Not the Messiah: He’s a Very Naughty Boy
Eric Idle seems to be the ex-Python most invested in Python nostalgia. The others have largely stayed away from it, but Idle wrote the very successful Spamalot, based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and tours singing songs from the series and movies, along with new stuff. When I first heard of this I thought it might be a try-out for a musical version of Life of Brian, but now that I’ve seen it I don’t think so. There are some songs here that would fit nicely into such a thing, but a lot of others that are either too classical or too serious, if you can believe that.
What we have here is a full-scale monster production, held for one night only in the Royal Albert Hall, of an oratorio featuring a 120-piece orchestra, a 140-voice choir, four operatic soloists (plus Idle) … and—this being Python—bagpipes, hardhats, 6 Canadian Mounties, 140 harmonicas, three sheep, and guest appearances by Michael Palin, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam. The Albert Hall is one of those pinnacle venues like Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, La Scala, or the Paris Opera; when you play here, you know you’ve arrived. And the level of artistry here is very high. The soloists are great, particularly the tenor William Ferguson, who sings the part of Brian Cohen. What Idle has done is essentially set the story to music of various genres, from full-on Messiah bombast to Mexican mariachi to anything else that might be fun.
It took me a little time to get into this, but it was well worth the effort. At first, it seemed the “serious” music was going on a bit too long. And then some of the songs weren’t all that … well, funny. Several of them would not have been out of place in a “heavy” musical like The Phantom of the Opera. But it soon all began to make sense to me. Eric wasn’t going for laughs all the time. His musical collaborator and the conductor of this monster, John Du Prez, points out that there’s nothing wrong with being grand or even poignant, even in spoof material like this. So there is some quite good serious music here, performed by some quite good musicians, in between the reprises of joke sequences from the film, like the prisoner who has been hanging upside down for five years and has nothing but praise for the Romans, and the debates among members of the People’s Front of Judea … or was that the Judean People’s Front? From time to time there was material from other Python skits. One highlight for me was the re-casting of the famous “Lumberjack” ditty as a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song. And of course, we end up with “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life.”