrassed me by entering on his knees, making obeisance to me and salaaming low to the ground, while uttering high and flattering praise, to the utter disbelief of his entire office staff. Mel Brooks was on his knees at my feet! I didn’t know what to do. It turns out I was the first Python he’d ever met so I copped the full force of his love and admiration for Monty Python. When I finally persuaded him to stand up, I revealed why I was there: to ask him if I might turn his movie The Producers into a stage musical. Jonathan Miller had just been given the Old Vic Theater to run for a year and we thought it would make a terrific show on stage.
“Let me write the songs and adapt the book” I suggested to Mel “then I could play Bloom and you could play Bialistock on the London stage, directed by Jonathan.”
Mel was utterly unexcited by the thought of appearing on the boards again.
“I don’t want to do that right now,” he said. “I want to continue directing movies.”
What, pass on the chance to appear nightly on stage in South London just to hang around and direct movies in Hollywood? Madness.
“It would make a great musical Mel” I said…..
Now, fifteen years later, the Seig-Heiling pigeons were coming home to roost! From the very first number at the New York opening of The Producers in February 2001 it was clear to me that it was a huge hit. Wildly, wonderfully and wittily directed by Susan Stroman, it was a sheer joy to witness. When Mel came on stage at the end, the house went wild. I had been right. At last – a musical comedy. What John Du Prez and I had been trying to create for fifteen years. And maybe, I thought, just maybe I was right about The Holy Grail. Perhaps now it would be possible to find people who would take it seriously. And maybe the Pythons wouldn’t say no. We decided that the only way to find out was to take the bull by the horns and try it. We agreed that I would write a book and JDP and I would do some songs “on spec” and see what happened.