Have you ever heard of Robert Lopez?
Of course you have, because you are all immensely bright, sophisticated and pretty individuals.
On the off-chance that you’re not an immensely bright, sophisticated and pretty individual — kudos to you for logging onto the Web site, Princeton kid.
Robert Lopez is a Yalie. Who won a Tony. He is One of Us, in a tradition so distinguished that F. Scott Fitzgerald, who attended Princeton, made the narrator of “The Great Gatsby” a Yale man. He also lies in the distinguished tradition of Yale musical theatre, which began with the immortal Cole Porter and which also includes Maury Yeston, who was DUS for the Music Department for a while before concluding that two Tony Awards gave him the right to never listen to another dean’s excuse — or at least not one that wasn’t set to an instantly hummable tune.
Robert Lopez began his trip to a Tony Award for “Avenue Q” by writing songs about how it sucked to be an unemployed Yale grad (such as “What Do You Do With A B.A. In English?”) and then staging readings with actors whom he paid with dinner.
This sounds almost exactly like my life, with the minor difference that I’m not technically a Yale grad and the major difference that Robert Lopez is now rich and famous and I’m tapping out articles for the YDN. And that I never bought dinner.
This sudden revival of my desire to write musical theatre instead of a Ph.D, or at least write my Ph.D as musical theatre, was prompted by a trip to “Spamalot” last weekend.
“Spamalot” won this year’s Tony for best musical, which can only have been caused by the awards committee collectively losing its head or, more likely, by the fact that its deliberations were undermined by the members falling over themselves to recite the dead parrot sketch. Because “Spamalot” is, first and last, a stupendously cheap albeit successful attempt to exploit the bank accounts of people who grew up when Monty Python was subversive.
Forgive me for sounding snooty and English, but in my country we usually reserve our laughter and applause until something funny actually happens. The “Spamalot” audience, by contrast, was the most undemanding I’ve witnessed since elementary school. David Hyde Pierce appears? Gales of laughter. Somebody uses an unnecessarily silly voice? Hysteria. John Cleese as the voice of God calls King Arthur “a great tit”? I swear there were middle-aged women wetting themselves.
Watching “Spamalot” was a bit like watching “Hamlet,” in the sense that the audience was happiest when it could join in with the bits it knew. Except instead of reciting “to be or not to be,” several thousand people sang “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” under their collective breath when the damn thing was shoehorned in from “Life of Brian.”
So it’s a retro show for those who really want to go back to 1975, and there’s currently a strong British streak that pines for those days of double-digit inflation. Its surrealism is still funny, but it’s the humour of clever undergraduates who stopped thinking shortly after they left college, which (after seeing “Spamalot”) raises the disturbing question that it wasn’t actually that funny in the first place.
Men dress up as women for no other reason than that’s what people do in Monty Python. The outing of Sir Lancelot is there because … well, because gay people are funny, right? Which they are, but not in the queeny drag act way Python wants them to be.
Among the $5 of original thought is a great number for David Hyde Pierce about the need for Jews in order to succeed on Broadway, which includes a hilarious parody of “Fiddler on the Roof” that, sadly, you really need to see to appreciate.
But compare and contrast this with “The Producers,” a work of genius also adapted from a movie that built on the original source to create genuine musical theatre that will be revived when “Spamalot” is regarded as a piece of nostalgic petrification. “Producers”, like Sigma Chi, is so at home with gays and Jews and gay Jews that it gleefully abuses and amuses them as part of the family.
In conclusion, “Spamalot” is a student sketch show; musical theatre for people who don’t like musical theatre.
But I don’t want to end on a sorrowful note — it’s not very musical theatre — so let me recommend Alice’s Tea Cup at 102 W 73rd Street. Order tea and scones, and settle down to sing Cole Porter numbers.
It’s cheaper than “Spamalot,” and slightly more fun.
Nick Baldock does routines and chorus scenes with impeccable footwork.