New York Nights: Brits & Hits Over BroadwayDate: 11 April 2005
In the return of his semi-regular column on the Big Apple, Mark Shenton sees Monty Python given a giddy Broadway make-over in Spamalot & British directors tackling American classics, including two by Tennessee Williams.
In the topsy-turvy world of Broadway, the latest smash hit musical is one inspired by the lunacy of the very British Monty Python, while it’s a trio of British directors who are reinvestigating a series of American classics.
Spamalot (at the Shubert Theatre) is the biggest and most improbably silly hit in town. “Lovingly ripped off”, in the words of the show’s poster, from the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it has been adapted by original Python Eric Idle (who has written the book and lyrics and co-written the music with John Du Prez), with the full endorsement and support of the surviving Pythons, all of whom were on hand at the Broadway first night, and one of whom, John Cleese, is additionally to be heard in the show as the voice of God.
While Idle has commented that the lawyers’ fees to draw up the contracts for the stage musical have exceeded the entire budget of making the original film, the money is now flowing back into the pot very fast. With a reported budget of some $11 million, the show’s advance ticket sales now stand at over $25 million – with over $2 million of that taken on the single day that followed the show’s opening night (See The Goss, 22 Mar 2005). A further $500,000 is being taken daily for tickets that are currently on sale to 8 January 2006. Nevertheless, in an indication of just how tough the economics of Broadway are, these numbers don’t spell instant profitability. With a weekly running cost of around $600,000 to meet and a weekly box office potential of some $900,000, recoupment of the initial investment will still take more than a year.
Meanwhile, audiences lucky enough to get tickets are treated to a giddily funny cartoon strip of a show that joyfully replays all the much loved scenes from the cult comedy, from “Bring Out Your Dead” (even if the one of the bodies brought out vigorously protests that he’s not quite dead yet) to the Knight who keeps on fighting, even as he loses his arms, legs and finally head. Sophisticated New Yorkers are losing their heads over this show, too – and with tickets so hard to come by now, I wouldn’t be surprised if people started offering an arm and a leg for it themselves! (Nothing galvanises this town quite like a hit show does).
It may all be instantly forgettable, but who notices when you’re laughing so hard? The Holy Grail – which turns here into a pursuit to create a hit Broadway musical (complete with pastiches of Andrew Lloyd Webber and a number of that rejoices in the declaration “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway If You Don’t Have Jews”) – is triumphantly achieved. It’s performed to irreverent perfection by a cast led by Tim Curry as King Arthur, David Hyde Pierce (best known as brother Niles from TV’s Frasier) as Sir Robin and Hank Azaria as a rather gay Sir Lancelot, the last of whom steals the show with a Peter Allen-like number that recalls last year’s Broadway triumph of Hugh Jackman in The Boy from Oz.
While Spamalot cheerfully wears its English heart on its sleeve (and will inevitably be heading home soon to brighten up the West End), London’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has just taken flight over Broadway (at the newly re-named Hilton Theatre, formerly the Ford), continuing a pervasive influence of all things British.
There’s a strong English signature, too, to new productions of American classics. Edward Albee’s Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (at the Longacre) is currently being revived in a hit production with Kathleen Turner, under the direction of Brit Anthony Page. And there’s a pair of Tennessee Williams’ plays: A Streetcar Named Desire (at Studio 54), starring Natasha Richardson and directed by Edward Hall, and The Glass Menagerie (at the Barrymore), which has just opened with Jessica Lange and Whatsonstage.com Best Actor Christian Slater starring under the direction of David Leveaux.
I was at the Broadway opening night of The Glass Menagerie, produced by London’s own Bill Kenwright, and I wanted to wish it well. It’s a gamble opening shows on Broadway at the best of times, but Kenwright was fielding an ace team, led by Leveaux who I happen to consider to be one of the most compelling of all contemporary theatre directors working on either side of the Atlantic (though he tends to work in the US more than he does at home). But even talented people make mistakes, and this was one of those brave but misguided wobbles.
In a frequently perverse production, Lange and Slater struggle valiantly against a concept that turns Williams’ fragile, haunting autobiographical memory play into a nightmare of bad lighting and weird motivations. It’s not just the odd design (with a shower-like curtain dividing the forestage from the rear, where the family gather around a non-existent dining room table) but also directorial interventions that suggest an undercurrent of incest between Slater’s Tom Wingfield and his damaged sister Laura, affectingly played by Sarah Poulson.
Americans fight back
Elsewhere, American artists are fighting back with various degrees of success on the musicals home front. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (at the Imperial Theatre) reunites composer David Yazbeck, director Jack O'Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell. This is the same team who collaborated on another film-to-stage musical, The Full Monty, a few years ago, when they were pipped to the awards post by the rollercoaster success of The Producers. Now they’ve done a variation of The Producers, with a similar story of two conmen who join forces to fleece those who come into their path, but this time it looks like their work will be eclipsed by the success of Spamalot.
That’s a pity, since this big, brash stage version of the 1988 film comedy has its own virtues, not least the most resourcefully comic performance on Broadway from Norbert Leo Butz (in the Steve Martin screen role), opposite a sweetly suave John Lithgow stepping in for the movie’s Michael Caine.
Like The Producers on Broadway, Mamma Mia! has been attracting its own fair share of imitators, but none have been quite so successful at folding an existing pop repertoire into a brand-new story – not until now, that is, with All Shook Up (Palace Theatre). As with the Abba musical, the emphasis is on romance and fun, and Joe DiPietro’s skilful and amusing script beautifully dovetails some well-known (and some not so well-known) Elvis classics into a stunningly danced, designed and sung show that simply blew me away.
Next to the joy of these shows, it was back down to earth at Lincoln Center for a pair of deadly earnest new musicals. While Dessa Rose (in the downstairs Mitzi Newhouse studio space), with its score by Ahrens and Flaherty and Adam Guettel’s Light in the Piazza (in the Broadway-sized Beaumont) are full of haunting melody and are beautifully performed, true emotion is held at bay.
Finally, for quirky wit and charm, William Finn’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (transferring from Off-Broadway’s Second Stage to Broadway’s Circle in the Square this month) is a pleasantly diverting surprise.
For more tales from Mark Shenton’s trip to New York, visit his ongoing online journal,