Cygnet Theatre Serves Up 'Spamalot,' There's Not Much Spam In That
Eric Idle's Monty Python inspired musical gets reimagined for intimate venue
This is PBS midday edition I'm wearing Cavanagh the British comedy troupe Monty Python won a cult following with his Flying Circus TV show and films like The Holy Grail and Life of Brian. Then came the musical Spamalot. Hey PBS arts reporter Beth Komando speaks with Sean Murphy about staging the Broadway show for Signet theatre. You are tackling spam a lot which is a play inspired by Monty Python films. What is the challenge of trying to do something that is kind of rooted in people's memory as being so Pythonesque. The fun challenge is that we have to try and capture the essence or the icons of that film and some of the original Python sketches that have found their way into this story and yet still keep it fresh to the actors who are playing it. Some of them are a bit out of context from their original context you know when they've moved bright side of life into King Arthur's story things like that keeping a bit ahead of the audience might be a good challenge because some of them know all the lines and happily volunteer to save them before we do it. It's a good challenge as a fun that's a fun crowd. You have done spam a lot before you played King Arthur. What's the different kind of approach you have to take when you are directing and acting in it. When I did it the first time it was up at Moonlight in Vista I got to just concentrate on being the performer. I didn't have to do anything else but you know I really enjoyed the show. And so when we started looking at can we squeeze this giant Broadway show into the Cygnet theatre space. We did a stage reading last year as a test and it seemed to fit really well in one of the things that the transference from a big space to a small space is that the audience proximity is so much closer. And so you really can look the audience in the eye and play these moments getting really a one on one relationship with them as a director. The interesting thing with Arthur is that all of the big musical components really don't include him. He's sort of either on the sidelines watching or not there at all. So it means there's a lot of pieces of the play that I could be out the front working on but I think part of it is just understanding the rhythm of it the rhythm of the Python humour and helping the cast has not done Python before find that rhythm. The audience knows it. The people who love the pythons know that rhythm and if you don't tap into it they feel something's ajar so that's something we worked on a lot. And for you what is the appeal of Python what is what kind of defines that humour. Well when we were in our teens in high school in the 70s late 70s. Thank you. We've found the albums that went along with the Flying Circus and we listened to those records at parties and we knew every line of those sketches later being sort of the young power kid without a lot of places to turn for reference as I found out that those records were actually a TV show. And so once I could see a visual that went along with them it was even better. I think for me what I love about the python humour is it's extremely off the wall but it's rooted in a kind of reality and they're making fun of a lot of British stereotypes and icons by being extremely silly but taking it extremely seriously. And so there's something about even in spam a lot that if you take this rather ridiculous story and really devote yourself to it as if you were gonna save the world it heightens the comedy the more serious we take it. I look as King Arthur like you know he is a man who thinks that he's doing the lion in winter or Henry the Fifth or some really important play about chivalry and medieval honor and everyone around him is a lunatic and he can't quite put his finger on what's going wrong with his play and so he's got this sort of stunned look on his face holotype was like why can't anyone just take this seriously. Which is where I think I find a lot of fun. Arthur has to be the straight man of all of the crazy comic characters and so it's fun just to be the dry person they bounce this stuff off of. Well one of the things that has always appealed to me about Python is they are outrageously silly and yet extremely smart. Oh yeah. From Holy Grail one of my favorite scenes is Arthur dealing with the peasants and this help help I'm being oppressed. Yeah it has real political connotations as well as just being absolutely ridiculous. Yeah and some of those connotations are timely shall we say. You mentioned that this began as a big Broadway show and Signet is not a huge stage. So what are some of the things you had to adapt in terms of kind of the design elements that were built into the play originally and now working in this smaller venue. Well it's it's always a challenge because even like underscore music or scene change music in a big score like that is written to change a giant set. And when you have a little tiny set you end up with twice as much music as you really need. So there's those challenges. But this show on Broadway had numerous giant castles that flew in and alls and clouds that flew and they even flew a character at one point they had a trap things came up to the floor. And so when I started looking at where I was I thought well you know the thing about this that we can do is focus on the sketch comedy and not the spectacle. And so when I started approaching the play with Shawn Fanning our set designer and Blake McCarty who does our projections. We started looking at it like a children's pop up book fairytale pop up book. So everything we decided everything wanted to be two dimensional flat painted no carved foam bricks on the Castle they're all painted. So it feels like a children's book. That alone helped us fit into the space just turning it into something flat instead of dimensional. And then we there was numerous places where I really wanted to bring little castles onstage instead of big castles and that sort of evolved into a language where there's sort of a deep deep deep subplot in our production of trying to fit this big show into a small space a little bit aware of ourselves doing it. I don't want to give away some of the surprises but like we actually deal with it in a very poor theater kind of way. You'll see a technician reel the Caslen and get caught in the spotlight and run off stage. We well we have some visual surprises I don't want to give away but ways to bring on a giant wooden rabbit in a creative way. Well it seems like the nature of Python because in their films themselves they are constantly dealing with the fact that they have no budget. When they did Holy Grail they couldn't afford horses so they have the coconuts which turned out to be a hilarious addition. So it seems like the nature of Python provides a certain level of inspiration for you. Right. And as long as you can be silly about it but also take your cue from them and be deadly serious about it at the same time it makes it more than just a stupid way. Yeah. And you know the play had some very topical references when it first came out. And so we kind of freshened those up a little bit but it's so much fun and it's so much fun to try and recreate the feeling of the kind of loony lunacy of the Pythons with a pretty close audience that's it's cool cool. That was Sean Murray speaking with PBS arts reporter Beth komando. You can catch Murray as King Arthur in Spamalot through August 12th at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.
"Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975)
"The Rutles" (1978)
"Life of Brian" (1979)
Monty Python won a cult following with its "Flying Circus" TV show and its films "The Holy Grail" and "Life of Brian." Then came the musical "Spamalot" created by troupe member Eric Idle. Sean Murray talks about staging the Broadway show for Cygnet Theatre.
Eric Idle’s "Spamalot" distills the best of Monty Python into one show. The main through line is from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table searching for the Holy Grail. But you will also find skits from "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and things such as "The Bright Side of Life" from "Life of Brian."
Cygnet Theatre’s artistic director Sean Murray had the chance to play King Arthur in Moonlight Stage's production back in 2014. But this year Murray wanted to direct a production of "Spamalot" himself but knew he’d have to make adjustments for his more intimate venue. He knew he couldn’t have castles and people flying in, but he could play up the sketch comedy.
So he teamed with his design crew to come up with a new look for the play.
"We started looking at it like a children’s pop-up book, a fairy tale pop-up book," Murray said. "We decided everything needed to be two-dimensional, flat painted so it feels like a children’s book. There were numerous places where I really wanted to bring little castles on stage instead of big castles and that sort of evolved into a language where — there’s sort of a deep subplot in our production of trying to fit this big show into a small space, a little bit aware of ourselves doing it."
But the world of Python invites that kind of creativity.
You can catch Murray as King Arthur in "Spamalot" through Aug. 12 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town. There’s not much spam in that.