Creator Eric Idle Talks of Monty Python's Spamalot Quest From Film to Musical

By Ernio Hernandez
March 1, 2004

Original Monty Python star Eric Idle had always thought the British comedy team's film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" was fit material for musicalization. Now the comedian, with composer John Du Prez, will see that dream (now three years in the making) come true with Monty Python's Spamalot.

"This is our third year working on it now," Idle revealed to Playbill On-Line. "We've done several musicals before. We just took it up and we worked on it and recorded some songs and we sent it to the Pythons. And they loved it and said 'Yes, absolutely, go ahead.'" The musical, now set to open at Chicago's Shubert Theatre in December prior to a Broadway run, will include both songs from the original 1975 film and a completely new score by Idle and Du Prez ("A Fish Called Wanda").

What makes the film suitable for musical adaptation? Idle explained, "What's nice about the 'Grail' is it keeps coming to points where it should absolutely have always had a song, like 'I'm not dead yet.' And it does that all the time. Obviously, there are some songs in it, but sometimes it seems to us, adapting it, that the songs were always there."

Python fans will be happy to know three songs from the film will be retained: "There's the Sir Robin song, and there's a moment when [they] sing 'He's going to tell,' and there's the 'Knights of the Round Table' [song] — which is a very silly song and dance routine done in Camelot, where they said "No let's not go there, it is a silly place," said Idle. "Obviously, those are given moments where you must have them."

"I've just turned in the sixth draft of the book and put a new CD out for everybody of the new and latest songs." The book of the musical will follow the film as closely as possible according to the Spamalot creator.

"Well, the changes are really enhancements and things that you have to do when you adapt something from a movie to a two-act musical. Obviously, you need to have a scene and some music and a scene and some music. You know, a laugh and a song, a laugh and a song is really what it is. So, we always weave the comedy with a song. And I find that's the most agreeable form. I guess the adaptation doesn't stray in terms of the text from what's on screen. There are, essentially, the words that are said by the characters in the scenes. But the order, and the 'what-happens' and the shaping of it and certain extra bits are what [you] play with."

Idle noted the cult following the film has. "You have to maintain true to the people, the purists who want to see this. There are many out there; it's a very popular movie. So there's no point in straying too far from that. That's what we're doing. But at the same time, you have to recognize this is a stageshow."

The new songs — which total 25 at the moment — promise to enliven famous bits in the movie. "There's a song called 'Fetchez la Vache' which I'm really proud of," Idle giggled. "[It's the part] in the 'Grail' where [a French knight] goes 'Fetchez la vache!' and they bring out the cow, you know."

Idle explained the musical numbers may change. "They're all set, in so far as that's what we'll start off the process with. When a show hits the stage, you learn a lot, and then when the show hits an audience, you learn a hell of a lot more."

Though five of the original six Pythons — John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Idle — are still performing (Graham Chapman died in 1989), the stageshow will feature a troupe of new actors — perhaps more apt to endure a weekly eight-show schedule.

"'Who's going to be in it?' is the next big question," Idle posed. "We've got everything else. We have the book, the music, the costumes, the sets, the choreographers, the lighting designers, [but] 'Who is going to play these parts?' That's the issue. We're looking for six major funny people and two major funny women. They play the bulk of everything. So, you're looking for a Cleese type, a Gilliam type, a Jones type, a Palin type and a Graham Chapman type. Because one of the essential things about Python theatre is that everybody plays everything. Now, you either get a cast of 32 and you all play one thing — which really doesn't work, you're just going to have very frustrated people hanging around all day — or you do what my choice was, to make the six play as many parts as they can from the original."

Those unfamilar with "Python theatre," fear not Spamalot, said the comedian. "That's the target audience. We can almost take it for granted that people who love Python will come. So, how do you please people who don't know anything about it? And the answer is, you make a very funny singing and dancing musical. You know, funny is funny is funny. If they come and they laugh, that's what we're selling. I'm thrilled and overjoyed that the musical [genre] has come back to being funny because for so many years, it was so dull and so boring. I'm just happy that my favorite for entertainment — which is the musical comedy — seems to be piping its way back to audiences.

Spamalot is set for Chicago in December and Idle reveals "Then we move in March to Broadway, all being well."

Does the comedian-turned-composer-lyricist foresee further Monty Python musical theatre? "'The Meaning of Life' is a musical. If you look at that movie, it's got eight major songs in it. And I think that would kind of [work], but it doesn't have a plot. The art of that would be to see if you could find something that kept it going through, a throughline. But these takes so long that you just don't know what you might want to do next if such possibilities exist. Good properties for musicals are few and far between and it's very clear to me what might well work."