Thank You, Spamalot
Monty Python is no more. It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to meet its maker. But what a send off it was
The reunion/farewell event,Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five To Go, owes much to Spamalot on Broadway, both spearheaded by Eric Idle. The two-hour show boasted a superbly trained 20-member chorus line, live orchestra, and giant bi-level stage with proscenium drape (it repeats on Wednesday and Thursday in movie theaters). If it weren’t for the Monty Python members losing a big chunk of their profits in a lawsuit with a Spamalot producer, this lovely tribute might not ever happed at all. The troupe’s lawyer suggested it as a way to recoup.
The final show of the 10-night run at the 20,000 seat-O2 arena in London was broadcast live in hundreds of theaters world wide. On Sunday afternoon, the Galaxy 10 theater in northeast Dallas was packed with Python junkies. This was it, the last show. No more reunions, no more tributes. Seeing it live was extremely special, without a doubt. This reviewer was not the only one teary eyed at the end. Many a late night in my 20s and 30s was spent with Monty Python’s Flying Circus reruns. To think it only ran from 1969 to 1974 on the BBC. What an impact!
It’s Spamalot – Almost
Idle’s theater chops from Spamalot stood out in the way live classic Python sketches were staged, making the most of that snappy chorus line, pairing related sketches and songs together, and turning several into Broadway style numbers, such as these gems.
• While the set up was flat — Idle as Michelangelo arguing about artistic license with John Cleese as the Pope — “Every Sperm Is Sacred” was served up with a chorus line of nuns and priests that bumped, grinded and even Irish step-danced, stripping down to their Union jacks and bloomers. All set against a beautiful sperm-motif backdrop. It climaxed with two large candy-striped, penis-shaped cannons ejaculating confetti.
• “Spam Lake,” with the lead male dancers in mighty codpieces, was the set-up to the famous sketch, climaxing in the “Spam Song,” complete with Vikings.
• Eric Idle, spiffy in a ‘40s-era dressing gown, cleverly updated “Isn’t It Awfully Nice to Have a Penis?” with new verses on vaginas and butts, which the audience loved. All brought to life by a gleefully lewd chorus line. It peaked with the singing of all three verses at the same time, complete with appropriately suggestive gyrations.
• The cheerfully inappropriate “I Like Chinese” was updated with references to U.S. debt to China. It boasted tap dancing chorines and (inexplicably) an Elvis impersonator.
• Michael Palin and Cleese reprised a somewhat lame sketch about a meek accountant wanting to be a lion tamer as an intro to the “Lumberjack Song.” The revered tune featured oodles of marching Mounties and the classic punchline provided by the beloved Carol Cleveland, “the sixth Python” who was delicious and well utilized throughout the whole show.
“Sit On My Face and Tell Me That You Love Me” was spectacular. Just imagine the choreography.
While production for the “Galaxy Song” from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life was minimal, the video epilogue was superb. Rock-star astrophysicist Brian Cox blathered on correcting the song’s facts until run down Stephen Hawking in a wheelchair. Hawking then flew into the sky “singing” the lyrics. Yet even with a production number attached, somehow “The Spanish Inquisition” came off flat.
Sketching Back in Time
Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five To Go was satisfyingly packed with material. A bit more performance snap from the Pythons would have helped, but rustiness is no surprise since the group’s median age is 72, the collective age is 350, and it’s been over 30 years since they performed live together for Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl. With jokes that are four decades old, it verged on anachronistic. But fun is fun, with live sketches including these:
• Paired with Cleese, Terry Jones stepped into Graham Chapman’s role to bring back the endearing elderly British pepperpots watching the “telly” when their fake penguin explodes. Chapman died of cancer in 1989, hence the show’s subtitle One Down, Five To Go.
• Under pressure from Cleese’s health inspector, candy manufacturer Jones defended his chocolate-covered frogs: “Of course we can’t take out the bones, that’s why it’s called crunchy.”
• Cleese regaled in pink drag, possibly the original outfit, for the inscrutable albatross-seller sketch.
• Jones was at his supercilious best in the “Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink,” highlighted by Idle’s misbehaving fake moustache.
• The sketch of four old British geezers in a men’s club one-upping about their miserable childhoods was enhanced with references to the members’ real ages and various domestic and business misadventures.
• Palin held forth as a game show host blackmailing misbehaving celebrities. The skit was spiced with remarks about Cleese’s ongoing tussle with The Daily Mail and featured a guest appearance by an awestruck Mike Meyers who prostrated in his lack of worthiness.
The “Dead Parrot Sketch” with Palin and Cleese was highly anticipated, but didn’t rise to the occasion, possibly because Cleese inexplicably needed prompts from Palin to remember his lines.
• The University of Woolamaloo philosophy department, all named Bruce (except Shelia), regaled as Aussie reprobates. Pythons in outback hats with wine corks dangling from the brim wailed their philosophy song: “I drink, therefore I am.” The bit featured a guest appearance by comedian Eddie Izzard, who merrily disrupted things.
Of the five performers, Terry Gilliam was clearly having the most fun, a gleeful maniac thriving on the live audience contact, which as a filmmaker he rarely gets. Palin was looking sharp and performing sharper. Idle was his usual amenable self, still in love with making people laugh and sing. Cleese was clearly having a lot of fun. Jones’ face has become a masterpiece and his sarcastic mind is as sharp as ever. And the greatness of Cleveland, still dancing and camping it up at age 72.
The O2’s multiple video screens, one as large as the stage itself, were essential since a good chunk of the event was selections from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Video clips emphasized the more elaborately staged pieces originally shot on location and those featuring Chapman, whose presence was deeply felt throughout the show. Standouts included the Batley Townswomen’s Guild slugfest version of the Battle of Pearl Harbor, and the immensely funny “Philosophers’ Football Match,” a soccer game between German philosophers in period dress and Greek ones in togas. Chapman as Hegel in a grey top hat!
It was sumptuous to see Gilliam’s greatly missed animations on the large screen. His crude, lascivious, surreal concoctions were immediately funny. Kudos to whoever re-mastered the classic ones for the event; they looked great. A new animation kicking off the event sent Graham Chapman’s head ricocheting off the planets and was capped (for some reason) by a Dr. Who reference. Gilliam’s visual stamp was all over the show.
The “spontaneous encore,” as the show termed it, was “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” with lyrics posted on screen for audience sing-along. The Pythons, all waving goodbye, were joined by a mob of friends on stage. Somewhere nearby, the joyful ghosts of George Harrison and Chapman hovered. It was sad and silly and, on a day in which 100 died on the Gaza Strip, just the message we needed.