Suddenly materializing in a frenzy of papparazzi snap, crackle and pop—looking to all the world like they'd just piled out of the same late-model clown car in Shubert Alley—were John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. Put them all together, they spell the original Monty Python troupe—save for the first-billed, first-to-go Graham Chapman, who was doubtlessly there in spirit and required some special lighting.
The moment was more historical than hysterical, this reunion of The Fab Five, three decades down the road from their "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," but otherwise cheery and cheeky as ever as they filed into the theatre to inspect what musical wonders had been wrought (or, in their case, overwrought) on their film by one of their number. (Idle wrote the book and lyrics and, with co-composer John Du Prez, even some of the music.)
In a manner of speaking, all six of the Pythons made it to the stage for the curtain call—Chapman represented with an urn of ashes and a cardboard cut-out of his face—along with the custodian of their comedy, director Mike Nichols, and the newly minted Nichols' worth of Pythons: David Hyde Pierce, Tim Curry, Hank Azaria, Christopher Sieber, Michael McGrath, Steven Rosen and Christian Borle.
Whereas the old warriors looked a tad ragged around the edges from all those pratfalls, Nichols looked his usual untouched-by-time self, even a little glamorous along side his broadcast bride, Diane Sawyer. They hit the Shubert right before the Python invasion and ran the roped-off gauntlet in front of the theatre where they kept the press safely at bay.
As ever, Nichols was wearing a look of supreme serenity—the coolest, calmest customer around. "I always feel this is when I get strangely calm," he admitted. "There's nothing more I can do. And there's nothing more I have to do in this case, so I'm perfectly happy." The Shubert, incidentally, was in 1967 the scene of The Apple Tree, the only other musical Nichols has directed officially. (He "presented"—i.e. produced—Annie.)
It was an opening like the star-packed olden days. Nichols had apparently invited the world, and, not wanting to offend, the world showed up in spades for the after-party at Roseland.
Many of the celebs were there "for Mike": Whoopi Goldberg, whom he introduced on Broadway 21 years ago; Candice Bergen, who has been his friend since they did "Carnal Knowledge" together 34 years ago; Kate Burton, whose father and ex-stepmother won an Oscar nomination and an Oscar respectively under Nichols' direction; Tony Kushner, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America became through Nichols a multi-Emmy winner; Carly Simon, who copped a Best Song Oscar for Nichols' "Working Girl"; Marlo Thomas, whom Nichols directed on Broadway in Social Security; and Oliver Platt, whom he directed Off-Broadway in Elliot Loves; Meryl Streep, who owes two of her unprecedented 13 Oscar nods to Nichols ("Silkwood" and "Postcards From the Edge"); and, of course, the marvelous Elaine May, who will forever be Nichols' other professional half.
Other celebs, other motives: "Good Morning America" critic Joel Siegel was there for Mrs. Nichols and Gilliam, but left raving about the show-swiping, star-making turn Sara Ramirez makes as The Lady of the Lake, the lone female lead and the only new addition to the Python menagerie. She manages, from that spot, to hi-jack the hi-jinks around her.
Sutton Foster, who ordinarily would be next door to Roseland at the Virginia Theatre doing Little Women, persuaded management to give her the night off so she could be with Borle, her last (and, apparently, most lasting) Jimmy from Thoroughly Modern Millie. He's hilarious as a fey young prince given to flights of show tunes and knights in armor.
Mamma Mia!'s current Ali, Rebecca Kasper, also got the night off so she could cheer on Rosen, in his Broadway debut, as the mother of Dennis Galahad (later, and better, known as Sir Galahad). "Steve is a dear friend of mine," she said. "We go back a long way. When we were about ten years old, we went to the same summer camp." (It was, she noted, a rival camp to the musical-theatre camp depicted in the film, "Camp.")
Rosen wound up with his role in a roundabout way: "I was actually the audition reader for the show, and, on the last day of audition, Mike Nichols asked if I had any music, and, like any good actor, I had some music in my bag and I sang for him and got the job. I auditioned, essentially, by reading with every actor who came in to audition for roles."
The square-jawed Sieber, with cascading blond hair, looks like Dudley Do-Right doing Galahad, and he revels hilariously in that comic image. "It's the chin and the hair," he believes. "How can I explain the hair thing? It's like a Loreal Preference shampoo commercial. At least that's what I have in my head every time I throw my hair back.
"They gave me the best prop in the world—an amazing wig. It's only funny because it's so dead-on perfect. But there are so many great things in the show to do. We're so busy all the time, and I mean that literally. If we're not changing costumes, then we're on stage."
Spamalot is Azaria's second outing with Nichols. He played the flamboyant maid in "The Birdcage," Nichols' La Cage aux Folles film. "Both experiences were their own rewards, doing them," Azaria contended, and, when it was suggested his antics should have been up for an Oscar, he nodded. "You're right. I should've. Who do you write to about that?"
"Huff," the Showtime drama series in which Araria serves as producer and star, will commence shooting in June, meaning he'll have to bolt over the Spamalot moat—but only for a few months. "I'll be very, very sad to leave, but I'm happy that I'll be coming back."
The original game plan was that McGrath, who plays a patsy named Patsy (to Curry's King Arthur), would replace Azaria during that interim, but there have been some serious second thoughts on that score. "That might not happen now," said McGrath. "I think that we like this Patsy so much now that management has decided to keep me in that slot."
Every manjack of the new Pythons mumble the same mantra—something about "never having so much fun in a play before—the people, the show, making people laugh, it's fabulous." The impeccable timing is a tip-off of the teamwork going on, and the generosity of spirit extends beyond the footlights. Pierce, for example, concedes his favorite moment is his big showstopper about how to succeed on Broadway, "but I have favorite moments that I get to watch, too—like, when I'm off stage and Tim and Michael McGrath do `I'm All Alone,' things like that. I just think there are so many exquisite, wonderful things in the show that are a pleasure to watch."
Such camaraderie seems still in place with the old Pythons as well. How else can one explain the miracle of them all, with their far-flung lives and interests, converging again in one spot?
Cleese, who (who else?) contributed the voiceover of God to the show, left with the patrol at dawn for Paris, where he'll be "doing a couple of days on a French movie. I haven't gotten the name of it, and I think the role will mostly be in English, but it's an opportunity to do a scene with Daniel Auteuil, who is one of the great actors. Then I'll get back home and have to finish two new screenplays."
He had a resounding yes! for musicalizing "Monty Python and the Holy Grail": "I absolutely loved the new material," he trilled. "The songs are terrific because they are parodying one of my least favorite kind of musical songs. They were liberating."
Palin, himself a wonderful filmmaker ("A Private Function," "The Missionary"), has branched off into a special tributary of cinema: "I've been doing a lot of travel series for television. I did one on the Himalayas that will air next year on the travel channel here."
His take on the evening was different than an out-of-body experience. He described it as "an out-of-other-people's-body experience. Seeing somebody playing me is very strange."
Simon Jones, who appeared in Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life" (and married the Python's American manager, Nancy Lewis), summed up the evening with typical elegance and accuracy. "This wasn't an opening," he said. "This was a coronation."
And it's true. Opening with an advance of $18 million—unheard of, these days—Monty Python's Spamalot stands to runalot. While the world around the Shubert and Roseland danced a drunken Irish gig on St. Patrick's Day, inside Britannia ruled the waves.