On October 23, 2009, The Royal Albert Hall in London hosted an oratorio, a night of singing and orchestral music from a choir, symphony, and soloists. The performers were in their formal wear. The conductor wore tails. The house was packed. It was like a scene from an especially tony episode of PBS’ “Great Performances.” Or, at least, it was… until a man strode onto the Albert Hall stage in full drag, wig and pearls, to introduce and narrate the evening’s entertainment: a one-night-only performance of “Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy),” a spoof of Handel’s “The Messiah” based on Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” The man in drag was one of those Pythons, Michael Palin. The “Baritonish” soloist to his left was fellow Python alum Eric Idle, who wrote “Not the Messiah” with his longtime musical collaborator John Du Prez.
Idle has the sort of career that makes him seem ill-suited to his last name. He’s spent the years since Python’s dissolution in the early 1980s not only acting, but writing (most famously the Broadway musical “Spamalot” with Du Prez, but also several novels and non-fiction books) and touring (with shows like “Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python”) as well.
Though Idle and Du Prez had already performed “Not the Messiah” in more than a dozen times all over the world, last fall’s concert at the Albert Hall, documented in the new DVD of the same name, was special, publicly reuniting four of the five surviving Pythons — Idle, Palin, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam — for the first time in years. I spoke with Idle about the origin of the project, setting Python to music, and why he’s glad “Flying Circus”‘s success in the United States came after the series had already ended in England.
You said on the recent Monty Python documentary series “Almost the Truth” that the origins of “Life of Brian” came on the “Holy Grail” press tour, when a journalist asked you what was next for Python and you responded, “Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory.” Did something similar happen for “Not the Messiah” while you were doing press for “Spamalot”?
No it came about because my cousin, Peter Oundjian, who’s the principal conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, wanted us to work together on some kind of comedy that could bring people back into the symphony hall, especially young people. I thought that was a nice idea but I didn’t know what it should be. When I thought about it, I realized, “My gosh, ‘The Messiah’ — what about ‘Not the Messiah?’ It’ll be really perfect. We’ll tell the story of Brian and we’ll treat it as if it were a grand oratorio with real singers and opera people. That will add to the mock heroic quality and make it funnier.”
This seems like a much more challenging endeavor than just making “Brian” into “Spamalot 2” on Broadway.
Oh yeah, it’s much more musical. We had 240 musicians. And it’s always challenging whenever we do it, because you usually just get one day with the orchestra to practice the whole thing, this complex piece of music. Normally you’d have three or four days, and the choir would have rehearsed it, and the soloists have rehearsed it. But each place we go — if we go to Washington, we have to get the Washington Symphony Orchestra. We go to Houston, we have to get the Houston Symphony Orchestra. Each time is a huge, new job. It’s not like a musical that you can just tour.
Did you re-watch “Life of Brian” as you were writing the libretto?
Not really, because I tried to think about “The Messiah,” not the movie. In England they also have this thing called the Nine Carols service where the head shepherds announce things and tell the story; that was also in my mind as being similar to the structure of what we’re doing here, telling a story about a woman who gets knocked up by a Roman centurion and gives birth to Brian in a cowshed and then the tragedy of him being mistaken for a messiah.
Were you a “Messiah” fan?
I love “The Messiah.” It’s the most wonderful piece of music. But it’s been bizarre because we’ve gone to places where they’ve done ten nights of “The Messiah” and we were on the last night as “Not The Messiah.” [laughs]