The Bright Side of Life – Bringing Monty Python to the Musical Stage

Actor/director Melissa Rain Anderson returns to Geva to direct Spamalot, the first show of the season. We talked to her about the transition from screen to stage and what makes Monty Python funny.

You’ve worked with Geva as an actor (most notably in A Christmas Carol) and recently directed 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. How have those experiences prepared you to bring Spamalot to Geva?
I’ve been working at Geva since 1996, primarily as an actor. I think I have an insight into the pulse of the Geva audience. Traditionally I have a very specific aesthetic about comedy that I think (I hope!) has been proven to be successful with Geva audiences. I believe in a very specific sort of buoyancy and zaniness to the tone. I also want to be careful not to pull the rug out from under the audience too many times since I feel that becomes tedious. Spelling Bee was a good barometer for me since audiences seemed to jump on board with that. So I’m going to stick to my guns and my aesthetic and bring that kind of joy and buoyancy to this production.

What aspect of directing the show are you most looking forward to?
Absolutely the cast. It is an extraordinary cast. We are so lucky that we have been able to assemble an amazing team of comedians. I know that they’re going to make me laugh everyday and I hope I can keep up with them.

I’m also really looking forward to working with Lenny Daniel, my choreographer. We are old friends and we haven’t worked together in a long time. He is the perfect fit for this show—he knows it really well and we’re both on the same page as far as the tone and the realm of comedy we want to pursue. I’m really excited about having Lenny at Geva and in the room with me.

How much of Monty Python and the Holy Grail can fans expect to see in Spamalot?
The Spamalot tagline, “A new musical (lovingly) ripped off from the motion picture” says it perfectly. It is definitely lovingly ripped off. The show is great for the true Python fans because the sight gags are all there: we have the French taunters, the Trojan rabbit, the Black Knight, the killer bunny, all those big classic moments from Holy Grail are live and onstage, which is extraordinary.

The other really important thing about the adaptation is that the rhythm of the script, and the Monty Python humor, is still intact. Although those visuals are so funny, I really believe the Python humor is more verbal than visual, so maintaining the verbal rhythm is crucial. I think the book is so great in so much of it is word for word right out of the film. That’s going to be really satisfying for Python fanatics and for anyone since it’s just a hilarious script. Eric Idol did a fantastic job of adapting the movie for the stage. Eric, being one of the Pythons from the beginning, knew exactly where the humor needs to land in order to support a musical number coming out of it, and it works great as a musical comedy. It’s the perfect marriage of material.

What is your approach to bringing out the humor in Spamalot?
I truly believe that in this piece, the comedy is on the page. Between Eric Idle’s writing and the original director Mike Nichols’ sculpting of the piece, it’s a tight book and the lyrics are really smart. I don’t think that we are funnier than the material. I don’t think we need to embellish or call attention to the jokes. The humor is irreverence, and we can’t comment on top of something that’s already a parody. My job will be mostly keeping us all on track within that zany humor that is so specific to Monty Python.

What role did the original movie have in producing Spamalot for Geva?
One thing we’ve done with this production that I think is really exciting is that our scenic designer, Jim Morgan, based the look of the set on Terry Gilliam’s original artwork. That artwork became so synonymous with the Python sketch comedy. It’s specifically in Holy Grail, with the cartoons in the transitions. The whole look of the set will be a wonderful homage to that sort of whimsical style and color that the film has in its transition.

How will you maintain what people love about the movie while giving the Geva production its own identity?
I definitely am a purist in the sense of holding onto the comedic Python tone. The Pythons hold true to the classic comedy rules in saying “yes” to each other and making their partners look good while at the same time keeping all the balls in the air.

As far as making sure this movie isn’t a copy of the film, it’s about the casting of the actors. The key is in finding the people that can inhabit the Python rhythm while maintaining a sense of freedom and balance. That’s what the Pythons did best: it always feels like they’re just riffing with each other, but in actuality that level of comedy takes great technique and skill. There’s a fine line to find the actors that can accomplish that in the true Python style, and then on top of that are able to sing and dance. We have a wonderful team assembled that can inhabit the sense of fun and silliness in an organic way.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the production?
I’m hoping the evening will feel like a crazy party that everyone wants to be invited to. There’s so much going on in every aspect of this piece. I want it to be so enjoyable and ridiculously hilarious that audiences will want to come back and bring their friends. If the actors are onstage sharing and being generous with the gifts of giddiness and zaniness, then the audience can take those gifts home to their friends and family. To take home the mantra, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, which is the heart and soul of the piece— you can’t get much better than that.

The script calls for a cow to be launched over a wall. Do you think this will be a problem?
Absolutely not! We have a lot of tricks up our sleeves.

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