There have been many modern reinterpretations of the legend of King Arthur. From The Once and Future King to The Mists of Avalon, there is no shortage of words written about the first king of Britain and his knights.
Then there is Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Originally released in 1975, this film takes one of the pillars of the western canon and turns it on its head with uproarious results. Despite their low budget, Holy Grail managed to cement its place in film history as a cult classic and one of the highest grossing films to ever come out of Great Britain. It was also damn funny and remains so to this day.
Then in 2005 Python member Eric Idle decided it was time to adapt the film to Broadway.
The premise of Spamalot is simple enough. Arthur, king of the Britains, has been charged by the Lady of the Lake to find the Holy Grail. With the “help” of his knights, Arthur encounters misadventure after misadventure before succeeding in his quest. And for the uninitiated, the title is derived from a song lyric in the show where they sing “we eat ham, and jam and Spam a lot.” Get it?
So, just to get this out of the way, of course the production quality was great. This is the 5th Ave we’re talking about. They have a gigantic budget. They have great actors. They made great use of the space on the stage, the cast sang and danced their guts out, and Tim Hatley‘s costumes were fabulous. Those elements were fantastic.
Now if only there were a plot to back it up.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Monty Python. They are incredibly funny and their jokes have stood the test of time. But this musical was unnecessary. It merely leverages the popularity that the television series and the films worked so hard to cultivate to sell tickets. Nothing of merit is brought to the table. It loses the original spirit of the movie and is trying just too hard to be funny.
Spamalot includes many of the jokes from the film, but the new gags are often pop-culture based; they will seem dated fast, and they already feel flat and cynical next to the absurdist and situational humor that made the film such a success. And yes, of course everyone will get excited when you throw in a couple of Seahawks references, but they aren’t clever. As from every other business in this city, one can’t be surprised by the cast hopping the bandwagon. It’s a momentary and surefire grab for applause, but because the rest feels slightly cynical, the local references don’t fare much better.
At times the show also aims to make fun of Broadway musicals in general, including references to Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story. Admittedly there are some okay jokes, but they seem a wry attempt to excuse Spamalot of its own failings by lampooning the genre. If Python wanted to get together and make an outright, smart parody of Broadway musicals, this would be a different review entirely. But could we expect them to succeed as well as The Producers did? Not based on the writing we see here.
Python was originally formed in reaction to this lazy sort of writing. Though their bank accounts benefit from the box office, many of the original members have spoken out that they really weren’t interested in this show, that it was primarily pushed by Idle. But honestly, who’s to say that, given the opportunity, they themselves wouldn’t do the same thing, to keep milking old jokes for merchandise and books, to make sure there’s something put away for the golden years? I don’t blame Idle for his decision, but that still doesn’t mean this musical was a good idea.
In a culture that tends to forget its own absurdity and focuses instead on constant self-reference, it is only fitting that something so cherished for its humor and wit should be reinterpreted again and again, but Spamalot becomes self-referential in the worst way—an allegory for the meat product itself, a canned, reconstituted melange that barely passes as nourishment. I just pray that I don’t live long to see a movie based on this musical—or worse, a TV series.
I say this to everyone producing musicals, plays, films and television: Take risks. Be willing to stick your neck out and get behind something original. That’s what Monty Python did and look at how far it got them. It got them so far, they can phone it in.
There is no doubt a market for diehard Python fans who just want some familiar gags served as a spectacle. By all means, if you are interested in seeing a watered-down live version of your favorite comedy, don’t let me stop you. But be warned: A chunk of Spam with lipstick on it is still Spam.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go find a shrubbery.
Spamalot is playing at the 5th Ave. Theatre from now until March 2nd. Tickets available here. Spamalot was written by Eric Idle, with music by Eric Idle, John Du Prez and Neil Innes.