Gregory Meeh, special effects designer on Monty Python's Spamalot, was perhaps a little overprepared for his assignment. And not without reason. The show marks the first time that material from the infamous British comedy troupe, drawn mostly from the cult classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and with other bits “lovingly ripped off” (as the ads say) from their canon of craziness, had been repurposed for other performers. And the whole thing — a big Broadway musical, no less — had at its helm Mike Nichols, a six-time Tony winner for his direction, here taking charge of his first song-and-dance show since The Apple Tree in 1966. “Big” was the operative word, too; its multimillion budget far exceeds that of its source, which could barely pay for the coconuts used to simulate the clip-clops of actual horses, deemed too expensive to use.
Given this backdrop, Meeh figured that failure was not an option. “So, assuming that the production might have to look ‘Gilliamesque,’” he says, referring to the team's ever-inventive production designer, Terry Gilliam, “and with the guidance of my daughter, a huge Python fan, I watched everything he had ever designed or directed, including the fabulous documentary Lost in La Mancha, about a film he never got to make.” Thus armed, he had his first encounter with a Python. “I said, ‘How do you do, Mr. Gilliam? I'm a big fan of your work.’”
Which would have been a great start, except that the Python he was meeting was Eric Idle, who wrote the book, lyrics, and music for the show, which after a winter tryout at Chicago's Shubert has now settled in at the New York Shubert. “He said, ‘Well, we're sort of the same…you almost got it.’”
But after this embarrassment Meeh did get it; the assignment, that is. It turned out to be an appropriately silly start for a winningly silly show, which following its March opening immediately started attracting rabid Pythonites who attend in costume (kindling, no doubt, nostalgia for its King Arthur, Rocky Horror Picture Show star Tim Curry, aside the multiple roles taken by Hank Azaria and David Hyde Pierce). Thanks to the design, which begins with the sets and costumes of Tim Hatley (who won Tony and Drama Desk awards in 2002 for his elegant work on a Private Lives revival), they'll feel at ease in familiar locales, like Plague Village, the French Castle, and Prince Herbert's chamber, and find new ones to call home, like a viva Las Vegas take on Camelot and the Very Expensive Forest where much of the second act takes place.
“I thought it was a mad idea, in the wrong sense of the word,” says Hatley, from his home away from Spamalot in Cape Town, South Africa. The show was presented to him at a fateful lunch he had with Nichols, where the director offered him not one but two career firsts. “One was designing his film of Closer,” based on Patrick Marber's play. “And the other was designing Spamalot. My only work in film had been the costume design on Richard Eyre's adaptation of the play Stage Beauty, and I had never designed a stage musical before. But firsts thrill me; you don't want to be pigeonholed or become a victim of fashion. And once I read through the first script I got from Eric, I saw a way to do Spamalot.”
His fellow knights of the Spamalot table were assembled. With Meeh (who was working on Cirque Du Soleil's mammoth KÀ show at Las Vegas' MGM Grand) engaged for effects, Hugh Vanstone (who had worked with Hatley before, and who had, coincidentally, lit Closer onstage), was tapped for lighting, Acme Sound Partners for audio, Elaine J. McCarthy for projections, and David Brian Brown for wig and hair design.
Hatley started in as soon as Closer wrapped last March, meeting with Nichols and Idle in New York and London, working on sketches, and ultimately creating a “virtual workshop” of the show, mixing songs and dialogue with model footage, on Apple iMovie. [Andy Edwards was his UK assistant designer, and Paul Weimer his US associate scenic designer.] Says McCarthy of Hatley's collaboration with his transatlantic teammates, “Our first meeting, giggling like naughty school children as Tim stepped me through a model presentation, turned out to be the idiom for the entire process of working on the show. I don't recall having a Spamalot design meeting or discussion without frequent giggles. And building the animations really brought out the adolescent boy in me — ‘Then we should make it fart!’ — which I hadn't experienced since my first (and last) time playing paintball.”
“Eric was a very generous collaborator,” says Vanstone of the Python-in-charge. “He positively encouraged ideas and input from everyone. For example, in the second act number “You Won't Succeed on Broadway” he happily added the couplet, ‘You may have dramatic lighting/Or lots of horrid fighting’ because I suggested we could do an effect to support the line.”
When she could pull herself together, McCarthy, like the rest of the designers, came to view Hatley as the “Python filter,” who would give the necessary feedback as the work moved on to Nichols, Idle, and choreographer Casey Nicholaw. “I would bring mock-ups of the cues to them on my laptop and they would give me encouragement. My favorite response would be, ‘very Pythonesque,’ or ‘very Terry Gilliam.’ You have to understand that among the animators and production designers I know, Terry Gilliam is God-like.”
Not, however, an interfering God. To Hatley's relief, Gilliam never took advantage of an invitation to visit his design studio. This allowed Hatley to define “Pythonesque” on his own, including the opening number in Finland, where the show (and its Playbill) get off to a false start. “Despite the budget, I thought the sets and costumes should look quite humble, on a bit of a shoestring-like the film, we have as our main set just one castle, which they shot from several angles to make it look like more, and which we move on and off several times to suggest multiple castles. We adapted them from Terry Gilliam's originals, so that, for example, we have not one but two feet of God [voiced, from on high, by John Cleese] and we could make the clouds three-dimensional surfaces for projections. The Broadway side of the show [with songs that cheerfully send up gays, Jews in the theatre, and Andrew Lloyd Webber] wasn't as strong as it would become in the final script, so I had to create a whole language for those numbers.”
Where the sets are concerned, one “linguistic” parody, involving the lavishly tacky Camelot, was in fact unintentional. “I had in mind Disney World, but when I submitted the models everyone said, ‘It looks just like the Excalibur Hotel in Vegas.’” Hatley recalls. “So I had to go out there to have a look. I have to say, ours is better; our turrets light up, and I can't understand why theirs don't.”
For the “Knights of the Round Table” number, and in most of the 20 other scenes, a lot of “big pieces of stuff” have to shuffle on and off in a hurry. “In England, the minute you say, ‘I want this to move onstage,’ everyone screams and goes into fits and says, ‘You can't motorize anything.’ Three people have to push it,” Hatley says. “But on Broadway, Hudson Scenic, which is just wonderful, comes at you with computers and motors and wheels.” Scenic Art Studios, Chicago Scenic Studios, and Hawkeye Scenic Studios also contributed to the set construction.
And then there is the Very Expensive Forest. The designer says it is made from cut cloth mounted on netting, with “a little zing” supplied by UV paint splashed around that is frontlit by the projectors. “In Python style, it's absolutely the cheapest thing in the show,” Hatley says.
Looking like a million dollars is the show's leading lady — no, not Python's Terry Jones in a variety of frumpy frocks, but an actual woman, Sara Ramirez, who shines in the Broadway-shtick numbers like “The Song That Goes Like This.” She plays the Lady in the Lake, and Hatley did her up in classic Pre-Raphaelite style. “Accompanying her are her Laker Girls, cheerleaders who shed their seaweed for grass skirts,” he says, in one of the funnier usages of the more than 200 costumes he created. [Scott Traugott and Ilona Somogyi assisted, with the outfits executed by companies including Barbara Matera Ltd., Carelli Costumes, EuroCo Costumes, Parsons-Meares, and Tricorne.]
“I set out with my normal approach of supporting the scenic and costume design and just making it fun,” says Vanstone of his contribution. Unlike the rest of the design team, “I didn't strive to be Gilliamesque — I'm not sure how you would do that in light.”
Indeed, the Holy Grail film has an overcast, Dark Ages look to it that doesn't exactly set the toes to tapping. What Vanstone could do, however, was augment the hellzapoppin' approach onstage with plenty of movement. The Spamalot rig, which shed a few units in the move from Chicago to New York, includes approximately 125 moving lights, including VARI*LITE 2000™ spots and washes, VL5 and 5B stipples, VL3000Qs™, and VL1000s™, plus Martin MAC 2000s. “It's almost all moving lights overhead and a small amount of conventional crosslight.” Fourth Phase supplied the lighting, which also features Robert Juliat Aramis followspots, GAM FX/Loops, and Altman UV-705 blacklight floodlights.
Vanstone opted for Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® PC control, which he says had worked so well for him on his last Broadway musical, Bombay Dreams. “The greatest challenge was lighting around the clouds; I always knew it would be. Backlight is particularly lacking in some scenes because the geometry forbids it, but the clouds are such a brilliant framing device it's definitely worth the compromise. Having Elaine McCarthy's and Greg Meeh's expertise was a huge bonus and they became integral to the design process as we went along.”
He adds that associate LD Philip S. Rosenberg, moving light programmer Laura Frank, and assistant LD John Viesta “did an absolutely amazing job and working with them and the rest of the creative team made the whole experience almost totally joyous. “My lasting memory of Spamalot will be of times spent laughing helplessly with Tim Hatley — literally gasping for breath — as the ideas got sillier and sillier,” Vanstone says. “Not many people get paid to do that for a living.”
Back home, Hatley would handle makeup and hair design himself, but Stateside those tasks were delegated to Joseph A. Campayno and David Brian Brown, an Emmy nominee for his work with Nichols on the HBO adaptation of Angels in America. Brown recalls just one hair-raising moment, when Nichols decided in Chicago that Hyde Pierce's planned red hair “was just too much,” and there was another key change when it was decided that Ramirez should have “a softer, more glamorous look.” Spamalot is one hirsute show; 50 wigs, stitched from human hair, and 18 beards and mustaches, are used, with only Azaria (who spends most of the show in helmets or other head gear) follically intact throughout. Brown, who looked to the Holy Grail film for inspiration, employed three different wigmakers (including Ray Marston Wig Studio Ltd. and Bob Kelly Wig Creations) on the show, who took up to a week to make the precisely knotted pieces.
“The wigs, when finished, had the actor's identical hairline and fit like a glove, leaving me to cut and style as if it actually was the actor's head,” Brown says. “The wig maintenance — shampooing, styling, and conditioning — is done during the day, while they're off the actors' heads, allowing them to come in at the half-hour mark and make their transformation in minutes.”
Transformations to the show affected Meeh and McCarthy. Plans to conjure the infamous killer rabbit, the final hurdle to the grail quest, from the smoke-and-mirrors of projections and effects were dropped in favor of the simple (and simply hilarious) hand puppet idea Hatley first had for the sequence, which takes place in a lair he says is “not unlike that of the Teletubbies.” While classic routines like the knights who say “Ni!” were retained, Nichols, who said “Nix!,” removed a Marlene Dietrich-like turn by Ramirez and a witch-burning number enroute from Chicago to New York.
“Mike has a real willingness to try anything but no fear to eliminate the unnecessary,” says Meeh, who developed pyrotechnic and atmospheric effects for the show, all with Le Maitre equipment. “When there are effects onstage it is essential to plan with the choreography and staging to ensure the safety of the performers. Tim has an exceptional understanding of traditional theatrical design and the ability to apply it to this wacky aesthetic, while Hugh gave us great support balancing light levels and direction to keep the impact of the fog and haze effects while maintaining the dramatic focus.”
Magic consultant Marshall Magoon added a little sleight of hand to the proceedings, during which, for example, the increasingly dismembered Black Knight falls apart not in a shower of fake blood but in trails of red ribbons that erupt from his costume when his limbs are severed (an illusion executed by Entertainment Design & Fabrication).
McCarthy had plenty of tricks up her sleeve as well. “To be invited to the grown-ups table was very reassuring,” she says. “Projections are more often than not the red-headed stepchild.”
Much of her design unspools on The Mighty Portcullis, the imposing wooden gate that acts as the show curtain. [Be sure not to loiter in the lobby during intermission, as this is when a projection sequence on its surface that cleverly, and at first subtly, maps out how the second act takes place.] “Keeping with the Python style, it made sense to segue from live actors on stage to an animated world of cartoon French people throwing baguettes, cows, and a wooden rabbit,” McCarthy says. “After studying the style of Gilliam's work, it became apparent that two of the bigger challenges were going to be recreating the very simplistic, analog style of the movement of the animations with digital tools, and determining how far to go with the sound accompanying the animations.” Vermilion Border Productions animated McCarthy's creation with a cow-flying fervor.
For equipment, McCarthy says, “the projector we use is the 10,000 ANSI lumen Christie LX100. For playback we use Dataton Watchout, which is controlled by an Artistic Licence Common Sense that translates DMX from the lighting desk into the serial command strings the Watchout system needs. As the Christie LX100 does not have a physical shutter, a Wybron Gel Scroller was used to black out the light that comes from the projector even when there is no image.”
The design worked around the limitations of the projector. “A single 10,000 ANSI lumen projector was not bright enough to hold its own on low-gain, non-projection screen surfaces in musical stage lighting. However, any projector that would be bright enough was going to be too big, loud, and expensive,”says McCarthy. “With the collaboration of the staff at Scharff Weisberg, we determined that our best solution was to converge two LX100s on our largest, flattest surface (the downstage portcullis), then through a combination of Watchout and multiple picture and movie files to shift content individually according to its focal plane. For example, when the animation appears in which a team of God's angels scurry onstage carrying the Holy Grail to reveal to King Arthur and his knights, the angels and Grail appear on four different sets of ‘cloud headers,’ each at a different focal plane. The solution was to divide the cue into four different movies playing simultaneously, each positioned pixel-by-pixel in Watchout to converge according to the focal plane they are hitting.”
The “most difficult part” was with cues that had many layers of content, the designer says. “The first cue of the show is built with 30 transparent layers of content, including a map, knights, castles, and a black plague cloud,” McCarthy explains. “It was built with so many layers so that individual items could be positioned to fall cleanly on the portcullis. Every time anything was repositioned it had to be repositioned in both projectors, for a possible total of 60 files to be moved. The process could get time-consuming.”
Ably assisting McCarthy in creating the surreal Gilliam-esque projections were associate projection designer Gareth Smith, assistant projection designer Ari Sachter Zeltzer, and projection programmers Randolph S. Briggs and Paul Vershbow.
McCarthy worked closely with Acme Sound Partners to give the projections further resonance. “We don't often get the opportunity to do post-production audio in the theatre, so tricking up the sound for the video playback on the show was great fun,” says partner Nevin Steinberg. “Elaine would provide us with scratch QuickTime renderings of the animations, and we would mark them up for sound in ProTools, and get back to her with accompanying sound files for her video playback and projection system. For the sing-along at the finale, we were able do scratch recordings for her in the theatre, which gave her guide tracks for the animation.”
Acme had worked with Nichols on a Delacorte production of The Seagull and on Idle's Greedy Bastard Tour. Steinberg says their audio discussions were largely academic in nature. “There were the delicious discussions about exactly what that cow should sound like when it flies over the battlements, or just how many farts it takes to make just the right impact. As you might have guessed, we had some laughs.”
Acme quickly adapted to the show's “anything goes” approach, working with Hatley to figure out the many microphone placement issues and production manager Gene O'Donovan (at Aurora Productions) on “shared-space issues within the theatre, where real estate is very tight.”
“We did Gypsy at the Shubert just few years ago, so we had a very good idea about where to start with the sound system. But we knew that we would need more agility in our routing, so we specified a DiGiCo D5T front-of-house mixing console. That choice ensured us plenty of I/O, on-board processing, and real-time routing flexibility,” Steinberg says.
“There are loudspeakers all over the set, in the props and of course on every surface of the room. The DiGiCo allowed us quick access to all of it,” he continues. “To add to the fun, most of the actors play multiple characters, and wear several transmitters, and there are microphones in helmets, hats, stockings, and scenery. The D5T's Alias feature is unique in its ability to track EQ, processing and routing changes in real time, so we were able to stay well ahead of the complex matrix of microphone/character changes, and even the playing styles of certain chairs in the orchestra pit on a moment-to-moment basis. Plus, the desk sounds great, and operates much like an analog console for the engineer. Once we were underway, we could really focus on what mattered: making the show sound good.”
Steinberg credits engineer Bones Malone and the advance and deck sound men, Mike Wojick and Randy Morrison, for their work. PRG Audio supplied the gear. “The rest of the sound system is a selection of the high-quality equipment we have come to depend on. Most of it worked extremely well the last time we were in the Shubert and so made its return.”
The equipment includes L'Acoustics, Meyer, d&b and EAW loudspeakers, Sennheiser SK-5012/EM-3532 wireless, DPA lavaliers and head-worn boom mics, plus Crown, d&b and Labgruppen amplifiers, XTA speaker processing, and T.C. Electronics outboard reverbs and effects. DPA, Neumann, AKG, Accusound and Sennheiser microphones are used in the orchestra pit, and playback is through Stage Research SFX Pro Audio Show Control. “It sounds like a kitchen-sink list, but we like to be application-specific in our equipment choices,” Steinberg says.
With Spamalot on its way along the Great White Way, Hatley has begun production design work on Eyre's next film, an adaptation of the Zoe Heller novel What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal. On opening night, he reports that he and the rest of the design team got the review that they wanted, the one that mattered most, as their quest to unleash Python on a Broadway stage came to its end. “Terry Gilliam was there, and he was very, very positive about the show.”
Robert Cashill writes on arts and entertainment from New York.