It's been 15 years, and Eric Idle is finally returning to Carnegie Hall. Performing in the comedic oratorio Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy), the writer-performer will be clad in a tux and accompanied by the Collegiate Chorale — a marked departure from his previous performance at the performance hall, when he appeared in drag.
"I appeared in full drag as Dolly Taylor with a big blonde wig," Idle recalled, laughing. "I was singing, 'Sh*t on my face and tell me that you love me.' I remember being in Brahms' dressing room and looking at his picture as I was adjusting my pantyhose and thinking, 'This is quite a way to be in Carnegie Hall.'"
Not The Messiah (He's A Very Naughty Boy), written by Idle and John Du Prez follows Brian, the man born in the stable next door to Jesus, as he goes through life mistakenly identified as the Son of God. Not the Messiah has been performed at the Luminato Festival in Toronto, Canada; Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts; Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane, Australia; the Hollywood Bowl; and the Royal Albert Hall, which celebrated the 40th anniversary of Monty Python and featured an onstage reunion of troupe members Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam. That performance was released on DVD and Blu-Ray in 2010.
"Everybody knows The Messiah; there's about eight productions in New York, so we thought, 'Let's do Not the Messiah,'" Idle said of the irreverent entertainment. "And I'd worked with Ted Sperling last year in New York in the Park, when we did The Pirates of Penzance. It was terrific fun, and I loved Ted. It's kind of exciting to be able to do it in New York properly." Not the Messiah is performed as a "proper oratorio," Idle said, adding, "We take it very seriously, which obviously is funnier. This did come from the Book of Brian, and evangelists have written the story of Brian. Being serious about things is what makes them funny, I think. People don't get offended. There are no crosses and beards, and the ideas are still the same and the story's still the same, but some of the great scenes like 'What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us?' become a very nice song."
"It's just very silly," he continued. "It's sort of lovely music and it sort of touches every sort of music, from Mozart to Doo-Wop to Gilbert and Sullivan. It dips in and out of various genres, which John Du Prez called 'iPod shuffle.' Everybody has a good time. The orchestra has a good time, and the choir has a very big part. So I sort of hold the [stage] as the narrator and then the very, very good singers perform the various parts."
The "very, very good singers" that will be accompanying Idle include Tony Award winner Victoria Clark (The Light in the Piazza, Cinderella), William Ferguson, Marc Kudisch (9 to 5, Thoroughly Modern Millie) and Lauren Worsham (A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, Show Boat). Sperling will conduct and direct, and the performers will be accompanied by the Orchestra of St. Luke's and NY Metro Pipe Band.
The production, which includes songs such as "Hail to the Shoe" and "We Love Sheep," also features appearances by Bob Dylan and Welsh minors, as well as a performance of the classic Python song "I'm a Lumberjack."
Creating sardonic and silly tunes is nothing new to Idle, who composed many of the musical numbers for the comedy group Monty Python. He penned "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," the closing number of "Life of Brian," which has grown to become a signature tune for the comedy group. Idle was also responsible for the "Galaxy Song" from "The Meaning of Life" and "Eric the Half-a-Bee."
Idle described the longevity of the Pythons' work as "rather fabulous because, in fact, we never really thought much about the songs. They just sort of emerged when we needed them. They sort of gained a life of their own. We used them very much in 2002, which was the final Python show in London. We had 20 singers and dancers and choreography, and it was a big musical we did with Python sketches in between and Python songs being sung and danced rather wonderfully." Following their debut TV show "Monty Python's Flying Circus," the comedy group presented touring stage shows, films, numerous albums, several books and the stage musical Spamalot, inspired by the film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." Opening on Broadway in 2005, Spamalot won the Tony Award for Best Musical, as well as Direction and Featured Actress. The score, by Idle and Du Prez, received a nomination.
When asked if he would return to the Great White Way, Idle said he is working on a show, but he is unsure if it would run on Broadway.
"I never quite know," he said. "I start writing things, and then you see how they go. I'd love to. We had the most fun on that show. It was one of those delightful experiences where everything goes right. And so you always think, 'What can happen on the next one? It can only all go wrong.'
"I'd like to look at other venues, or ideas, or other forms so you don't just repeat things," he continued. "It was a very good subject for the musical — 'Holy Grail' was waiting to become a musical. A lot of the lines seem to be about to be songs — 'I'm not dead yet' and things like that. It was not easy to adapt, it took a while, but given the fact that I had Mike Nichols and Casey Nicholaw to help and to teach us about the musical form, I learned a tremendous amount in the five years that it was on Broadway."
All that Idle has learned throughout his decades in performance will be on display at Carnegie Hall, performing what he described as "choral sex," which he defined as "when the chorus has a much better time than everyone else."
(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)