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The cast of ''Spamalot'' have high hopes

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Here’s Mike Nichols, director of Monty Python’s Spamalot, on the fundamental difference between film and theater: ”In a movie, the scene can just fly off somewhere else. In a play, if you go to all the trouble of catching a witch and tying her to a post, you have to go through with it. And once you go through with it, it’s just not all that funny to burn a human being at the stake.”

Perhaps. But if world history has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t know something like that without trying it first — usually in Chicago. That’s where Spamalot, the Eric Idle-penned, Nichols-directed musical adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, first clopped its coconuts in an out-of-town tryout this winter. That’s where Idle and Nichols learned valuable lessons on how to turn a cult comedy about horseless knights and killer rabbits into a heartwarming musical about horseless knights and killer rabbits. It’s also where critics started calling Spamalot the next Producers, ensuring a giddy reception at its new venue, Broadway’s Shubert Theater. (The show opened March 17.)

”I don’t want to be too Irish about the whole thing, but it makes me very nervous when something is this much fun,” worries Tim Curry, a.k.a. Arthur, King of the Britons. ”People are liking it so much.”

Indeed, they’ve taken to it like a Knight of ”Ni!” to a good shrubbery. Spamalot‘s Broadway previews swiftly became New York’s hot ticket on early word of its charm, born of Urinetown-style self-awareness (there’s a cheesy love duet, ”The Song That Goes Like This,” co-written by Idle and longtime music collaborator John Du Prez) and bottomless nostalgia for the Pythons. Audiences practically mouth ”Not dead!” and ”Just a flesh wound!” and other Grail refrains committed to memory since adolescence.

But in crafting Spamalot — a three-year process that involved securing the blessings of the other living Pythons, and the participation of Oscar- and Tony-winner Nichols (”I desperately wanted to get out of this from the moment I read it,” he half-cracks) — Idle realized he couldn’t just regurgitate Grail on stage and add a few ditties. First, he introduced a female lead into the boys’ club: Sara Ramirez, a relative newcomer who’s garnering early raves for her hammy portrayal of the Lady of the Lake, the ”watery tart” barely mentioned in the film. ”I can take liberties,” she notes, ”because nobody knows who I am.”

Then there remained the small matter of story. ”The book [of a musical] is the most important thing,” says Idle, who made small creative contributions to 2000’s disastrous Seussical: The Musical. ”We are still telling a story: Who are they? What are they doing? Where are they going? You need all that.” Idle didn’t have all that. Grail is stubbornly plotless and concludes absurdly, with a police raid?an idea considered for Spamalot but ultimately rejected. ”The movie is very take-it-or-leave-it,” says Hank Azaria, who assays Sir Lancelot and several other parts originated by John Cleese. ”They really don’t care if you like it. The show is much more ‘We do care if you like it.”’

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