As a founding member of Monty Python, the British comedy troupe that celebrated its 40th Anniversary last year, Eric Idle has remained fairly active in show business by having written and produced the hit Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “Spamalot” with composer John Du Prez. They decided to follow the musical’s success with a comical oratorio called Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy), taking the plot of the Pythons’ popular but controversial 1979 movie The Life of Brian and turning it into an orchestral/choral piece that could be performed similarly to Handel’s “Messiah.”
Last summer, “Not the Messiah” was performed at London’s Royal Albert Hall with a full symphony orchestra and choir, something Idle used as an excuse to reunite with his former collaborators for a 40th Anniversary celebration. That one-night-only sold-out performance featured appearances by Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam and Carol Cleveland from the original “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” show, making it the first time in years they’d all been on stage together.
You can watch the trailer below:
It was a wonderful moment for Idle and his long-time musical collaborator Du Prez, who conducted the orchestra that night. As a lifelong Python fan, it was quite thrilling for us to have a rare opportunity to talk to the comedy vet about that night and the resulting DVD and Blu-ray that came out this week. If you’re a fan of Monty Python or “Spamalot,” you should find this to be a fairly enlightening interview.
By coincidence, it was Terry Gilliam who first put this on our radar when we spoke to him last December…
ComingSoon.net: I know you’ve been doing this production for almost three years now, but the first time I heard about it was when I interviewed Terry Gilliam, and we got to talking about the 40th anniversary. He said, “Oh, yeah, I did this performance at the Royal Albert Hall and it’s coming out on DVD.” I was really surprised to hear about and quite excited when I received an Email saying that the DVD was finally coming out.
Eric Idle: It’s exciting.
CS: I can imagine, and I just learned that you only had a week of rehearsals to get ready for the show at the Royal Albert Hall. How was it possible to get all of that together in just one week?
Idle: We only had one day in the Albert Hall to make a movie, to put the cameras in, it’s unbelievable. I mean, we had rehearsal starting on the Monday and I think we did the show Friday night. We had two new soloists to rehearse into it, too, and then the choir, it tends to get plenty of rehearsal because they have a choirmaster and all that. The orchestra, I think we had a couple of rehearsals in the BBC facilities, and that was it. So then we’re in there. The thing is that it’s one of those shows where it’s not serious. You’re not going to go, “My god, if you don’t come on at that minute, it’ll be a tragedy.” It’s comedy so if anything goes wrong, it’s on your side. My job was something like a ringmaster to make sure everything moved, came on and off. (laughs)
CS: You’ve obviously done the show with other soloists before. How did you find these particular soloists who could pull off that comedy and everything, learning it all so quickly.
Idle: Well, we read it for a start. They’re all classically trained, so they can read the dots and everything, so they get a score and we can send them a recording because we’ve done it. I think that was our 16th performance of it from it’s very, very first inception. We have experience. Some of them Will and Shannon have done it with us the most. I mean, Will did the Hollywood Bowl with us on tour a couple of years ago and at Wolf Trap. Shannon has done virtually everything since we started in Canada, she’s just brilliant. A lot of comedy is not admitting that you’re being funny, so doing it straight and letting the music or the words or whatever the situation is, is fine. You don’t have to put comedy into anything. So as she’s doing “Amordeus,” that’s naughty Mozart essentially. You do it exactly as if you’re doing “Papageno” (from “The Magic Flute”) and then you heighten it a little and the audience goes crazy because they have the connection. (Laughs)
CS: I’m actually fan of opera and used to go see it quite a bit, and it does seem like opera singers do have a sense of humor which they bring to even the most serious works.
Idle: I think all musicians have humor. I think it’s something to do with root of timing. It’s like all comedians have to play something or be musical if I pushed, it’s like, “I do play the banjo.” (Laughs) They’re sort of connected I think in some way in there, with timing I guess.
CS: You especially, because back in the Python days you were the musical one. After that you got involved in “The Rutles” stuff and then the musicals.
Idle: Well, I didn’t write the music for the “Rutles,” that was Neil Innes entirely, he did all that soundtrack. I mustn’t take credit for that, but yes, I’ve always been able to play guitar since I was 14, so it’s nice second career to go into. You don’t have to just do comedy. I mean, I find musical theater the most appealing now, and the nice thing about it is, you can do it when you’re older. I mean, Sondheim’s 80. It’s not something that needs young people. Because it has to master both the play and the arts of music and the arts of narrative and everything, it’s better when you’re older. It’s one of the few things that’s better when you’re older. (laughs)
CS: Especially with “Not the Messiah,” the opera aspect is very different but there’s a variety of musical styles from gospel to ’50s doo-wop. Is John du Prez just really good with diversity as far as arranging different musical styles? How did that come about?
Idle: Well, he calls it an iPod Shuffle which I love, because it’s the conception of the iPod, which now doesn’t make any distinction between kinds of music. You could hear a bit of jazz, followed by The Beatles, followed by a bit of Beethoven, followed by a bit of Bach. That’s altered the way we listen to things. It’s so wonderful and so pervasive and so universal. If you just put it on random then it’s always kind of a surprise. That’s sort of in a sense one of our highlights. We’ve always been able to do parody or get close to the real styles of things and use them both for comedy and for what they have in themselves in the music. John is very good in crafting that, and I’m a bit of a parodist myself, but he’s really the real thing and that’s what’s nice about “Not the Messiah,” is he really is a completely amazing musician. He writes this beautiful music and it’s completely appropriate to whatever it is we’re trying to deliver. It’s G&S, it’s Gilbert and Sullivan really, it’s very silly (laughs), but done with music that’s brilliant I think. And then it’s not taking itself seriously and then the whole orchestra, everybody’s having a good time. It’s like a party, and that night specifically was just a wonderful party.
CS: Yeah, I really loved it, even watched it a second time. Mixing all these musical styles must have been really appealing to the singers and musicians who normally play only classical music.
Idle: I think what was funny for them is that they’re the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Chorale, so they do the proms. One minute they’re playing everything very serious, Monteverdi, but they usually have this underlying sense of craziness. In other words, in the last nights of the proms where they let their hair down and go wonderfully wild in the Albert Hall. That was sort of our ideal model. Let’s create something that’s narrative and tells a story and that brings in all the musical elements and yet, it’s funny. I guess we always go for funny, but in the end, the moving things is what comes through for me. Like his mother, taking the Mandy character and putting a real woman into it and making it really semi-serious. She’s abandoned and had a child. (Laughs) When they grow up, that’s what kills me. What happens to them when they grow up? Those moments are very teary and real, which you couldn’t get Terry Jones to do it. (laughs)
CS: This being an adaptation of “The Life of Brian,” you have many nods to it, but you didn’t just take entire dialogue. Like when Python performed live some of the TV skits, they’d go off and improvise but the dialogue was mostly the same. This is almost completely new dialogue that references the movie.
Idle: Right. I mean, I just approached it as if it’s a gospel story, as if it was Mark as opposed to John. (Laughs) It’s a different take on the same story, but I came in earlier because I always liked the carol service thing, the six carol services they have in England, where they go (puts on a funny exaggerated voice) “Now the baby was found in a manger,” and all that kind of wonderful old-fashioned English, Anglican stuff. (laughs) So that gave me a good start-off, the verse and all of that, the inflated sort of hyperbole of it all, the angels and things. It became more focused on Mandy I think, because I knew she would be the contralto figure, which would have that wonderful voice that would always hold it all together because you need one of those. In G&S, they’d always use that to put them as the comic matron or nurse, but she’d always then have the most wonderful melodies like Katisha in “The Mikado.” That voice is very important, that rich contralto voice.
CS: I know the first performance of “Not the Messiah” was in 2007, but how long ago did you come up with the idea to do it and who threw out the idea that got the ball rolling on it?
Idle: Well, I think we won a Tony about five years ago for “Spamalot,” and then we just started on the idea. We just like to work on the next thing. We just quietly work away. It was for my cousin, Peter Oundjian, up in Toronto, the principle conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. He wanted us to do a concert and I said, “Well, fine to do a concert, so we’ll sing ‘Always Look on the Bright Side,’ so what else do we do?” Then, when I thought of “Not the Messiah,” I thought, “Oh my God.” It was one of those light bulb moments. You go, “Well, this is great because now there’s a narrative thread through the evening; let’s see what we can do.” It plays out a story and you know you’re gonna end with “Bright Side,” so there you are. So what I really did, which was was not the way we normally work, I wrote a libretto for John, a completely free libretto of the story, of the chaos and confusion, and just gave it to him. Off he went for three months and he came back with this most wonderful music. It was just breathtaking. It was like,”Wow.” I don’t think anybody’s ever given him a libretto before to this B-musical. “Write your stuff.” It was just fantastic. So we developed it from there. It was only 60 minutes and then I think we took it down to Australia and we did the Sydney Opera House a couple of nights. By that time, we made one act into two acts, so that we could have a highlight coming into the middle with the bagpipes playing “You’re The One.” Then everybody goes out for another drink and the comes back for Part 2. It sort of evolved in a very organic way. We go back, we write, we go back, we write. We do a scene, we come back, we record. We record everything we do. We demo everything, so you can listen to it in the car for a month or so afterwards. That’s what we’re doing on a new one for two years, and we’ll have another two years on it. But it’s a very organic process. Nothing’s rushed. When it’s right, it’s right to put on. What was great about this night is, it was so great the guys came. I was so thrilled. It was such an emotional moment. I thought, 40 years, the chances of us coming out at 50 years old without the depletion of the ranks is kind of slender. For me, I cried every time they came on stage.
CS: How did that come about? Did you know the 40th anniversary was coming up and you knew you were going to do something?
Idle: (It started) with me, I’m afraid. About 18 months out or two years out I thought, “Oh my God, it’s the 40th.” There’s going to be all this pressure for a reunion. People hide, they hate it, they don’t want to do anything. They don’t want that pressure. So what I did was I actually booked the Albert Hall, and I wrote to them all and said, “Look, its coming up. There will be pressure. Why don’t we just do ‘Not the Messiah’ at the Albert Hall, and then you guys can come along and take a bow at the end or sing the ‘Lumberjack Song’ or just do anything. Just be there in the UK for the 40th, that recognizes it.” It’s like standing up and saying, “Alright, we’re still here. Thank you very much for remembering,” and off we go.
CS: As far as you know, was this the first time Michael has worn a dress since the Python days?
Idle: Well, that’s what he says. (Laughs) I tell you this. I used to do that part. I’d do all those parts, but when I said, “Mike, will you do this?” And then he came back saying, “Wait, don’t you want us in drag?” Because I couldn’t do it in drag, because I had to come on at the beginning and do the role all the way through. I was just so thrilled that he volunteered to do that and it was just so funny. I mean, Mike is the President of the Royal Geographical Society and having him changing into a dress and coming on stage at the Albert Hall is so great. (laughs)
CS: I liked that you had Carol there, too, and the fact that she was recognized at the 40th Anniversary presentation at the Ziegfeld last year.
Idle: No, well, I did that. They’re all greedy bastards. (Laughs) She needs the recognition, it’s nice for her to be getting that. Well, everybody does. It’s just one of those things, as you get older, you think, “This could be it.” Terry Jones has already had a great baritone voice, and he was so brave. They were all brave is what they were to come and do that, because we have a certain comfort zone having done it a certain number of times, but they hadn’t, and they were facing this monster 240-piece orchestra and choir and coming on and in Jones’ case, singing, which is just fantastic.
CS: I was curious, I guess you’d done it before. When you first did it, how intimidating was it to perform with these trained opera singers?
Idle: Well, in about 1986-87 I did “The Mikado” with the English National Opera and that was intimidating of course, but then I realized that opera singers are much more scared of speaking than I was of singing so as long as you’re funny, they forgive you everything. I had some vocal coaching and all of that, so I was slightly accustomed to the 40-piece orchestra there in the English National Opera to being onstage with an orchestra. So, my comfort zone, that doesn’t scare me. Where we started and we had Peter Oudjian, who is a wonderful conductor and plenty of rehearsal, and I’m surrounded by really great voices, so that’s really nice for me.
CS: John must have been amazed when he watched the DVD and saw how the audience was participating like in “You’re the One” which was quite amazing.
Idle: Oh, I think he turns around. It was fairly extraordinary with all those cameras. It was an extraordinary sight to see and it looks really good on the DVD, doesn’t it? We had a great director, he’d done a lot of those live broadcasts from the Albert Hall, so he’s familiar with shooting things there, but he still hadn’t ever seen a full performance. We did a dress rehearsal, but it was kind of only the first act, so he was like shooting on the fly which is amazing. I thought he just did a great job bringing it together.
CS: John just did an incredible job, too, and I think this may in fact be his “Messiah.”
Idle: He has within him, the music is just so moving. I mean, we know that from “Spamalot.” “I’m All Alone” is one of the songs; it’s both funny and chilling in “Spamalot.” He has these wonderful melodies. “When I Grow Up” is just the most beautiful melody. It’s that Broadway, that sort of three-four waltz thing. It’s really nice, beautiful music. I think he’s capable of doing anything, John du Prez, he’s extraordinary. I find more and more in him. Of course, when we started off, he didn’t conduct, he took over when we went to Australia. He’s done all those film scores, but for him to conduct his own work and at the Albert Hall I think was just a great moment in his life. I know it was.
CS: I’m sure you had tons of Python fans who went to see “Spamalot” but it’s surprising to me how well that crossed over to normal Broadway musical fans.
Idle: I think it’s more our work than it is Python in many ways. It’s a Du Prez/Idle musical, that’s what it is. It’s our adaptation of their hilarious film, but if you look at Act Two of “Spamalot” for instance, it’s completely different from the movie. I mean, it just becomes a Broadway show and a parody of a Broadway show and recognition that we’re all part of parody. (Laughs) It addresses moving things and emotional things, which is something that we discovered if you brought women in and female characters and love, which I don’t think Python ever touches. The whole thing is more accessible to everybody. It isn’t just about chopping people’s arms and legs off. In many ways, that’s the least attractive thing for people who don’t like Python.
CS: So where do you go with “Not the Messiah” after this? Do you feel the Royal Albert Hall was the pinnacle for where that show could be taken?
Idle: It’s a very good question. We always wanted it to go out so that people could put it on, so we’ll publish it, because they have such a good time, that if they do ten “Messiahs,” they might as well do one “Not the Messiah” on the night before. We said we’d perform it in great venues for us. Because there’s no money in it, you can’t get money out of it. So we’d like to be able to do it in New York. It would be wonderful to do it somewhere in New York because we haven’t done it in New York. We did it in upstate New York, that’s as close as we got. It would be great to do it at Lincoln Center or something like that with a big orchestra and just for fun maybe two or three nights. It takes a lot of organizing to get that on because of the orchestra, choirs, so I think that would be fun. It would be great to do that, that’s one I want to do. But we’ll move on. We’re readying a new play for another year and a half or two years, but you’ve gotta prove it in New York always for me.
CS: What’s amazing to me as somebody whose been a Monty Python fan since I was ten years old, I’m just fascinated with how many people come out of the woodwork as fans last year, and how that fanbase has sustained itself. Really, I think only rock music has sustained its fanbase as long as Python fandom. Does that shock you at all or have you just gotten used to it?
Idle: The longevity of it? Oh, absolutely. I mean, it’s extraordinary. I think it was in touch with something very simple that recognizes the idiocy of being, the folly of being (Laughs) and how foolish it is when we do or say anything, we’re always vaguely aware that we’re kind of idiots. I don’t know whether it’s that. I think it’s very reassuring to realize that the grown-ups aren’t in charge and everybody’s making it up as they go along. There’s no reason I should be able to explain it better than anybody else. I mean, we’re asked it a lot, but I think you’d need a greater sociological commentator to realize what was going on. It’s a post-war phenomenon in England, our generation seizing television just as The Beatles seized popular music. We’re the same generation, it’s that same flowering fruit. There are obviously poets of that generation who later on you may go, “Oh, they were the big ones.” There were painters. It was a very liberated youth that came out of that post-war, rather depressing period for the UK.
CS: It’s also amazing, because for people in other countries outside England, Monty Python is how many people learn about or visualize British culture. When I was 10, I didn’t understand half of what you guys were saying, but then I made an effort to learn about certain things in British culture I never would have known about otherwise.
Idle: There are many common parents; I think Gilbert and Sullivan was a common parent. There are many common parents and because of the language, it has the same tricks. The language is so rich, it has different meanings and shades of meanings and different words for everything. If you’re forced to think in English, I think it makes it different from if you’re forced to think in Russian, for example. I think the nature of the language it makes it different in English. Japanese is different, because of the nature of the language. Chinese is different because of the nature of the language. It’s one of the great definers, I think, of culture. But the honest thing is behavior is common to us all because we’re all the same animals. Monty Python goes on in 94 countries, so the Russians are laughing just as much as the Japanese which is really bizarre. But I mean, they’re then bringing it into their own culture and using it as a way to judge their own culture I guess is what happens.
CS: Do you yourself keep in touch with what’s going on with either British comedy or American comedy or anyone else?
Idle: No, not much. I think your biggest comedy influences are when you’re young, when you fall in love with it. That doesn’t mean I don’t laugh at other people, but I’m more concerned about writing my own comedy things really, and then making it more true, getting it more moving and truthful. That’s what interests me now, comic plays with music really.
CS: As you’re writing the new play, do you still do any acting or voicework?
Idle: No, I turned down everything about 10 years ago. I don’t have agents, I won’t read scripts. I won’t take meetings. (Laughs) I’ve probably only got a few years left, I’m gonna spend it on what I want to do. Let’s see if we can get to the end of that. If I run out of ideas, then fine, but I love living in this town, but you can’t have anything to do with this town, they’re all crazy! (Laughs)
CS: Are you talking about LA or New York?
Idle: In LA. It’s fun living in LA writing for Broadway, because it also removes you from the influence of, “Oh my God, here’s the new thing! Oh, God!” So you’re off that anxiety of living on Broadway, a three-mile anxiety strip, but you’re thinking all the time of how to make an audience laugh. That’s the thing I like, sensing whether they get bored or where they laugh or when you can delight or thrill them. It’s like a conjuring trick, you just produce an ace now and again, so I love that. That’s all I do and I don’t do anything else, as I said. I won’t act. On occasion, you do a voiceover to keep the pension fund going (Laughs) because in America you have to watch your health and insurance benefits. (laughs) The real reason to go do animated films is you can keep the pension and health benefits going.
CS: How do you test your comedy to make sure it works? Do you just have read-throughs?
Idle: We try that, I mean, we have a reading next week. You start on the low level. You get actors in, read it, then if people laugh, or they say this, or you feel the shift. They bring something to the table. Once you’ve got it working on the table and around the table then you can go to the next level. There’s a lovely little theater here called the Montalban Theater on Bryant Street where I tried out a play called “What About Dick?” there. You just put it on for two or three nights, bring in an audience and see if they laugh. You can’t fake that. If they laugh, it’s funny; if they don’t laugh it’s dull or boring or you’ve mistimed or you haven’t made clear what you’re trying to say.
CS: Where does “Spamalot” go next? I know it’s not playing in New York anymore and it’s out of Vegas.
Idle: There’s what’s called a non-equity tour that starts in August, so that goes on for two or three years. They go around doing the smaller towns now. It just started on its tour in the UK, it was on in Paris, it’s done in Madrid, Barcelona. It’s done in Hungary, it’s opening in Sweden. What’s lovely about it is the ripple of a play goes on and on long after you finished Broadway, then hopefully it keeps going and then you bring on the Broadway revival even. (laughs)
CS: Are you at all tempted to do what they’ve done with “Hairspray” and others by bringing it back to the movies even though it was already based on “The Holy Grail”?
Idle: Right, right. Well, I’ve always said that I don’t want to make anything that’s dreadful, just because they’re offering you money to do it. If we find a way to do it that makes it different and unique from the show or the play, then we’ll do that. But it has to be good on its own terms. I’ve said that I don’t want to do a remake of “The Holy Grail” because that’s like trying to remake “A Hard Day’s Night,” you can’t do it. We have a couple of things that go on, but it’s not high up because we like creating. We like to write. We like the whole songwriting process of making a play happen, then it goes into music. It’s such a magical form. I just saw “South Pacific” the other night here, which was great at the Lincoln Center, and it’s right here. It’s just such a great play. It’s so tightly-drawn and the music is so wonderful that it’s extraordinary. What happens is that all the emotion in the characters comes through the music. I guess it’s like in cinema where you have soundtrack and that’s doing all the acting for them. It paves emotions much better than words do.