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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 28th October 2006

Spamalot / Caroline, or Change / Dirty Dancing

According to Charles Spencer, The Daily Telegraph's man in the stalls, the only people who won't enjoy Spamalot are "the chronically depressed, the criminally insane and the snootier drama critics". He might have added a fourth category, namely, those of us who admire the Pythons for their radical, groundbreaking humour.

The poster for Spamalot boasts that it has been "lovingly ripped-off" from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but it's hard to detect much love for the film in the way Eric Idle has exploited it to create this commercial venture. Lest we forget, Monty Python and the Holy Grail was a witty piss-take of the sentimental view of Medieval Britain associated with the romantic poets, most notably Wordsworth. There are few traces of this satirical target in Spamalot. Rather, Idle has taken the plot and some of the jokes and inserted them into a toothless send-up of musical theatre. Indeed, Spamalot doesn't merely lack bite. Idle and his director, Mike Nichols, have created a show that, to all intents and purposes, is an affectionate tribute to the Great White Way. Next to Spamalot, The Producers seems like a vicious, Swiftian satire.

I'm hardly one of the snootier drama critics, but even I was astonished by Idle's complete disregard for Monty Python's subversive roots. As an example, take Idle's most memorable contribution to The Life of Brian which is the moment when a man who's about to be crucified starts singing 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life'. Given the context in which the song appears, it's an inspired piece of commentary on the kind of thick-skulled optimism that refuses to acknowledge man's inhumanity to man. Needless to say, it isn't long before the cast of Spamalot break into a rendition of 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life', but it's in response to a fairly mild setback rather than the prospect of certain death. In other words, it's an appropriate reaction to their circumstances, thus robbing the song of all its satirical content.

I could go on--but what's the point? Spamalot has clearly been designed with the sole purpose of making Broadway theatre-goers feel pleased with themselves. Idle hasn't even bothered to Anglicise the play for British audiences. (At one point, a Knight of the Round Table says, "What am I? Chopped liver?") In effect, he's taken a classic piece of English satire and transformed it into a ringing endorsement of one of the most moribund and exhausted forms of American popular culture. It reminded me of a Hollywood remake of a British war film in which all the heroes have been turned into Americans.

Interestingly enough, Caroline, or Change, a new musical with a book by Tony Kushner and a score by Jeanine Tesori, has much more in common with Monty Phython and the Holy Grail in that it's a genuine attempt to break new ground. It isn't a satire, but it, too, has a myth that it wants to debunk which is the sentimental portrait of race relations in the segregationist South. The Caroline of the title is a black maid who toils all day in the household of a Jewish musician in Louisiana--and she's about as unlike the Hattie McDaniel character in Gone With The Wind as it's possible to be. Far from being a warm-hearted rustic, she's a bitter, angry, heartbroken wretch. She even falls out with the boy of the family, a well-meaning eight-year-old whose only crime is to try and supplement her meagre wages with the occasional bit of pocket change. She's the anti-Mammy.

The problem with Caroline, or Change is that there's simply no reason for it to be a musical rather than a straight play. Tony Kushner, America's most celebrated contemporary playwright, has created a fascinating central character, surrounded her with a rich ensemble of secondary characters, and plunged them all into a period of tumultuous social upheaval--all of which is immensely promising material for a compelling piece of drama. Why, then, set it to music? It's not as if you can ignore the songs, either, since there's scarcely a line of dialogue which isn't accompanied. Kushner has made life particularly difficult for himself by deliberately eschewing precisely those ingredients--sentimentality, optimism, romance--that are essential for the success of any musical. On Broadway, Caroline, or Change closed after just 38 performances and the chances of this production transferring to the West End are vanishing to zero. Still, it's a bold experiment and a refreshing antidote to the cynicism of Spamalot.

I took the au pair to see Dirty Dancing--she claims to have lost count of the number of times she's seen the original film--and I'm sorry to report she was mildly disappointed. In her view, Josef Brown, who plays the male lead, is no match for Patrick Swayze. Fortunately, the female lead, played by Georgina Rich, is very good indeed and I enjoyed Dirty Dancing a great deal. Not one for the snootier drama critics, perhaps, but a thoroughly enjoyable crowd-pleaser nonetheless.

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