Given the violence, bloodshed and political strife going on, is it possible to look on the bright side of life? Monty Python’s Spamalot sure thinks so, and Madison’s Four Seasons Theatre will bring that cheery sentiment to the stage in August as it mounts the Tony Award-winning musical.
“I think Spamalot is kind of the perfect summer musical because it pokes fun at everything and everyone,” says Brian Cowing, artistic associate for Four Seasons who is directing and choreographing the show. “I don’t know that there is a huge correlation between the current political climate and the show, but its central message — ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ — is something we all need to hear.”
Spamalot was nominated for 14 Tony Awards and won three, including Best Musical, after it opened on Broadway in 2005.
Four Seasons is mounting the production in collaboration with the Wisconsin Union Theater on the UW-Madison campus. The show runs for three performances Aug. 5–7 in WUT’s Shannon Hall.
Written by Python alumnus Eric Idle, Spamalot is “lovingly ripped off” from the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a surreal sendup of the Arthurian legend. The film showcased the Pythons’ bizarre, sometimes bawdy humor, famously featuring knights who pretend to ride horses while being followed by squires clip-clopping two coconut shell halves together to replicate the sound of hoof beats.
According to Idle, the title comes from a line in Holy Grail in which the knights say “We eat ham, and jam, and Spam a lot.” Fans of the English comedy troupe’s original BBC series Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which ran from 1969 to 1975, may also see it as an homage to the “Spam” sketch that appeared in a 1970 episode of the show.
However, the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” was lifted from the 1979 film Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
The musical is remarkably faithful to the Holy Grail film, but with an ample amount of musical theater elements thrown in. Not the least of these, of course, is the music, Cowing says.
“We’re into the movie storyline barely 20 minutes and we’ve already done six musical numbers,” the director explains. “It’s the perfect blend of sketches from the film and good old-fashioned musical comedy.”
Idle, who developed the original film script with fellow Pythons Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, counts himself as a musician as well as an actor and writer. The fact that Idle wrote the show’s book, all of the song lyrics and some of the music has helped magnify the show’s comedic effect, says Cowing.
“In today’s musicals, you either have a funny book or a funny score but you rarely get a humorous through line,” Cowing explains. “In this show the humor continues throughout, and some of the best jokes are written into lyrics of the songs. I think it’s brilliantly done.”
Four Seasons’ fully staged production features a live orchestra of 14 musicians — as indicated when the show was originally produced on Broadway — under the direction of conductor Eric Anderson.
The cast is a mix of local artists and those who have local roots but are finding success more broadly. Included are Milwaukee actor Samantha Sostarich (Lady of the Lake), who attended UW-Madison; Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek (Sir Galahad and others), another UW-Madison grad who just last week finished playing Gaston in the national tour of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast; and Madison native Andy White (Sir Robin and others), the veteran of multiple national tours, including Bring It On, Legally Blonde, Shrek and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
One aspect that makes Cowing’s version distinct from some other productions is the amount of dance he’s incorporated into the show. Along with the 11 production numbers, there is an explosion of color, sound and motion, the director says.
“On the very first day of rehearsals I choreographed a Finnish folk dance, a dream ballet sequence and a cheerleading number,” Cowing says. “There is tap dance, a stripper number and every kind of dance style you might imagine.”
In the case of Spamalot, the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts, making it a perfect form of entertainment for warm summer nights, the director says.
“If you are a Monty Python fan or you have never seen Monty Python in your life, you won’t be disappointed,” Cowing adds. “At Four Seasons we like to have fun, and that’s why we’re doing this show.”
Four Seasons Theatre’s production of Monty Python’s Spamalot runs Aug. 5–7 in Shannon Hall, part of the Wisconsin Union Theater, 800 Langdon St., Madison. For tickets, dial the box office at 608-265-2787. Ticket prices range from $23 to $38.