The quest for the Holy Grail never ends.
A decade ago when the "Spamalot" became a Broadway sensation, a scene about the marriage of two male characters was capped off with a sharp jab at societal intolerance. Just think, says one character after the wedding, in a thousand years this will still be controversial.
Lately, the joke has lost some of its muscle, says Eric Idle, the writer and force behind the celebrated musical comedy that comes to the Hollywood Bowl on Friday for a three-night run. Attitudes have changed, and so must his play.
"We used to get a big laugh out of it," said Idle, sitting in the courtyard of the Hollywood United Methodist Church last week as rehearsals were feverishly underway steps away. "But now it's not controversial. It's over. That's how quickly America can change."
So Idle is tweaking the line, searching for the perfect replacement that captures the zeitgeist — and gets the same big laugh. Something like: "Just think in a thousand years time this will be rather old hat." That's not it, he says, but something like that. He'll keep working.
Pop culture is awash in the pursuit of Holy Grails, those which connect the fleetingness of human endeavor to the divine. Every field of study seems to be chasing after its own — the Holy Grail of medicine, the Holy Grail of basket weaving, and on and on. Idle knows it has become a cliche, and to the degree that it has, he and the rest of the Monty Python comedy troupe must bear some responsibility.
The Tony-winning play, written by Idle, who collaborated with John Du Prez on the music, has traveled much of the world to wondrous acclaim and has become a favorite production of theater companies practically everywhere. Last year, in America alone, there were some 450 productions of it, said Idle.
The play is based largely on the 1975 movie cult hit "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," in which King Arthur and his misguided band of bumbling, eccentric knights brave taunting Frenchmen, flying cows and a killer rabbit in a frantic effort to obtain the goblet that Christ used at the Last Supper.
In "Spamalot," the Holy Grail plot driver is for the band of quirky characters to put on a show (in whatever city it is being performed).
"Nobody quite knows what the quest for the Holy Grail actually is," said the 72-year-old Cambridge-educated writer and actor. "It's always used as a metaphor, and we make fun of that."
Mounting a musical production on an indoor stage is one thing, but doing so at the Hollywood Bowl is quite another. As Idle points out with dry understatement, there's a very large orchestra on the expansive, outdoor stage.
Typically, a company takes at least a month before opening the play — most of the actors have multiple roles that require frequent costume changes and must memorize lines, song lyrics and complex choreography. For the Bowl, the crew and cast, which includes Craig Robinson, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Christian Slater, have just 10 days.
It's almost enough to induce a panic. But Idle, who is on hand during rehearsals, has already offered reassuring words.
"Look, it's Python," he told the cast. "If you get it wrong, it doesn't matter. It's not Shakespeare. It's not like our all our credibility is going to fall away."
And Idle will be out there on stage too. He gave himself the small role of the historian, the man out of time who sets up the action for the audience.
"I took it because I don't have to remember that many lines," he said.
Despite the considerable challenges, Idle eagerly accepted an invitation to put the musical on at the Bowl. A frequent visitor and performer at the Bowl, Idle can vividly recall the Monty Python troupe's 1980 performance that was filmed and released in movie theaters.
"In those days, you could smell the weed from up on stage," he said. "But I've always loved the atmosphere there. The people in the boxes have had their dinner and their bottles of wine. They are all in a very good mood, so half our work is already done."
The Bowl performances will also mark a first for "Spamalot" — an African American will play King Arthur. Idle met Robinson, perhaps best known to American audiences for his comedic roles in NBC's "The Office" and "Hot Tub Time Machine," on a recent plane trip from London to Los Angeles.
"He's got a kingly dignity about him," said Idle. "I've seen him in rehearsals, and he's wonderful."
For Ferguson, who plays Mitchell in ABC's "Modern Family," his performance represents a homecoming of sorts. The actor was originally offered a small part in the Broadway production of "Spamalot" directed by Mike Nichols a decade ago. But he turned down the role of Herbert, the gay son of a castle lord who sought to gain more land through his son's marriage.
Instead, Ferguson took a role in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," a show he'd been in for two years and was heading to New York around the same time. Both shows scored at the Tonys, but Ferguson remembers how difficult it was to turn down the part.
"Mike Nichols was so lovely to me every time I saw him after that. But my one regret from that experience was I never got to work with him," said Ferguson, who has been in a production of "Spamalot" and will play Sir Robin. "This is really a full circle moment for me."
For Idle, who has lost most interest in the more capricious worlds of TV and movie projects, the Bowl run is a reminder of how much he enjoys the theater.
"It's not overdeveloped like the cinema, where you have thousands of people telling writers what to do; it's just crazy," he said. "In the theater, you can't fake it with an audience. If they laugh, it's funny."
"Spamalot's" amazing success has allowed Idle the freedom to write what he wants — he focuses primarily on plays and musicals. His routine is to wake at 5 a.m. and write for a couple of hours.
"I like creating things, creating things that people don't want. That is my métier," he jokes. The process is "like clay modeling. You push it toward what it should be. You don't get it right, but it moves toward an ideal shape."
Another Holy Grail.
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