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A ‘Spamalot’ conversation with King Arthur himself

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A ‘Spamalot’ conversation with King Arthur himself (photo by Lance Evans)

ORONO – If you seek the Holy Grail, you might well find it at the Collins Center for the Arts next week.

The national touring production of “Monty Python's Spamalot” lands at the CCA on the campus of the University of Maine on February 20.

With book and lyrics by Eric Idle and music by John Du Prez, “Spamalot” is largely inspired by the beloved 1975 film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Since its Broadway premiere in 2005, the show has been produced with great success all around the globe.

And now it’s coming to the Collins Center for the Arts.

For those unfamiliar with the story – I'm very sorry for you. You've had almost 40 years to see the movie and over a decade to see the show; it's very hard for me to have any sympathy. But for those sad few of you who have lived a thus far joyless life, here's a synopsis.

King Arthur is riding across his kingdom (well, “riding” – his horse consists of two coconut halves being knocked together by his squire Patsy in an effort to recruit knights to his Round Table in Camelot. He soon encounters Robin, a man currently working as a plague cart hauler, and Lancelot, an unsettlingly violent fellow looking to dispose of a not-yet-dead corpse. These two are quickly enticed into becoming Knights of the Round Table – Lancelot joins up for the killing, Robin for the singing and dancing.

Soon afterward, Arthur gets into an argument with a politically-minded peasant over his right to rule, leading to the appearance of the fabled Lady of the Lake in order to set things straight. Galahad decides to join up, as does Sir Bedevere.

The group retires to Camelot but is soon given a sacred mission by God Himself – King Arthur and his knights must undertake a quest to seek out the legendary Holy Grail, thought by most to be the cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper. This quest takes them hither and yon, leading to encounters with such diverse characters as: surly Frenchmen; dark (and delusional) knights; nonsense-spouting, shrubbery-seeking forest dwellers; effeminate princes; benignly-named enchanters; and bloodthirsty bunnies. Yet Arthur and his men remain steadfast (well, steadfast-ish, anyway) in their mission to locate the Grail.

And there are songs. Loads of ridiculous, delightful songs.

Steve McCoy is playing the role of King Arthur in the touring production of “Spamalot” that is coming to the CCA. He was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to chat with us ahead of the February 20 performance.

“We’ve been on the road since the end of September,” McCoy said via phone. “We’re hitting every state but Hawaii with this one – we’re scheduled to play Anchorage on May 12.”

It’s a long road, but it’s not the first time that McCoy has traveled it. This is his second go-round on tour playing this role.

“The first time I played [King Arthur] was back in 2010, 2011,” he said. “It was the second national tour; when we started, the show was still playing on Broadway. It’s a huge gap of time – it’s amazing what I didn’t forget.

“But really, the main difference is that I’m a lot older,” he added with a laugh. “I’m doing it with two others who were also on that previous tour, which helps.”

As for the audiences? Have they changed?

“Honestly, I think people are enjoying it more now,” he said. “It seems like people desperately want and need to laugh and just forget their problems for a little while. They’re looking for respite. And this show gives it to them – you can go into it in the worst mood and then you get two hours of pure joy. And as much fun as the audience is having, that’s how much we’re having as well.”

McCoy also talked about what it means to be working on such an iconic show, one that requires a surprising amount of devoted specificity.

“Finding new stuff can be hard with this show. It might sound strange, but really, Monty Python is very much akin to Shakespeare in a lot of ways. The language is so important and the show is built in such a way that there’s really only one way to say the lines. It’s not something where you deviate from the dialogue. Any changes that come spring from changes you find in your motivations.

“When I was getting ready to do the first tour, I had a chance to spend a couple of days with [original Broadway director and EGOT legend] Mike Nichols. He gave me some great advice; he said ‘The words are funny. You’re not as funny as they are. It’s not about you.’ That was the deal. No need to embellish; it’s funny as is.”

While it’s not to the participatory level of something like “Rocky Horror” or anything of that ilk, McCoy said that there are often audience members who go above and beyond in their embrace of the show.

“People will sometimes come in costume,” he said. “They’ll say certain bits of dialogue along with us. And a lot of times, the whole audience will be whistling along when we get to ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.’”

Putting together a tour such as this one is a massive undertaking, but it all comes together a little faster than you might think.

“We did three weeks of rehearsal in NYC,” said McCoy. “Then we went to a theater in Utica for technical rehearsals, to get used to the costumes and the scenery and all the production elements. We did two shows there and then we were off.”

Of course, when you have a production like this, with so many moving parts, it’s only a matter of time before something goes wrong. However, to hear McCoy tell it, those hiccups are surprisingly few and far between, though he did share one minor mishap with us.

“When you do a show like this one, you play in a lot of different types of theaters,” he said. “This production has a lot of set fly pieces and drops; they’re coming in and out and hanging over our heads while we’re on stage.

“We were at this one spot where they had what they call a hemp system that uses ropes and weights to raise and lower the scenery,” he continued. “One night, I’m in front of the drop, there’s this big moment where I do this wave and it’s supposed to fly out for a big reveal – it’s a big laugh line. Only this time, I wave, nothing happens – the piece doesn’t fly out. Turns out it got caught up; there were safety issues, so we stopped.

“When we restarted, we went from the laugh line – ‘What happens in Camelot, stays in Camelot.’ I actually turned to the audience and said, ‘Please laugh a bit more at this.’”

Does McCoy have a favorite moment from the show after doing it so many times?

“I do, actually,” he said. “At the end of the show, King Arthur proposes to the Lady of the Lake. Now, Leslie [Jackson, the actress playing the Lady of the Lake] and I are friendly offstage, but really, we save most of our communication for our time onstage. It’s such a thrill to fall in love with her onstage every single night. And then, of course, it ends with a joke. I really love that moment.”

“Spamalot” is a silly good time, to be sure, but there’s also a heartfelt message at its center that really resonates.

“The main theme is to find out what you want to do and do it,” McCoy said. “Yes, it’s funny and silly, but it’s also about how everyone finds their grail. To me, that means finding passion. It’s all about following that passion. Monty Python was like that; they knew what they wanted to do. They followed their passion, no matter what.”

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