Eric Idle officially launched the first day of ticket sales for Spamalot at the Palace theatre this morning and also announced the news that King Arthur will be played by not one, but two actors – Tim Curry will open the show in October 2006 and Simon Russell Beale will take over from January 2007. The show opens on 17 October, following previews from 2 October. With a huge inflatable foot poised above the Palace theatre and a monk holding a fluorescent orange sign marked ‘GRAIL SALE’, you could hardly miss the launch of Spamalot.
Despite lots of jokes about low budget special effects and costumes, the launch was a brilliantly executed affair, befitting a musical that cost $13 million to stage. No expense was spared: big feet, video clips of Lego men re-enacting the Monty Python song Knights Of The Round Table, goody bags containing limited edition coconuts, a real live Monty Python and as many cans of spam as you would ever be likely to want. There was even pre-launch entertainment in the shape of The Cosmic Sausages, a musical quartet attired in clothing suitable for a Bemuda beach, performing Zorba The Greek, Like A Virgin and Born To Be Wild.
Idle, who has written the book, lyrics and music, presided over 40 minutes of comedy, giving a taste of what to expect from Spamalot. He was joined on stage by much of the creative team, including John Du Prez, the composer, who sat behind a well-disguised keyboard. The show won three Tony Awards on Broadway, including Best Musical and Best Direction Of A Musical, although Idle pointed out that “the two people who wrote the show, who wrote the lyrics, the book, got f**k all. But we’re not bitter because firstly we’re British and we’re used to disappointment, secondly we’re used to getting ripped off by the Yanks and thirdly, I have the support of a wonderful woman – my chemist. £300 at Boots can go an awfully long way.”
The biggest news of the morning was revealed by Idle: the casting for King Arthur. “It’s time for the Arthur Award – who will play King Arthur? The envelope please. And the winner is – there are two Arthurs. From Janurary 2007, King Arthur will be played by Simon Russell Beale. In October, here at the Palace, seats at all prices, Arthur will be played by Tim Curry.” Tim Curry originated the role on Broadway and returns to the London stage after an absence of over 20 years; he is perhaps most famous for playing Frank N Furter in The Rocky Horror Show, which he recreated on Broadway before immortalising the transsexual from Transylvania on film. Simon Russell Beale is currently playing King Arthur in the Broadway production of Spamalot. Before joining the cast, he will appear in The Life Of Galileo and The Alchemist, both at the National.
The director Mike Nichols, who won a Tony for Spamalot (too add to his rather large collection of eight Tony Awards), was in New York but apparently sent over his “second favourite wheelchair” for the occasion, and recorded a short video to accompany it. This showed him, bent over in a wheelchair (presumably his favourite), next to a nurse, commenting on how happy he was that the show was opening in Canada.
Introductions to other aspects of the show were comically low key. There was an example of “the very expensive special effects” – a man walking across the stage with coconut shells making horse hoof noises – followed by an example of “the very expensive costumes” – a woman in underwear. The dancers weren’t there, so the “non-Tony Award winning” choregrapher, Casey Nicholaw, gave a brief but energetic demonstration of the dance routines. Tim Hatley, the set and costume designer, wowed the crowd with some polariod pictures of his set on the Broadway production; then demonstrated the lighting by shining a torch on the polaroids. “I’m sure that helps you understand where the $13 million went,” said Idle. He then asked the producer of the show, Bill Haber, to join him on stage. “Bill is going to show us how to sign a cheque”; Haber complied, illustrating an excellent technique, signing a cheque on Idle’s back. “The rarest of sights,” continued Idle, “a Broadway producer actually signing a cheque.”
Having sung The Penis Song a little earlier in proceedings, Idle performed Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life as a grand finale. The song originally featured in the Monty Python film The Life Of Brian when Idle attempts to cheer up Graham Chapman (Brian) during their public crucifixion. The song became so popular that it was reissued as a single in 1991 and peaked at number 3 in the charts, even prompting a cover by the cast of Coronation Street in 1995 . Here, instead of Ken Barlow and Vera Duckworth, the chorus included John Du Prez playing the well-disguised keyboard, the Lady of the Lake, the choreographer, designer, The Cosmic Sausages and the cheque-signing producer. Anyone going to see Spamalot when it opens in October can look forward to a singalong version of the song in the musical.