Reporting Sara Boyd Pelissero
For only three performances, “Monty Python’s Spamalot” will come to the home of Spam Town USA.
The 2005 Tony-award winner for Best Musical heads to the Orpheum Theatre in a limited run this weekend, bringing the cult classic to life for all who want to eat ham and jam and Spam a lot.
The stage show claims to “lovingly rip off” the international classic, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” highlighting its most quotable lines and adding a musical layer with equally hilarious songs and dance numbers.
To get the inside scoop of the touring production — and to find out how they perform such high comedy without laughing hysterically — we turned to cast member Thomas DeMarcus, who plays a number of roles in the musical. (We’ll leave the viewing audience to try and guess which ones.)
How familiar were you with Monty Python before being cast in “Spamalot?”
I’d say I was very familiar as I was a huge fan of “Holy Grail” when I was working at a Blockbuster Video in high school. Every now and then, the employees could decide what movies to watch in the store and I would always choose “Clue” or “Holy Grail.”
When I went to college, I watched some of the TV series and it’s some of the most clever wordplay. If you see “The Argument Clinic” sketch, it is such a simple back-and-forth, but it’s amazingly clear and brilliant. The Pythons were great about that.
There isn’t a lot of excess material so each scene plays incredibly fast and yet a lot of their stuff is so memorable. Since being cast in the show, I’ve tried to get my hands on anything they did as a group. Their Hollywood Bowl video was a masterpiece … I would have loved to have seen them all in one place live.
What was your first reaction after seeing the film, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail?”
I loved it. Immediately. It was very different and I thought it was bold to let basically six people do most of the characters in one movie. And I recall some of the fun was figuring out who was who. The constant questioning of King Arthur’s royal-ness and power by these eccentric characters he meets along the way is fairly timeless. Dennis’ entire scene is about how insane the idea that “wielding supreme executive power just because some watery-tart threw a sword.” It’s commenting on England’s history with a humorous snark that somehow remains classy.
On a different note, I thought the “galloping” was so smart. King Arthur miming riding a horse through the English countryside searching for a grail, while Patsy just clicks two halves of a coconut together. That’s stupid-genius. My first show ever was a production of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” and our two princes did that fake gallop while their stewards were right behind them with coconuts. It was a simple nod, but of course it got a laugh every night. Everyone is influenced by Python. Everyone steals from Python. That’s how you know they were trailblazers.
The movie — and the stage show — are super quotable. Do you have a favorite line?
As the Arthur and the knights come upon Camelot, everyone looks at the castle with such awe and amazement, and the movie cuts to the small snippet of “Knights of the Round Table” and then it cuts back to the knights outside the castle and Arthur says, “On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot. It is a silly place,” and then everyone gallops off. I wish we could somehow sneak that line into the show, but we get interrupted by God.
In the show, my favorite line is hard to narrow down and probably changes on a nightly basis, but when the Knights of Ni arrive for the first time, Arthur whispers to Patsy that anyone who hears their words seldom lives to tell the tale, and Patsy replies with a simple, “Oh, great.”
For those not familiar, how does Spamalot differ from the film? Tell us a little more about the songs in the show.
The biggest difference is certainly the songs. There are a few holdovers from the movie like, the minstrels’ “Bravely Bold Sir Robin” and a little bit of “Knights of the Round Table” that made it to the musical.
“Always Look on the Bright Side” is in the show, but the original song was from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” movie, but it works perfectly for Patsy to sing to King Arthur. And while the Lady of the Lake is mentioned briefly in the movie, she has become a complete character with many brilliant moments. She has a lovely duet with Galahad mocking those cheesy, over-the-top ballads from other musicals called, “The Song That Goes Like This,” which is so inherently “Python” that I’m shocked it never existed before the musical.
My favorite song in the show is, “Find Your Grail,” when the Lady of the Lake shows Arthur and his knights how to start his quest for the grail. The choreography is ridiculous but it’s such an energizing song to perform because of the message.
What is it like having to juggle a number of roles — and different genders — in one production?
I have a background in improv and sketch comedy so it’s fun for me to wear many different hats over the course of one evening. I prefer character-acting and it’s fun to develop voices, physical characteristics and personalities for each person. And Monty Python definitely created a great foundation to work with.
I’ve been using my Mrs. Galahad voice since high school and it’s so much fun to have an excuse to use it in this show. I also wear the most ridiculous facial hair and I defy the audience to be able to tell which characters I play without looking at the program. We travel with the world’s best crew who keep everything running smoothly backstage because it is utter chaos with 20 of us running around looking for the right shoe or correct mustache in the dark.
The actual “juggling” is fairly straight forward because you could be wearing a costume for all of five seconds and then the audience never sees it again. The show is so fast-paced that it becomes second-nature how to handle everything with a clear head.
With a show like Spamalot, I would imagine it might be difficult not to break character and laugh during certain scenes. What’s this cast like? Do you try to make each other laugh on stage?
This cast — wow — I cannot say enough about the together-ness of this bunch. We’ve lived together for the better part of two years and some of us for three years. Everyone puts their heart into each performance and it’s exciting being a part of such a company. That being said, after 400-plus performances, there will obviously be slip-ups and yes, times where people break character.
There’s a time when the Knights who say Ni are onstage that King Ni can improvise a line and usually, he makes it city-specific when he can, but sometimes he comes up with these insane references that no one is ready for and it just starts a small wave. Sometimes the problem with stage-giggles is that they are very hard to get rid of. Fortunately, I’ve kept my composure … I’m such a professional.
On the other hand, there are times when our faces and reactions get slightly sillier or we try and find new bits or different line-readings onstage. I hate to call out the unprofessional behavior of all of us, but one day in the dressing room, we discovered that it was Christopher Walken’s birthday and so some of the knights decided to say just one word during the show in our best/worst Christopher Walken voice. We all knew it was coming, but you had to wisely choose the spot you were going to use it. That may seem like a ridiculous game … and, yeah … it was.
You’ll be coming to the home of SPAM. Are you super excited? Have you been to Minnesota before?
I’ve been to Duluth and Grand Rapids but haven’t really spent enough time there and I’ve been to the Minneapolis airport a few times for layovers. Growing up, randomly, I was a fan of the Minnesota Twins and still have their pennant on my wall in my bedroom at my parents’ house.
I wish I could get to Austin and see the Spam Museum, just because I’ve spent three years of my life being surrounded by cans of this stuff and I’d like to see the gift shop (I have an obsession with collecting magnets). We were in Lincoln, Nebraska a few years ago near where the Hormel plant is located and some of Hormel company came to the show and passed out “Spam Cookbooks,” which I have and will be putting to use when I get back to New York. I cannot wait for Minneapolis. I need someone to give me restaurant advice!
This musical has such a loyal following. What has it been like to be part of the touring production?
I’ve been doing this show for three years now and it never ceases to amaze me what kinds of extremely loyal fans Monty Python has. The first year, one of the characters I played was Brother Maynard who comes in for two minutes and blesses a hand grenade so the knights can befall the killer rabbit. Two minutes, tops. This is not a major character whatsoever and yet, when I left the theater one night to head out after the show, I was greeted at the stage door by someone dressed as Brother Maynard just looking for an autograph and a picture.
I’ve never been in a show like this and it may never happen again. I am extremely humbled to have a small, small, small part in the lifeline of Monty Python. When I come out as “The Black Knight” and simply utter, “None shall pass!” sometimes I get this wild applause from the audience because they know what’s coming. I know they aren’t clapping for me, but it still makes me feel like a rock star.
The fans have been incredible. They’ll quote lines right back to us during the scenes. They’ll whistle during “Bright Side.” We sell coconuts at the merchandise stand and every now and then you can hear someone galloping in the audience.
Spamalot runs from Friday to Saturday, March 15-16, at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. Tickets range from $34 to $94. For tickets or more information, click here.