“It’s easier to make an audience cry than to make them laugh,” says Peter Earle, director of Monty Python’s “Spamalot,” running from Oct. 6 to Nov. 13 at the Academy of Performing Arts in Orleans.
“Spamalot,” a musical comedy, was adopted from the 1975 film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” a parody of the famous legend of King Arthur. The original 2005 Broadway production directed by the late Mike Nichols won three Tony Awards. The title comes from a line in the movie: “We eat ham and jam and Spam a lot.”
While “Spamalot” might initially appeal to Monty Python fans, the music is wonderful and “there are enough dance numbers to keep everyone happy,” Earle says. The play clocks in at just under two hours in length.
The academy will stage “Camelot” next spring. “It’s the year of ‘Spamalot’ ‘Camelot.,’” Earle says.
“Spamalot’s” setting is medieval England in the year 932. King Arthur, accompanied by his horse Patsy and his knights, sets off to find the holy grail. Their quest brings them to a French castle inhabited by a treacherous Black Knight—and a foul killer bunny. The play is characterized by Monty Python humor.
“There are so many Monty Python fans across the world it’s unbelievable,” Earle says.
Casting “Spamalot” proved tricky. Here, actors play double or triple roles. And in this play, when you’re playing three or four roles, the challenge is made greater when each role might call for a different dialect to be spoken. “You have to have a good ear to pull it off,” Earle says.
For example, the following five roles are played by the same actor who also sings tenor: the Historian, Not Dead Fred, the French Guard, the Minstrel and Prince Herbert. Considering that at least one of these roles is spoken with a French accent, and others with varying English accents, and that you need both to sing tenor and be a “very good mover,” the assignment is challenging.
Not surprisingly for a play about knights, “when you open the script it’s a very male show, but frankly there aren’t that many parts,” Earle says. In fact, 22 roles are played by about 12 actors. King Arthur (played by Todd Gosselin of Bourne), the horse Patsy and the Lady of the Lake (played by Sarah Sneed of Harwich) are the only three characters who are not also required to play other roles. Jefferson Post of Orleans plays Lancelot.
Actors at the academy are all volunteers. Local actors for this play include two freshmen in high school, two college students and a number of adults. “The chemistry is just fabulous,” Earle says.
Now, to get back to the play’s humor—it is as though Monty Python said “we’re throwing in everything but the kitchen sink.” The humor “is a little of everything. They were masters of parody and physical comedy,” Earle says.
The six-man Monty Python crew debuted on the BBC in 1969 with “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” which aired until 1974. “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” was the group’s second film. “Spamalot” was written by Monty Python’s Eric Idle.
Earle recalls John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks, and calls the group “very brilliant writers.” Because Idle’s writing is of such a high caliber, Earle asks his actors not to paraphrase. “The way they wrote it is funny—it’s nigh on to perfect.” Earle characterizes Monty Python as a cross of Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and the Saturday Night Live troop.
“Blink and you’ll miss something,” he says.
He encourages his actors to learn their lines immediately so that they can find the other gags in the script—and there are plenty. Spoken lines have to be timed properly. If a punch line is delivered properly, the audience laughs. And the actor has to wait. “Once laughter fades away and decays—that’s when you can talk again,” Earle says.
The play opens with the “Fisch Schlapping Song” that results after the Historian announces the play begins in medieval “England,” which is misheard as “Finland.” The Finnish villagers’ dance involves someone hitting someone else with a herring and knocking him off a pier. Pure Monty Python, right?
A lot of Monty Python sketches – like the one mentioned above – have been integrated into the musical, Earle says. And, he adds, the music is “quite pleasant” in its own right. (The music won a Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album in 2006.) As the lyrics say in “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” “when you’re chewing on life’s gristle, don’t grumble, give a whistle.”
Earle, who is the academy’s executive director, choreographs as well as directs “Spamalot.” Chris Morris is musical director.
“Spamalot” runs at the Academy of Performing Arts in Orleans from Oct. 6 to Nov. 13 with shows on Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. and matinees on Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $26 and may be obtained by calling the box office at 508-255-1963 or through the website at apacape.org.