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Idle, naturally, demurs. "I wouldn't describe myself as self-confident," he says. "I was just totally ignorant.... Performing is a good way of hiding... hiding in the spotlight." It was also a swell way to be noticed. In just over four years he'd gone from the orphanage to Cambridge to the leading TV satire show. As he recalled: "To be 23 and on The Frost Report was really cool."
SPICING THE SPAM
And now he's 63. When the show opened, Idle was exactly twice as old as he was when MP&HG was shot back in '74. If the old saying is true that we become what we once mocked then the Idle of Spamalot isn't too far from the "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" pub character in the early Flying Circus days. He wants everyone in the theater to get it, get it? This is clear from the show's brief overture, with oompah tubas and tiptoeing xylophones practically poking the audience in the ribs to announce what follows will be musical comedy stopping just short of a Spike Jones all-out aural assault.
The show is the movie, as much as it can be: essentially, the story of King Arthur rounding up his Knights in quest of the chalice Jesus drank from during the Last Supper. It reassembles most of the familiar scenes (the Black Knight's joust, the taunting Frenchman, the Trojan Rabbit, gay Prince Herbert), lines (A: "He's a king." B: "How can you tell?" A: "He doesn't have sh-- all over him.") and shtick (the coconut shells in lieu of clip-clopping horses, the characters presumed dead who aren't, quite).
When the show can't recreate the film, it plunders the Python repertoire for correlatives. Instead of the mock-Swedish subtitles from the film's opening, the show begins with a Finnish fish-slapping dance this from a song Palin wrote called "Finland" and a bit in episode 28, when John and Michael ritually smite each other with fish to the music of Edward German. Later, a sound-off marching song flicks a reference to Palin's "Lumberjack Song" with the shouted cadence: "Become a knight and you'll go far / In suspenders and a bra."
Of course, the signature Python tendency was to stop the action and question it, impudently and irrelevantly, in terms scientific ("Where'd Arthur get his coconuts?") or political ("Who elected Him king?"), before abandoning the sketch altogether. Python skits programmed their own self-destruction; they'd be aborted midway with no punch line in sight. Indeed, MP&HG ends with Arthur and his Knights cantering out of the Dark Ages into modern Britain, where the film sputters brazenly to its close. But a Broadway show moves irrevocably toward cues for applause, either at the end of a scene or for the climax of a song. The crowd at a musical expects to applaud, they want to applaud. And we already know that applause is something Idle enjoys hearing.
Idle has said that he was encouraged to musicalize MP&HG after seeing Mel Brooks' stage version of The Producers. The was the show that reminded Broadway that its strong suit was musical comedy, and not the dour Les Miz and Phantom and Sondheims and the rest of the sing-song drama lot. In Spamalot, as in The Producers, everything is absolutely spot-on and studiously ingratiating. Idle's show isn't desperate to please, really; rather, it's confident that everything it does will provide pleasure.
The contrast between the movie and the show is also the contrast between English diffidence and the American craving for acceptance. Idle, who had lived in Los Angeles for a decade when he did the show, has a bit in which the Lady of the Lake (fabulous Sara Ramirez in the original cast) leads her Laker Girls in a sideline chant: "Who's the king? U.R.! / A.R.T.H.U.R.!" That's symptomatic of the whole show, which struts, leaps, implores and seduces its audience, cheerleader-style.
Throughout, Idle devises numbers that are both parodies and evocations of popular songs. Idle's been writing this sort of ditty for decades. At Cambridge he did a song called "I Like Chinese" ("They only come up to your knees") that he reprised at the Hollywood Bowl. In his Flying Circus days he'd start with the verbal legerdemain of a highbrow-sounding verse ("Can a bee be said to be / Or not to be an entire bee / When half the bee is not a bee / Due to some ancient injury") with a simple chorus ("La di dah, one two three / Eric the half a bee / A B C D E F G / Eric the half a bee"). To get them singing along, give them a lazily catchy tune from famous Eric an idle idol-Idle idyll.