Fresh From the Can

Spamalot seeks the grail of Broadway triumph, but old jokes can only take a (k)night so far

There seems to be a curious desire, on both sides, to make a huge fuss about Spamalot, the curious part being that Spamalot doesn't contain much to make a fuss about. If you enjoy Monty Python humor, you'll enjoy Spamalot, which I found mildly amusing at points along its lengthily discontinuous way. Of course, if you enjoy Monty Python humor, you probably already know many of the jokes in Spamalot, and your only satisfaction will be hearing them spoken onstage for a change. That this automatically makes them old jokes (a fair number of them were old to start with) doesn't constitute a media scandal on the level of, say, the White House's systematic suborning of the press corps. Old jokes are rather a tradition on Broadway. That all conservative commentators should be viewed as no better than prostitutes is an innovation.

At its better moments, Spamalot hints at the insouciant spirit of the early Rodgers & Hart shows. Granted, it does this only in a recycled and unfocused way, without the originality, the wit, and the depth of feeling that made Rodgers & Hart's insouciance meaningful, but you can't have everything. Ours is an unfocused, recycling time, and audiences have to take what laughs they can get. Those willing to pay $101.50 a pop for routines from an old movie, stylishly recycled in three dimensions, should be allowed to do so without having moral indictments flung at them. Personally, I'd rather see a musical in which all Republican congressmen had their brains removed onstage—preferably by people forced into bankruptcy through a family medical disaster—with the removal of the feeding tubes that kept them alive for a finale. I feel this would evoke much more laughter than Spamalot, though locating brains in Republican congressmen might prove a difficulty.

The real problem with bringing Pythonian humor to Broadway is one of form rather than flavor: Since the Monty Python gang made outrageous, freewheeling fun of everything, including its own premises, there's no way to build a structure for its humor. Even at its best, the comedy tends to be one bit followed by another bit; when the team's luck holds out, you get a succession of good bits. For television and movies, mechanically reproduced entertainment forms that inevitably carry lower expectations, this is sufficient. But in the theater, your attention is always directed toward the stage, where something larger is presumably being built up, by living human beings who are in the same room with you. When the bits have no cumulative effect, the audience simply loses interest. The screen is hypnotic, a space that people stare at no matter what picture flashes on; the stage entails cultivating a relationship. Since Monty Python bits never relate to one another (and a good deal of the humor is based on people not relating to each other), making a sustained two-and-a-half-hour evening out of such bits is nigh on impossible. At best one could build a sort of revue, in which the bits were cleanly separated and the audience came in expecting its attention to be redirected over and over again.

David Hyde Pierce and ensemble
Photo: Joan Marcus
David Hyde Pierce and ensemble

Mike Nichols's solution, in directing the transformation of the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail into Spamalot, has been to reshape the material into a spoof of a standard-model Broadway musical. But there is no standard model for the Broadway musical anymore; the new-model shows are all spoofs already, which gives Spamalot an old-news quality. And the show's tilt toward parody dilutes the already tenuous satirical element and the brackish tone, for which many people love the Pythons. To be fair, two of the parodies—an Andrew Lloyd Webber spoof called "The Song That Goes Like This," and David Hyde Pierce's second-act number—are well enough done to be among the show's high points. But the targets are easy and the jokes, however well-turned, are no surprise.

In fact, the skill with which everything in Spamalotis done, like the scale on which it's done, actually tends to mitigate its effect. Satire has never been a success on Broadway because its anti-establishment posture is undermined by being placed in an establishment position. Broadway has always been expensive, and has always conveyed the received establishment view of what constitutes theater. Human comedy and comic anarchy have occasionally held sway there (another Broadway tradition that Spamalot doesn't quite evoke is the lunacy of Olsen and Johnson's Hellzapoppin!), but satire and parody never. Blown up to Broadway size, spoof of any kind looks grainy and thin. The particular sadness of this in Spamalot's case is that its really appealing cast has to labor to hold up an elaborate lean-to structure, always on the verge of collapse, while pretending doughtily that the structure is supporting them. Their deadpan determination in the face of this obstacle makes a much better case for the idealism symbolized by King Arthur's knights than for this Idle spoof of same. David Hyde Pierce, Sara Ramirez, Tim Curry, Hank Azaria, Michael McGrath—in my book they all deserve knighthood, or ladyship if they so prefer, for their steadfastness.

 
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