‘Galavant’ musical comedy on ABC is worth the short journey
Among the things that have not worked as television series, yet, is Broadway-style musical comedy — that is, stories in which the characters burst spontaneously into narrative-driving song, as distinct from shows like “Nashville” or “Glee” or “The Partridge Family,” in which they perform as performers.
“Two words,” you can almost hear the weary TV executive say, whenever the subject comes up: “‘Cop Rock.’”
The latest show to give it a try is “Galavant,” a medieval musical burlesque very much in the spirit of “Spamalot,” which premieres Sunday on ABC in the space temporarily vacated by “Once Upon a Time.” (It returns March 1.) That its eight half-hour episodes are being sped through two at a time over the next month — it’s being pitched as a “four-week comedy extravaganza,” which already has a finite ring — does suggest some ambivalence on the part of the network that paid for them.
The extravaganza, the work of Dan Fogelman (writer and show runner), Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics), concerns a famous freelance knight, Sir Galavant (Joshua Sasse), whose girlfriend, Madalena (Mallory Jansen), is carried off one day by King Richard (Timothy Omundson), sending him into a long, drunken funk.
Things change with the arrival at his door of Princess Isabella of Valencia (Karen David), whose realm Richard has in the meantime conquered and which she wants Galavant to help her reclaim. And so begins a journey, as in “The Princess Bride” (another touchstone), with Galavant’s squire Sid (Luke Youngblood) rounding out the party.
Much of it is painfully obvious. It isn’t so much that the jokes themselves are old but that the machine which produces them has been running for so long.
The formula, which may be roughly stated as dragging the past into the present, is simple and tested: You have Cleopatra saying, “Oh, no, she didn’t,” or Napoleon muttering, “Well, that was awkward.” You add some “unexpected” sexual naughtiness or an anomalous ethnic accent. You have a character from some long-ago time rap.
A line from the show both exemplifies and describes the method: “It’s 1256 — the ‘Your mama’ jokes, they’re getting really old.”
At the high end, it’s the stuff of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” with roots running back to “The Pirates of Penzance.” (There is even a Pirate King in it, played by Hugh Bonneville, far from “Downton Abbey.”) Mel Brooks got a lot of mileage out of this kind of thing — his briefly flickering 1975 Robin Hood series, “When Things Were Rotten,” and his 1993 musical film, “Robin Hood: Men in Tights,” prepared the very ground upon which “Galavant” treads.
For some viewers, less historically informed, or tainted, this might of course play as fresh. Others may appreciate knowing exactly where they are; if it’s rarely surprising, the joke you know is coming still might make you laugh. (A joust between two already exhausted opponents got to me.) If I strained at times to like it more, I also found it not hard to watch. At times it feels enough that the players seem to be enjoying themselves to enjoy it alongside them.
Also helpful to the cause is a respectable rota of guest stars, which, besides Bonneville, includes Tony winner Faith Prince, Rutger Hauer, John Stamos (as Sir Jean Hamm, a Jon Hamm joke), Weird Al Yankovic as a monk and Ricky Gervais as a magician named Xanax.
Menken and Slater, who collaborated on “Tangled” (which Fogelman wrote) and the stage version of “The Little Mermaid,” are Broadway pros, and not a little of “Galavant” is aimed at theater geeks, with lines like “I trained in monologues, not poetry” and “Let’s just keep workshopping, OK?”
If there is no “Thou Swell” among them, the songs are usually catchy, and that they are self-knowing parodies — parodies, indeed, of the sorts of songs that Menken and Slater elsewhere write — buys them a little extra credit. (“Oh, great, another musical number,” someone says as another musical number begins.) In a similar way, the more juvenile jokes squeak by, sometimes, by dint of their flaunted juvenility.
The plot, though made of recycled parts, is just twisty enough to pull one along. And as the premise inclines toward a resolution, and the story involves a journey, which also implies an end, perhaps four weeks of comedy extravaganza will be just enough.
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-PG-DLV (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and violence)
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