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Good to Be the King

Camelot is a very silly -- and very musical -- place in Spamalot

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Even when the quest for the Holy Grail is cockeyed, comically deformed and totally devoid of sanctity, leading it as King Arthur in Monty Python's Spamalot is a job reserved for true royalty.

Tim Curry, who wore Arthur's crown in the original Broadway production, had ascended the throne of stardom nearly 25 years earlier in the title role of Amadeus -- an import brought to these shores by the Royal National Theatre.

Likewise, Australian native Michael Siberry, the actor who carries the crown into Ovens Auditorium next Tuesday, holding court through December 10. Siberry first landed on Broadway in 1986 playing the title role in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, a revival presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company. He has also been featured on Broadway opposite Dustin Hoffman in The Merchant of Venice and starred in the 1998 revival of The Sound of Music as the venerable Captain Georg von Trapp.

So it's not surprising that director Mike Nichols and the Spamalot production team would chase after Siberry for their national tour. The question is why Siberry, after playing such eminent personages in London as Billy Flynn in Chicago and Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream, would want to endure a succession of hotel rooms in St. Louis, Charlotte, Detroit and Ft. Lauderdale. The indignity! Night after night, Siberry is questing for Christendom's most cherished prize, mere coconuts substituting for a king's caparisoned steed. How can he stoop so low?

We figure that Siberry has a lot to answer for. That's why we picked up the phone and asked the tough questions, long distance to St. Louis:

CL: You've been with the Royal Shakespeare Company, you've shared the stage with Dustin Hoffman, and you've played the title role in Nicholas Nickleby. Now you're touring with the silliest show ever to win the Tony Award for Best Musical. Aren't you thoroughly ashamed of yourself?

Michael Siberry: No, not at all! It's just like a logical extension of classical theater to be doing Spamalot. I'm playing the King with all kinds of bits from legend.

It's good to be the King?

Yeah, it is. Even when you're just sort of bungling and struggling, people still pay attention to you and all of that. It's a great experience.

Your biography isn't exactly brimming with musical comedy experience. So did they have to seek you out, persuade you, hogtie you to take this role?

No, not at all. I grew up with Monty Python, like a lot of people of my generation. So I'm familiar with a lot of the sketches and the characters. So to have the chance to actually get onstage and perform it is thrilling. I just rolled up for the audition, and they asked me to do it. So I'm happy. It's a good release after some heavier roles.

Preparing to play King Arthur, do you go back to the Holy Grail movie, do you try to go to the theater, or do you devoutly avoid all of that?

No, I remember the movie -- the images from Monty Python are very strong, and they kind of stick with you. Basically, I just picked up the script for Spamalot, which is just great, and just took it as it came off the page. Spamalot is a kind of thing of itself. It's the Monty Python version of a Broadway musical, if you like. There are a lot of great takeoffs of Broadway conventions in the style of other musicals, and it's great to be able to sort of send them up slightly, not take them too seriously.

Now, of course, the movie is famous for all the multitudinous transformations that the Monty Python ensemble was able to do, obviously with hours of time in the makeup room. Just how does it differ in that respect?

Well, it's the same. I'm the only character who stays virtually in the same role from beginning to end. Everybody else is playing about three or four different roles, and there's a lot of quick changing backstage. It's quite an operation behind the scenes. The chorus girls have about three or four changes, at one point, during one number!

The anachronisms are obviously a key part of the fun.

Oh yeah, yeah. It's just ridiculous. I mean, I'm a king and I'm trying to maintain some kind of dignity, but reality just keeps coming up and the absurdity of it keeps hitting you in the face. You just try and maintain a stiff upper lip through all sorts of ridiculous situations ...

Did they have Laker girls back then?

No, but the Lady of the Lake   it's a logical progression. She has her retinue. So yeah, there's a lot of cross-referencing to various idioms and times. We don't just live in the Middle Ages. We update it.

Is it also healthy from the standpoint that it mocks everything you've built your career on and stood for?

Yeah. Well, every time you do a serious piece of classical theater, it's always bordering on the absurd at some point. When you're going through this high drama, you think anything can happen, and suddenly it becomes just hysterical. They say tragedy and comedy are very close together. So yeah, I think it's very good for you -- keeps your feet on the ground, doesn't make you pompous.

We would all be very disappointed or terribly upset if Eric Idle ever grew up, wouldn't we?

Yeah. He has a great take on most things, and Mike Nichols as well has an extraordinary sense of the absurd.

If the essence of Monty Python is Eric Idle, can we see him as the British public school kid who's been trapped into Shakespeare courses or all this pompous Arthurian stuff and just wants to stick his tongue out and escape the whole thing?

Oh, absolutely. It's just taking a good look at what's ridiculous and absurd and poking fun at everything -- in a very kind of gentle way. You try to move in one direction, and then life just comes and slaps you down and tells you, "That's not going to work." So you have to try something new. And it's great to always maintain a sense of humor while you're doing it -- to "Look on the Bright Side." There's no message to the show, but I guess, if anything, it's "Always look on the bright side of life."

Like that Mark Twain warning: Anybody who finds a message in this show will be shot?

Yeah, that's it. Just have a good time; don't think too much about it.

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