ABC has announced Galavant, a new musical comedy series about knights, fair maidens, and tyrannical kings, will be coming soon to prime-time TV. While Medieval Times and musical comedy seem like an odd combination, this is not the first or last time that Broadway and geek culture have collided. In this new series, I will take a look at musicals that fall firmly in geek culture and Broadway theater culture and examine the good, the bad, and the lady parts in Geeks on Stage.
What is Spamalot? King Arthur and his knights have been charged with a quest from Almighty God, to find the Holy Grail. With guidance from the Lady of the Lake, they search the forest, the countryside, and neighboring castles for the grail, reliving favorite moments from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and running into favorite Monty Python characters like the Knights Who Say Ni.
The Good Spamalot had an amazing original cast, like astoundingly good comedic talent. Tim Curry as King Arthur, David Hyde Pierce as Sir Robin, Hank Azaria as Sir Lancelot, and John Cleese as the Voice of God, to only name a few. Also, Sara Ramirez as the Lady of the Lake had a voice so big, it could knock a house down, and she won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical for her role in the show.
Eric Idle, who wrote the show’s book, knew Monty Python’s greatest hits for mainstream audiences. He expanded “Knights of the Round Table” and “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” (the latter of which comes from Life of Brian and not Holy Grail) and transformed them into massive showstoppers. There is something to be said for a comedic talent who knows their strengths and plays them up.
The Bad Spamalot, like its cinematic inspiration Holy Grail, is not so much a cohesive story as a loose collection of comedy vignettes set in medieval times. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but as a result, central characters aren’t really developed past Arthur’s arrogance, Robin’s cowardice, and Lancelot’s tendency to wear-tight-pants-a-lot. Unlike other musical comedies like The Book of Mormon or Kinky Boots, the show never asks its audience to think deeper or to even search for a message in its silliness. The show’s aim is to entertain and give the audience a trip down memory lane.
Speaking of nostalgia, Idle relies quite a bit on nostalgia for the heydays of Monty Python. Curry, Pierce, Azaria, and the rest of the cast deliver the jokes with enthusiasm, but a lot of the jokes are familiar to Monty Python fans. In comparison, Mel Brooks’ stage musical adaptation of The Producers only had one song that carried over from the movie, “Springtime for Hitler.” Many plot points were also changed including Leo’s affair with Ulla, and Roger De Bris, the flamboyant director, stepping into the role of Adolf Hitler. Idle’s creative decisions for Spamalot didn’t make the show a bad musical by any means, but those decisions did make it a safe sell to Broadway tourists.
The Music By far, the stand-out song of the show, excluding “Knights of the Round Table” and “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” is “Find Your Grail.” The original cast of Spamalot had plenty of Broadway veterans like David Hyde Pierce and Christopher Sieber, but none of them can sing like Sara Ramirez. Oh my goodness, Sara Ramirez can belt, and she sells the song, even when the lyrics rhymes “Grail” with “Grail” on multiple occasions. “Trim your sails/you won’t fail/find your Grail/find your Grail.”
What About the Ladies? For being the best singer of the show, as well as the only female character with a name, Sara Ramirez gets surprisingly little stage time. She jokes about it in her big second-act song “Diva’s Lament (Whatever Happened To My Part?).” The song lampshades characters like the Lady of the Lake who show up in these fantasy stories to give the male leads their motivation and then disappear until the end of the story when they can be claimed as a prize by the victorious hero. The Lady of the Lake, however, is having none of it. She will not have her part cut out of the story, and her song “Diva’s Lament” brings her back into the story long before the big finale.
The biggest problem with “Diva’s Lament” and this whole part of Spamalot is that it shows Eric Idle, who wrote the book and the lyrics for the show, is aware of the lack of female characters in the show. He is aware of it, and instead of choosing to write more scenes with the Lady of the Lake, he prefers to lampshade it and call it a day. It might be a silly little lampshade, most likely made entirely of Spam, but in the end, Idle doesn’t dig under the surface. All he really does with this song is point back at himself and say, “Huh, this character should be in more scenes, but hey, what can I do? I’m just the book writer, co-composer, and lyricist! Now, where was that silly little lampshade?”
The Geek Factor For many geeks, Monty Python is their first introduction to British comedy and Holy Grail is usually people’s first introductions to Monty Python. It is the best known Monty Python property and the most accessible to American audiences. The level of blasphemy is much lower than Life of Brian, and its humor is derived less from British culture than Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Its Place in Geek Culture Holy Grail has grown in its cultural prominence over the years. It is no longer just a popular geek film or a popular comedy film, it’s a cultural touchstone. The Black Knight and the Knights Who Say Ni are classic modern comedy characters, recognized and quoted everywhere. Spamalot has a high geek factor because it is so closely tied to Holy Grail, a comedy satirizing medieval fantasy and the legends of King Arthur. Due to its prominence, it is one of the more accessible geek theater offerings that also has a high geek factor.
Is it Worth a Look? Absolutely. Despite Idle’s missteps with the Lady of the Lake, Spamalot is a very funny show with enough memorable songs to make it worth the ticket price. The national tour officially ended its three-year run in April 2013, but it has become a favorite show for many community theaters. The original Broadway cast soundtrack is also available on iTunes and any music store with a decent soundtrack section.