In the mild early evening light, there was a queue snaking around the block in the heart of Broadway's theatreland. It was just 24 hours after the opening night of Spamalot, a new musical based on the dreadfully (and deliberately) amateurish 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The first reviews had been good to mixed, but the air was thick with a mood of "this show's a must-see". Spamalot, which cost $11m, opened to an advance of $20m and, on the day the reviews came out, took another $2m in bookings. There were ten guys working behind the grille at the box office in Shubert Alley, and no one was about to go on a coffee break.
This is the new smash hit, the new Producers, and, like Mel Brooks's show, it is based on a cult film that bombed. Thirty years ago, Monty Python and the Holy Grail grossed less than $2m in the US. And yet the audience at my Saturday matinee was packed not just with the usual crowd of obese Midwesterners and shell-suited upstate weekenders. There was also a huge contingent of college kids and comedy geeks who knew everything about the Monty Python TV series in general and this film in particular: a dozy King Arthur and his search for the Grail, the chain-mailed French taunter on the battlements ("I fart in your general direction"), the giant knights who say "Ni" and demand a shrubbery, the flying killer pig, and the ridiculous debate about migrating coconuts.
All the original surviving Pythons - Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam and John Cleese - as well as an urn allegedly containing the ashes of Graham Chapman, who died in 1989 - joined their colleague Eric Idle, who wrote the musical with the composer John du Prez, for the opening night. Idle has never tired of exploiting his Python history, but this time he really has done something special. With the legendary director Mike Nichols - whose career spans comedy sketches with Elaine May and such epoch-defining films as The Graduate and, most recently, Patrick Marber's Closer - he has improved the film by turning it into a parody-rich satire of musical theatre and a glorious, spectacular treat in its own right.
The show taps the fashionable taste, started by The Producers three years ago, for irreverence and comedy in musicals, after decades of quasi-operatic hits such as The Phantom of the Opera (still running on Broadway, and deliciously sent up here with "a song that goes like this" and then changes key without warning), Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. Other musicals that have appealed to people "who don't like musicals" have been Urinetown, a satire of civic inanity, and Avenue Q, a sort of Muppet Show with a soft-to-medium sex quotient.
That still doesn't explain why Monty Python should strike such a popular chord - until you start to consider television animation shows such as South Park and The Simpsons, or the regard in which Monty Python was held by the comedians of Saturday Night Live such as Chevy Chase and the late John Belushi, as well as by Steve Martin. And today, the wild surrealism of the Pythons has kept the work freshly attractive to the younger high-school and college generation who watch the comedy channels.
The American novelist Dave Eggers, in a long essay for last December's New Yorker, pinned down the appeal after sitting through all 45 episodes of the TV comedy show as reissued on DVD in 2000:
Monty Python's goal was not only to make audiences laugh but . . . to tear apart the medium of television with extreme prejudice. As a whole, the series, which ended in 1974, has no competition for being the most consistently bizarre programme ever aired on TV.
Eggers is a fan, but for those of us less fanatical, the stage show is an object lesson in how to make a sassy silk purse out of a soggy sow's ear. The Holy Grail is now defined as a flat-out funny Broadway show, and the absurdity of the quest fully anticipated in a cloying "find your grail" big number that pulls the rug from un- der the feet of mushy "over the rainbow" sentimentality.
Broadway audiences are just in the mood for this kind of no-holds-barred inanity. Two items in the second half also suggest that the long-running satirical off-Broadway sketch show Forbidden Broadway, which has consistently taken the rise out of the latest hits for more than 20 years, has been outgunned at source. First, David Hyde Pierce (Niles from the TV series Frasier), leads an outrageous ensemble show-stopper about the need to have Jews in all Broadway shows. Then the Lady of the Lake, finally revealed as King Arthur's Guinevere, delivers a diva's lament for her own inexplicable absence from the stage: "Whatever happened to my part?"
In the true spirit of Monty Python, a hit musical has been constructed (and simultaneously deconstructed) on the premise that hit musicals are essentially silly, insubstantial pageants. To have pulled off this trick is a tribute to the tenacity of Eric Idle and the skill of Nichols. And since that first bunch of reviews came in, the overall critical response has gone from "good to mixed" to "too good to miss".