Amazon Advent Calendar Day 02: “The Song That Goes Like This”

Text link: Monty Python’s “Spamalot” (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

It’s possible that you’ve never gone to a play or a musical, so I’ll just need to explain two things.

First: [painless but meaningful slap across face]

Okay? You ought to go the theater and see a show every now and then.

I acknowledge that it’s kind of a big deal to spend $30-$80 on a theater ticket. To say nothing of parking, dinner, five bucks for a gin and tonic in the theater bar during intermission, four bucks at the newsstand across the way because you’ve just noticed that People’s “Sexiest Man Alive” issue just came out and you still don’t know if you made the cut this year or not. But really, your first show is something you look back on as one of those slap-on-the-head, why-didn’t-I-do-this-sooner moments.

And if you’re visiting New York, there’s absolutely no excuse. Wait in line at the newly-refurbished TKTS booth in Times Square for an hour or maybe 90 minutes and you can take your pick of a dozen or more fine shows at half-price on the same day of performance. If you’re willing to show up even earlier, you can practically take your pick from the full menu.

Secondly, there’s sort of a natural arc to these things. First, you see the show. Three days later, you come across the folded-up Playbill in your coat pocket or the kitchen counter where you dropped it when you came home. You spend the rest of the day humming the songs, and the day after that you go and buy the cast album.

Admittedly, this is easier to do with a musical like “Spamalot” than, say, Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” It must also be said that “The Song Like This” is more fun to sing than “Krogstad’s Letter (dance reprise).”

“Spamalot” is a lot of things. It’s A Musical Based On A Movieā„¢. It’s an anthology show of favorite Python bits. It’s a show of new Python material (it was co-written by Eric Idle).

And it’s a send-up of Broadway. To anyone who’s ever heard an Andrew Lloyd Webber song — mmmm, yes, that should cover most of you — “The Song That Goes Like This” is hysterically funny satire. It’s also probably the highest compliment that Lloyd-Webber’s music has ever received, in that it proves that there really can be a piece of music that’s even tackier, more overwrought, and more glib than a song in an Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical.

Still, it’s not much of a compliment, is it? After all, Eric Idle and John Du Prez (who wrote the music) actually intended to write a song whose sheet music should have been painted on black velvet instead of printed on white paper. I feel that when they got to the end and emailed their composition to the arranger, they downed a nervous shot of whiskey and thought “May God have mercy on our souls.”

You do get the impression that when Lloyd-Webber laid down the final strokes of “Music Of The Night” he thought “Well! This should certainly renew Humanity’s spirit of hope and fellowship! No more wars, no more injustice…well done, LW, well done.”

“The Song That Goes Like This” is a hell of a lot of fun to sing. When I saw the show in Boston a couple of weeks ago, Ben Davis and Esther Stilwell were obviously enjoying themselves. On the original cast album, Christopher Sieber and Sara Ramirez are obviously enjoying themselves.

And dear readers, every time it’s come up on Shuffle Play on the iPhone mounted in my car…I’ve enjoyed myself to the point of punishing my passengers.

Buy it from The Amazon Store. I’ll get a small kickback from the purchase…and you’ll get it free of digital rights management, encoded at high 256K bitrate:

Monty Python’s “Spamalot” (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

Or you can buy it from the iTunes Store. But it’ll be 128K and copy-protected. And I’ve read that part of the proceeds will go towards producing another season of “According To Jim.” So let your conscience be your guide.

You’ve Got To Know These Things When You’re King

Wednesdays are, historically, not good days. Yes, it’s called “hump day” but in my case, the hump is actually the gestation sac of one of the creatures from “Gremlins.” It typically bursts out of its egg case in the corner of the ceiling at about 2 PM and leaps on my head, still trailing tendrils of amniotic fluid, and immediately commences to beating and scratching me until it gets bored and gives up…usually at around 5 AM the next morning.

Yesterday was a good’n, though. I filed a column that I was quite happy with and then I headed to downtown Boston for Spamalot Day.

Spamalot Day happens in Boston on every November 19, 2008. It marks the anniversary of the time that Chris Gurr emailed me to ask if I wanted house seats to see the show during the tour’s Boston run.

He plays Sir Bedevere/Concorde/Old Woman in the show and when he offered, I hesitated before replying. Should it be “Yes” or “Holy ****, yes”?

But ever the shrewd negotiator, I deftly concealed my intense desire to close this deal. I counteroffered with “house seats, and we get together for lunch before the show.” I really hated to screw him over like that, but business is business. I have a responsibility to my shareholders.

There was only one choice for the lunch venue: Zaftigs in Brookline, of which you’ve heard me speak so highly in past missives. It’s the default place to take folks who are new in town. The food there is so out-of-this-world that I want to eat there every day…but that’s both financially and medically-contraindicated, so I try to limit myself to just one visit per month.

Still, one must be hospitable, mustn’t one? So I steeled my courage and tucked into a combo plate of blintz, kugel, knish, and potato pancake, a cup of chili, and a turkey pot pie.

Chris ordered the chocolate brioche french toast. There are two big perks to taking people to this restaurant. The first one is: lunch at this restaurant. The second is getting to witness people’s reactions to the cuisine. The chef’s culinary aesthetic seems to be “But you’re so skinny! Let me fix you a plate…no, sit, sit!”

Chris’ reaction to his entree was immediate, reverent silence as his brain shut down all unnecessary functions and put his sensory processors into emergency hi-burst capture mode. Which is by no means atypical.

It was a fab afternoon. In fact, I knew that my parking meter was due to click out soon but I was enjoying the conversation. If I got ticketed…well, hell, I was getting more than $15 worth of entertainment there in the restaurant. It would work out OK.

We parted company after I spent another hour or so showing Chris the many delights of Coolidge Corner. It’s my favorite Boston neighborhood. It features Boston’s best bookstore and movie theater, and a small store so overstocked with piles and piles of merchandise of every possible description that I wonder if doctors don’t bring their patients there as some sort of test for epilepsy. There is such intense detail in such minute quanta in such a small area that any weak synapses will quickly give up and spasm trying to resolve the imagery.

The show was just flat-out wonderful.

“Spamalot” has been on my list since it opened a few years ago. But the way Broadway works these days, it almost lulls you into the same lack of a sense of urgency as you have regarding movies. Hits settle into multi-year runs with new casts, and touring companies are top-notch.

In fact, half-price tickets to the Broadway production were available during my last trip to New York but I opted for another show; “39 Steps” was a small, quirky comedy that probably wouldn’t be around the next time I was in town. “Spamalot,” like “Cats,” seemed to be now and forever.

(Uh, yeah…but a week or two later, they announced that “Spamalot” would be ending its Broadway run soon. And “Mamma Mia!” is now in the theater that “Cats” owned for more than a decade; many regard this as an improvement only to theater patrons with fur allergies.)

Regardless, I knew that I’d be seeing the show at some point in life. So in all these years, I’d never bought the cast album or read a synopsis, so that I could see the show “clean”…or as cleanly as you can see any show that’s based on one of your favorite movies.

I really, really wondered what the show would be like. “Spamalot” has to navigate a lot of problems that the authors of “No, No Nanette” never had to contend with:

  1. Python fans are going to expect to see their favorite bits.
  2. Non-fans are going to expect to understand what the hell is going on without checking Wikipedia every ninety seconds.
  3. At $80 for the good seats, even the fans aren’t going to be satisfied with just a replay of the bits they already know from the movie and the TV show.

That last thing was my biggest concern. I and My People worship at the Church of Python. Weve been attending services since we were little kids. We know when to stand, we know when to sit, we know when to kneel, and when the Minister (of Silly Walks) calls for Hymn 132, we immediately start singing “I’m A Lumberjack And I’m OK.” I went to see Eric Idle’s “Greedy Bastard” tour; most of the audience seemed to be just checking off the lines and the songs as they heard them.

(It’s sort of like going to a concert where the band plays lots of their hits. You don’t so much hear the band playing as much as you hear everyone else singing along.)

But “Spamalot” handles all of these problems beautifully. I couldn’t help but think about the “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” in which there’s a stage show of the events of the Baron’s life that draw from the threads of his adventures, but which isn’t an actual retelling per se.

It was tremendously good, silly fun that kept picking up steam as it went. As a Python fan, I liked seeing “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” done live. As a theatergoer, I had that great experience of spending two or three hours in an entire other place, removed even from seat D-101 (fifth row, aisle, awesome) of the Colonial Theater in Boston, MA.

Annnnd as a big dumb heterosexual male, I enjoyed the fact that at times, there were enough pretty chorus girls in skimpy costumes on stage at once that I couldn’t decide which one to objectify.

I’m saying that you really ought to go see it. Here’s a link to the tour page. It’s in Boston just through the week. Last night, the house was muchly full but I reckon that if you want to find some seats together, you can manage it.

I’ve been asked if “Spamalot” is “family friendly.” That’s kind of a floppy term. I think if you’re okay with your kid seeing “Monty Python And The Holy Grail,” then “Spamalot” will present no additional problems. “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” does indeed include the line “Life’s a piece of s***, when you look at it.” And although the language in the French Taunters’ scene is clean, you might spot a gesture or two from the top of the castle walls. It’s your call but I’d have no problems taking a teenager with me.

(SO LONG AS HE OR SHE DOESN’T TEXT MESSAGE DURING THE SHOW.)

(THE CASTMEMBERS HAVE SWORDS. DO NOT RILE THEM.)

At this point in my narrative, I must reveal one spoiler for the show, so avert your eyes, o lord, if so inclined to enter the theater with a blank slate.

Just as in the movie, the location of the final resting place of The Most Holy Grail is can be found in the living rock of a cave protected by a killer rabbit. The Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch dispatches the threat and the answer is revealed in four enormous stone letters.

The knights speculate as to what the letters might mean. “Oi! Oi!” perhaps?

Ah! It isn’t a word at all, sire! It’s a seat number!

D101.

Those of you with excellent memories now realize that this information has a certain relevance to my tale.

“Uh-oh,” I thought.

And sure enough…the houselights were raised and a spotlight snapped on around my seat. Knights and peasants eagerly exited via a set of stairs at the foot of the stage, bounded in my direction…

..and then unexpectedly siezed a man on the other side of the aisle in Row C. The Grail was found underneath his seat and he was hustled onstage, where he received a proclamation of thanks and what appeared to be a rather nice gift pen.

As for me, I was siezed by a heady blend of relief and disappointment, in equal proportions.

The man was wearing an AIDS ribbon. As I enjoyed the presentation and the rest of the show, I imagined that he’d been quietly approached at his seat during the intermission. The ribbon, I supposed, signaled to the cast that THIS was the guy who said it was OK to drag him onstage.

See, I have a bit of a Situation brewing at home. My cellphone was off during the first act and I used the intermission to step outside and check for messages. It all became pretty clear to me later on; the D-101 prop always points to the house seats (likely to be used by someone that someone in the cast knows), they didn’t find me there during intermission, so they just went to Plan B.

So again: relief and disappointment. Relief, because at the moment I looked like I had dressed and groomed myself and left the house in a big hurry after having spent all night working on a column. Disappointment, because I imagined that the Colonial Theater looked really cool from the stage.

(Plus: crap, that looked like a really cool pen.)

I went backstage after the show. I bumped into King Arthur on my way through the stage door. He was fab; I’d love to see him playing the male lead in “Kiss Me, Kate.” He has a real Alfred Drake vibe about him, in voice and presence.

(I’m sure that you know that Alfred Drake originated the role of Fred Graham in “Kate.”)

Chris was, of course, equally fab in his multiple roles and as the Old Woman, he had a fabulous rack; theater tradition insisted that I compliment him on that immediately.

He was nice enough to show me around backstage. What a treat. The Colonial is one of the country’s most significant houses. It’s about a hundred years old and some of the most famous plays and musicals in history debuted here. In baseball, a promising left-hander must spend a season in Pawtucket before pitching at Fenway Park. In Broadway, there was a time when a new production was put on its feet in Boston before moving to Broadway with its final cast and rundown.

We joked about Seat D-101. It wouldn’t have been the first time that one of his guests had wound up onstage. Though he told me that there was nothing pre-arranged about it and that my spending intermission outside on my iPhone instead of inside at my seat had changed nothing. The audience member really is plucked out of his or seat cold.

Maybe I didn’t get the free pen but I did get that other thing I wanted: a view of the Colonial from center-stage:

Center-stage. Can this view ever get old?
Center-stage at the Colonial Theater. Can this view ever get old?

I left the theater with Chris and Sir Lancelot and the show’s wig supervisor and we walked to the T. The weather had dropped from Scenic New England Crisp all the way down to “Brass Monkeys, Beware.” We talked about nerdy stuff (theater and technology) all the way until our trains arrived.

I got home very late and very cold but also very happy.