July 31, 2008
Python Meets Handel (and He’s ‘Not the Messiah’)
By Rob Lowman Entertainment
What do a philharmonic orchestra in white dinner jackets and black ties, a 40-piece choir, four opera singers, fireworks, a 32- piece bagpipe band, a narrator, some sheep and a leaf blower add up to?
On the heels of their Tony-winning "Spamalot," the Monty Python alum and his musical collaborator, John Du Prez, have whipped up "Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy)."
Like "Spamalot" - which is still going strong on Broadway and in Las Vegas - "NTM" is based on a Python film. This one is the 1979 "Life of Brian," in which a first-century Judean named Brian Cohen is mistaken for the Messiah and crucified (remember, it's a comedy). "Not the Messiah" is also a spoof of Handel's famous 1741 oratorio (you know the one), with a full orchestra, choir and the rest.
OK, we know that the Los Angeles Philharmonic needs some gigs for the summer, but where do you find a 32-piece bagpipe band hanging out?
"Pasadena," Idle quickly chimes in.
Well, that explains it. "Actually, there are bagpipe bands all over the world, and they always wear full uniforms; so they'll wear their kilts."
Normally, "Not the Messiah" - which debuted in June 2007 in Toronto - only has four bagpipers, but this is Los Angeles and the Hollywood Bowl. So Idle is going for a bigger bang (thus the fireworks).
So far, "NTM" has only been performed about 15 times, but Idle and DuPrez, who will be conducting the L.A. Phil, have been expanding it. (It was 60 minutes to begin with; now it's more like 90.) A couple of weeks ago, they added a leafblower as an instrument.
"They are the most annoying things in the world," admits Idle, "but we've manage to get a range of notes out of it."
So far, audiences and critics have not been annoyed. Last week's performance at Wolf Trap was hailed by the Washington Post as "hysterically funny ... a spectacularly loony idea" that "is a finely tuned satire that skewers human stupidity across the board."
Not bad for an oratorio, which is not one of the usual weapons of a comedian.
"It's a good story," insists Idle, who is the narrator and sings with a "baritone-ish" voice.
DuPrez and Idle - who first collaborated on the title music for "Life of Brian" - considered adapting another Python movie, "The Meaning of Life" but decided that it didn't have enough narrative structure.
"The story is everything, certainly in a Broadway musical and in our context, too. It's certainly important that you identify with Brian. But really it's the story of Mandy, his mother, who gets knocked up by a Roman Centurion, who abandons her. And she gives birth to this rather strange boy, who gets mistaken for the Messiah. It's really a tragic story - really," Idle says, laughing.
And another aspect Idle liked about it was that it was bigger than a Broadway musical. "Part of the fun of that is that you're using a grand theme. So you got this mock heroic scale of it. When it starts, people go, 'Whoa!' because the volume of all this singing. The sheer power of it is quite something."
But it's still a lot more Python-ish than Handel-ish. In fact, the closest it comes to "The Messiah" is when they perform "Hail to the Shoe" - you may remember that from the movie - which sounds a bit like the 'Hallelujah Chorus."'
Otherwise, it's doo-wop, spirituals, a miner (that's with an "e") song, Sondheim-ish numbers, a movement of "choral sex," and silly ditties - like "a sort of a Gilbert and Sullivan version of Python's 'The Lumberjack song."'
Sort of an "iPod shuffle," as DuPrez describes it.
And there's a Bob Dylan character - complete with guitar, harmonica and dark glasses, which Idle does himself. "He comes in to help Brian talk about individuals. It's a very Dylan theme."
Idle says he has no intention of turning "NTM" into a Broadway musical like "Spamalot," saying, "It gives us some huge lovely gigs ... but we'll never make money out it."
No one gets crucified in "NTM," though those in the Bowl audience can wait for the fireworks, for which DuPrez has written special music.
It begins with "The Galaxy Song" (from "The Meaning of Life"), and "then we'll go exploding off in space," says Idle.
"There's something wonderful about Handel doing the music for 'The Royal Fireworks' and John writing the music for the fireworks in L.A."
Rob Lowman (818) 713-3687
NOT THE MESSIAH
(HE'S A VERY NAUGHTY BOY)
WITH ERIC IDLE
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood.
When: 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Tickets: $10 to $114.
Information: (323) 850-2000, www.hollywoodbowl.com
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