by Kim “Howard” Johnson
Thursday, 21 April 2005

A slightly delayed report on the glory and the grandeur known as Spamalot’s opening night, March 17, 2005.

It was one of the great nights in Python history.

Anticipation ran high at the Shubert Theatre. The advance word was that Spamalot was a hit, sold-out for many months, following stellar reviews and five soldout weeks of previews in Chicago.

Middle-aged men who never expected to find themselves watching, let alone enjoying, musical comedy, were cheering.

But could any show possibly live up to the hype and the hysteria that Spamalot was generating?

By the time the curtain closed that evening, there was no doubt that Spamalot had surpassed all expectations, and had earned all its accolades and testimonials; it will run for years on Broadway, and send out road companies for many more years.

It thrilled the hardcore Python fans, it delighted the mainstream audiences. It even reunited the surviving Pythons, who were elated at the success of this masterful piece of work.

The national press was out in full force long before the theatre doors opened to watch the VIPs arrive, and crowds lined the streets behind barricades to watch the spectacle. With boundless energy, Eric made the rounds of the interviewers, giving them quick jokes and witty sound bites, while John Du Prez and Mike Nichols made their way in and out of the theatre, weaving their way through the crowds. The excitement was palpable.

As my wife Laurie and I arrived, we were amazed and pleased to find webmaster Hans and his wife Alison in the crowd outside the theatre. After a few photos and videos, we watched some of the VIPs arrive.

After the ushers had managed to get most of the crowd into the theatre, the other Pythons arrived, just before curtain, for a quick photo op outside the Shubert, mugging and teasing each other. It was nice to see they hadn’t changed. Even at a Broadway opening, most did not wear neckties; John Cleese, who did wear a tie, was in blue jeans.

The crowd quickly settled in. There was a visible stir as some of the Pythons entered and took their seats, the lights went down, and even the pre-curtain announcements got hearty laughs. Then the overture began, and the show was under way.

Although I was lucky enough to have seen the show three times in Chicago, and enjoyed it tremendously each time as it went through the usual tweaks and cuts, I was amazed at how well it had matured. This was the finest show yet.

There are numerous reviews to retrieve on-line, and much has been printed of the plot and the production. The release of the soundtrack is making the music of Spamalot accessible to people halfway around the world, people who can hear it long before they can see the show. So, those who want to learn all the details of the production will have no trouble finding them. But, I won’t give any of them away here, other than to say that in Spamalot, Eric Idle has taken Python to the next level.

At the end of this very special evening, after the curtain call, Eric called “some lads from England” on stage with the cast. John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam all took a bow, then joined with the cast in leading the audience in a sing-along to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” I could see Steve Martin, Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, all singing along. It was an amazing moment.

It ended all too soon. But after the audience had filed out and the theatre was near empty, there was another great moment. The cast (now on their street clothes) and the Pythons, along with their families and friends, all congregated on the stage, a mutual appreciation society. Memorabilia was autographed and compliments were exchanged, and soon, most of the cast was off to party till the wee hours. But the Pythons and their extended family lingered, enjoying the evening and each others’ company too much to rush off as they visited, joked, and laughed. Lots of laughter.

But all good things must end, and everyone began drifting off to the party. Still, crowds of fans waited outside the stage door, and as I exited, I was surprised to see John Cleese standing close against the barricades, happily signing everything and anything that was put in front of him. To one side, his assistant Garry waited patiently. I asked if he needed help in getting John away from the crowd and to the party, but Garry said no, John was having a good time.

“I’ll see you over at the party then,” I called to Garry, then looked at the huge crowd. “Maybe in an hour or two.”

“Three and a half hours,” quipped Garry.

A few blocks away, the guests were pouring into the Roseland Ballroom. The party featured a Medieval Banquet theme, and guests feasted on turkey legs, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding while a deejay spun records on stage. The cast was already dancing, and the time slipped away much too quickly. I saw John and Linda Goldstone across the room, but by the time I got there, they were gone. I never reconnected with Mr. & Mrs. Hans, though he swears they were at the party. I saw the more-glamorous-than-ever Carol Cleveland talking with the cast, and took a couple of photos for her as she posed with some of them. Maggie and Terry Gilliam, who had just flown in from London that morning, were holding up as well as possible after being up 24 hours straight. Too many people to see, and not enough time.

As we departed, a pair of knights and maidens offered us buttons and special edition cans of Spamalot Spam. As we stepped into the New York night, there were still crowds of people watching from behind barricades for a glimpse of a Python. I looked at my badge, and couldn’t help but think how appropriate the message was: “Not Dead Yet.”

* * * * *

There are few areas of entertainment in which Monty Python has not, eventually, triumphed. Opera, perhaps. Theme parks, of course.

But the thought of Monty Python conquering Broadway occurred to very few people even five years ago.

Not that the group hasn’t been successful performing live. The City Center in New York City—the Python equivalent of the Beatles Invading America—saw the group performing live on stage in spring of 1976. John Cleese and Graham Chapman performed off-Broadway in the mid-1960s in Cambridge Circus. And shortly after that, John Cleese, individually, co-starred in a legitimate Broadway musical, Half a Sixpence, though he was prohibited from singing.

But it appeared that Python, as a group, would never achieve major success on Broadway. After all, the group’s last film, The Meaning of Life, came out in 1983. And Graham Chapman’s death in 1989 appeared to quash any chance of a new tour or film. Although the reunion of the surviving five at the Aspen Comedy Festival ignited the rumors once again, when those projects fell through, it appeared to end the possibility of any major Python projects.

But Eric Idle, tenacious, hard-working, and committed to Python, wouldn’t let it die. He knew that if there was going to be a Python reunion, he would have to do it alone, and so there was Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python, followed by The Greedy Bastard Tour.

But Eric saved the best for last.

In the wake of Mel Brooks and The Producers, a musical based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail looks like a no-brainer. But a few years ago, it was far from a sure thing. And so, Eric took it on himself to write a script and (with John DuPrez) a selection of songs. Then came the most difficult challenge of all: getting the approval of the other Pythons.

That came only after they had read the first script and heard the songs. In the end, all it took was one song: “The Song That Goes Like This.”

“If all of the songs are as good as that one, it will work,” Terry Jones told me early on.

There were many more drafts, dozens of new songs, and the inevitable business questions (no one had ever done a deal like this one before). Mike Nichols was signed on to direct. And from that point on, there was no stopping Spamalot.