"Of course, you know Harry means 'leader,'" I am quick to point out to Harry Groener, who does indeed know and uses it in his work eight times a week, lording over Monty Python's Spamalot at the Shubert in a majestically loopy fashion. "I forget who told me," he responds cloudily, "but I knew the name had some kind of a royal leader sense to it."
It goes back, I go on, to Henry VIII. The name came from the Old French (Henri for "home rule"), but he answered to Harry at court. Groener goes back even further with his right to rule - a good half-a-millennium more - to play King Arthur, spinning his wheels in Old English sod in this funny, fruity, not entirely fruitless quest for the Holy Grail. Such is the musical version of the cinematic silliness of a merrie band of British madcappers, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Birthright or not, attests Groener, it's good to be the king. "It's so silly, so joyous for me - a ball to do," he says. A fresh set of knights has been placed at his disposal - Martin Moran as Sir Robin, Lewis Cleale as Sir [Dennis] Galahad, Steve Kazee as Sir Lancelot - and still abetting all the galloping insanity (or, at least, keeping it at a nice clippity-clop pace with the coconuts) is his faithful, frequently overlooked Patsy, Michael McGrath. "It's great to be onstage with these guys," insists Groener. "They're always present. Every once in a while, something goes wrong, and how they deal with it is hysterical. It's very hard to keep a straight face."
It isn't easy being The Voice of Relative Reason in a court crammed with goony, goofy jesters, but somebody's gotta do it, Groener groans with mock resignation. "Arthur's more of a straight man. He has to believe in the crazy realities of this piece. He's got to be very clear about questioning all these barriers that pop up in front of him. What's so wonderful about the Python sense of humor - and I think this is important - is that the silliest scenes are played with such wholehearted conviction they're hilarious." This is Groener's tenth Broadway show. The first, Back Country, belly-upped in Boston. It was a musicalization of Playboy of the Western World, transplanted in Kansas. The operative word there was Kansas. He made it to Broadway in Oklahoma!, freshly returned from Kansas, singing - and dancing! - [Everything's Up to Date in] "Kansas City" well enough to win a Theatre World Award and his first Tony nomination. He was also nominated for Cats (as Munkustrap in Broadway's second-longest-running hit) and Crazy for You (which he played for three years at the theatre where he now reigns).
That reign will end on October 22. Then, he heads back to Los Angeles and a life 180 degrees different from this. There, they know him - sans the top hat and cane - as a straight dramatic actor. "I do a lot of episodic [TV], and there are pilots that come up. The stage work I do is almost all plays - not like here."
Here, it's almost an unbroken line of musicals. Even in that Mary McCarthy-Lillian Hellman catfight, Imaginary Friends, he pranced out the all-purpose song-and-dance man-in-their-lives. The sole songless exception was John Pielmeier's whodunit, Sleight of Hand. He played a magician in that one; it disappeared without a trace, within the week.
It delights him no end that there's so much ado these days about his Ado Annie - Grey Gardens' Christine Ebersole ("I think she's divine, and I hope the good fortune she's had this year continues") - and it made him happy to see, when he auditioned for director Mike Nichols and writer Eric Idle to do Spamalot, also sitting in judgment in the choreographer's chair a member of the Crazy for You ensemble - Casey Nicholaw, a Tony nominee for Spamalot and a double Tony nominee for The Drowsy Chaperone. "I always thought he was such a positive, wonderful spirit - but I never knew he'd blossom into this incredible director-choreographer. You don't know who's going to burst out and shine."
As another Arthur once observed, "Some of the drops sparkle. Some of them do sparkle!"