The spread on `Spam’

Special to The Times

IT’S a dark and crowded theater in New York. The curtain has only been up five minutes, and Steve Wynn, the billionaire owner of the Wynn Las Vegas hotel, leans in, grips my knee and whispers in my ear: “Eric,” he says, “this will be great in Las Vegas.”

“Yes,” I say, “it will.”

Then I realize, slightly disappointedly, he means “Spamalot.” My future as a billionaire’s date is still up for grabs.

“Can I give you a ride home?” he asks nicely. I’m thinking 6th Avenue, but he means L.A. Well, OK. He flies us home in a plane bigger than my boarding school. There are dogs on board, so my wife is happy. All the way he plays the “Spamalot” cast recording, regaling his passengers with his version of scenes from the show. Later he leaves a message on my phone in a British accent so good that for a moment I think it is Hank Azaria.


A month later he flies me to Las Vegas to stay at the Wynn and see the car park that is to be our new home. He has bought the Vegas rights for “Spamalot” and is filled with feverish plans for it. I am a little concerned. How will it play out here in the desert?

As part of my research, I decide to visit all the major attractions. Nothing quite matches the intensity of the plot of “Jubilee,” which grips me with its thrilling story of 150 bare-breasted ladies seducing Samson and causing the Titanic to sink. At the Crazy Horse, the girls have blond wigs, perfect derrieres and genuine French names like Fifi and Suki. They remind me what the ‘70s was all about: light shows and shagging. But the show is a little thin on plot. And clothing.

The rest of the entertainment is all French Canadian, from Celine to the many Cirques. Monty Python was a Flying Circus, but does that qualify as a Cirque? We have no acrobats, no contortionism, apart from Silly Walks and only a few French people yelling abuse, farting in our general direction. What will the nipple-sated Nevadans make of our little show?

A tweak here, slashing there

I know upfront that I will have to cut 20 minutes from it. What F. Scott Fitzgerald said of American lives is definitely true of Vegas -- there are no second acts. Partly this is because they want you back in the casino, and partly it’s because they want you back in the casino. In fact, with our low ticket prices I figured out that you will actually save money if you spend 90 minutes in “Spamalot.” And if you sleep during the show you can save on a room.

Surely to cut 20 minutes won’t be that difficult. The original movie was only 83. Even the World Cup final is only 90 minutes, so how hard can it be?

On paper it isn’t and our London cast read it aloud for Mike Nichols, our director, and Casey Nicholaw, our choreographer. Seems fine, we say. But will it really be that easy? Won’t it be harder in Nevada? (A slogan I am trying to sell the Tourist Board.)


Last month we launched “Spamalot” in the new Grail Theater. I do a bit of stand-up: “I was in Vegas last night and I missed my wife so much I paid for a woman to come up to my room and ignore me.... “

I introduce our new King Arthur, producing John O’Hurley out of a can of Spam. Then we ham it up and dance a tango together. Why? Because I can’t do the pasodoble. And of course we bring on our beautiful girls, wearing only white lingerie. Why? Do you need to ask? I announce that, as an added attraction, some of our shows will be topless, but only in John’s part.

Steve Wynn is very funny. He says he has been trying to kill Broadway in Las Vegas and what better way than to put on “Spamalot.” Earlier I had tried half-heartedly to persuade him to put his elbow through a painting. “It’ll be a big laugh,” I say, but he sensibly declined. “Bad enough I am known as the Inspector Clouseau of the art world,” he laughed.

So now we are ensconced in a rehearsal room in the less salubrious side of Las Vegas, among the bail bonds and the pawn shops (no, not porn shops). This is the last place you see before the desert. Our modern studios are pleasant, and the cast is confident as they run it for Mike and Casey and me. It’s not bad, but we caucus thoughtfully in a conference room. The play was 50 minutes, then a nice intermission, and then Act 2. Now it is 90 minutes straight through, and that’s a completely different dramatic shape. We roll up our sleeves and set to work. I have a wonderful feeling of nostalgia. It’s like two years ago when we were on 42nd Street. Ah, happy days.

Mike gives a master class. He talks to the actors for about 50 minutes, but in that talk he says everything they will ever need to know about drama. He is spectacular. Not just about truth-telling in acting, or storytelling or about the shape and types of scenes, but how to ask: What is this like? Who am I being like? What does this remind me of? He ends by reminding them not to be funny. Just say the words. Don’t act.

Meanwhile, I am cutting and pruning and trimming. Casey puts the girls into “Always Look on the Bright Side.” Their beauty and their energy lift the number, which for us is a crucial transition into Act 2.


Then I bring in Terry Gilliam. I confess to the cast that what I had told them about all the Pythons being dead is not true. They are thrilled to meet the legendary Gilliam. Terry says he is going home to persuade Michael Palin to come for the opening. Michael has announced he is staying at home because he is writing a Travel Book. John Cleese is scheduled to attend, but then he plays God, and we know they both move in mysterious ways. Sadly Terry Jones can’t make it. He is wrestling with chemo. Pity, I rather hoped he would be here wrestling with keno.

A hitch in the get-along

THINGS are going well until the third night of previews, when we have a major glitch. Our elevator fails, and instead of the Lady of the Lake and her Laker girls emerging in their skimpy fronds, nothing happens.

King Arthur stands gesturing to an empty stage. “She’s a bit late,” says O’Hurley manfully. From below we can hear the Lady of the Lake singing away, but nothing emerges. Oh, dear. We are going to have to stop.

Some deep showoff instinct kicks in and I find myself rushing down through the audience and up onto the stage. The place goes wild. Easiest standing ovation I ever had. “This is what in theatrical terms is called a screw-up,” I say. “A huge helicopter was supposed to land onstage ... oh, no, that was another show.” I ad-lib for about 10 minutes, thinking how Eddie Izzard would be proud of me doing improvisational stand-up in front of 1,600 people. Luckily the glitch ends before I do and I can escape back into the audience and the show continues.

Will “Spamalot” succeed? Who knows? Dare I say it, it’s a crapshoot. If we make ‘em laugh we’ll have a shot. If not, well, we have the tour, we have Broadway, we have London and soon Australia ... and I shall just have to get used to not having dinner with billionaires again.

“Spamalot” opens at the Wynn Las Vegas on March 31.