While I may not be Arthur, King of the Britains, I am on a noble quest to discover as many incredible details as I can as I take you behind-the-scenes at Toby’s Dinner Theatre’s newest production of Monty Python’s Spamalot. In this introductory piece to a six-part interview series, I sat down with Director/Choreographer Mark Minnick to get a glimpse at what it was like putting together a big musical comedy based on one of Britain’s most iconic humorous films. The series will continue as we meet King Arthur and his trusty sidekick Patsy, the knights of the round table, and the Lady of the Lake.
Glad to have you here with us, Mark. Refresh our readers about the last show you directed and choreographed in the DC area.
Mark Minnick: Last summer I directed and choreographed Legally Blonde right here at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. I’m happy to be back.
What makes you so excited about getting this chance to direct Monty Python’s Spamalot at Toby’s Dinner Theatre?
Well, I’ve been involved with Spamalot for about four years now. I work with a company that produces national and international touring musicals and we were lucky enough to secure Spamalot as one of our productions. I’ve had three years working with this show, casting this show, maintaining the show, and I also got a lot of pearls of wisdom from B. T. McNichol, who was the Associate Director for the Broadway production. Over the years I got to learn about Spamalot, I got to learn how they took the movie and used the best parts of it to create the musical. What they had to add, why; just the whole process of figuring out the musical and making it accessible to everybody and not just Python fans.
I think doing it in the round is an exciting challenge. I think this is my fourth or fifth show that I’m directing at Toby’s and I actually find working in the round more exciting because it is challenging. It’s a more honest and natural space. The props and costumes for this show make it even more of a challenge for this space. It was an interesting thing trying to figure out how I would utilize certain special effects in the show in the round that were originally designed for the proscenium or film. How would I make that work? And I think we were pretty successful when we all sat down and talked about some of the challenges we were going to be met with. What we had to just throw away and start from scratch, what we could use and adapt, or what we could look at in a different way.
I think one of our biggest challenges in that regard was the Black Knight. I think we came up with the best solution that we could for the round. A friend of mine has a great quote that applies: “You buy the premise, you buy the bit.” We know we’re not really going to lose all his actual limbs, but how do we make it look that way. I think you buy it, you buy into it and I think we made it work.
What has it meant to you to get to put this particular show on, given your history with it, in a space that you find so challenging and so rewarding?
I found that directing and choreographing this show came at a perfect time for me, actually. I knew I was going to do this many, many months ago. I had some situations in my life occur, and when those situations came to an end, the next day was one of my first rehearsals for Spamalot. It couldn’t have come at a better time for me because it is so funny, so silly, so joyous, so uplifting.
Why do it at Toby’s? Well I have a great relationship with Toby and I have a great relationship with the talent that works at Toby’s. People always say “New York Talent. New York Talent.” Well, there’s no difference to me where talent comes from. Talent doesn’t discriminate. Talent is talent, whether it chooses to live in New York, whether it chooses to live in the Washington D.C. area or whether it is equity or non-equity. Talent is talent and I think Toby’s has incredibly strong talent that works there consistently. I think we’ve got a fantastic cast and incredibly strong people that fit these roles perfectly. And people are doing roles that are different than what they may typically do.
A lot of these people have also been my friends and co-workers, co-performers for many years but while I enjoy ‘working with my friends’ I want to be clear that I don’t just hand parts out to my friends because they are my friends. Nobody gets in one of my shows without auditioning, whether I know them or not. People that have worked with me many times still have to come and audition for my production. I feel that’s part of the process. You have to come in and show me what you have and what you want and I’ll cast whoever I feel is the best. I’ve worked with many people at Toby’s that I have then proceeded to cast on tours that are now in Broadway shows. And that’s not to say that I put them there, but as a stepping stone they’ve gone through this process with me. I will do an open call audition to see what new talent is out there. There are a lot of new people to Toby’s in this production and they’re pretty darn great.
It’s a joy to spend time working with people that I like on and off the stage and to see how hard they work for me. Yes we’re friends, but at the theatre we’re Director and Actor, and they give 100% all the time. They will always try something I ask even if they may disagree with me. They’ll try it because they trust me and know I am looking at the big picture. It makes it easier because I know I’m coming in with strong talent that is going to deliver, work with me to create something special and not just imitate something else. The fact that these people respect me is greatly appreciated. I do come in prepared, I do work hard, I do care, I always give my all and therefore it’s impossible for them not to give their all. I also will not accept anything less than the best that they can give. I push people harder than I think that they are typically pushed because I know what they have, I know what I want and I won’t accept anything that isn’t the best that it can be. I’ll keep showing up and giving notes until the week before the show closes because every audience deserves the best that these people have to give.
Spamalot is a fantastic show. It’s special. It’s a show that bonds people. It’s a fun, joyous, great experience but it’s a hard show to do. It’s deceptive in its simplicity. It really is a tough show. The ensemble works incredibly hard on and off stage. I think when people come together and accomplish a difficult task and create something that they’re really proud of a special bond is created and it shows onstage.
Tell us a little about the only female lead role in the show, the Lady of the Lake.
For me, an incredibly strong performance in the production comes from Priscilla Cuellar as our Lady of the Lake. I have worked with Priscilla two other times, the last being Legally Blonde here at Toby’s, she played Paulette and she won the Helen Hayes for Supporting Actress in a Musical – well deserved! She’s one of my favorites. I think she’s fantastic. She’s just the right amount of heightened honesty, she’s got a fantastic stage presence and the woman can sing anything. I love working with her, and again she’s respectful, she brings something to the table, she comes prepared, and she has ideas. I can’t say enough good things about her. I’d work with her any chance I get. I think people who come to see Spamalot will be blown away because, again— she’s phenomenal.
How do you grapple with the challenge doing a comic musical and keep from just being a group of actors who are up on stage singing and dancing while trying to be funny? Or a group of actors who are singing and dancing and trying to do Monty Python?
Great. One thing I learned from my experience with Spamalot is that the actors are not funny, the material is funny. So what we try to do is be really honest with the situations. It’s a simple story about King Arthur trying to find knights to join him on his quest. They find out halfway through that their quest is to find the Holy Grail and along the way they run into absurd characters and absurd situations. For us, as an audience, it’s better to sit back and watch them encounter the Black Knight and decide what’s funny for ourselves. Not for the actor to try and be funny. No need to slap it in our face and tell us “this is funny, see. This show is a laugh-a-minute, so I think for the actors the challenge will be to maintain the honest simplicity of the show, and just actually connect with each other and talk.
What was the challenge for you as the choreographer in finding exciting new routines for a show that you’ve spent so much time with?
What is exciting to me is seeing who I have, what they have to offer, and creating from there. Plus, being that this show is in the round it creates a lot of obstacles because you always have to keep focus. When there’s too much going on, you lose focus or you lose the lead of a number to an ensemble crowding the stage. So it’s about finding the right focus without losing energy, fullness, and character. And that’s a fun challenge I embrace. Also getting to see what the level of talent that I’m working with is, not everyone comes in with great dance knowledge. And I don’t look for that either. I look for the best overall talent that I thought would fit the show. And that includes being able to understudy roles, and fill all the small in-and-outs during the show. So I cast them and then I say, “OK, now I’m going to create with what I have.” So I pushed people a little more, I pushed people and realized that may not work and that we need to go in a different direction and that’s always fun.
Was it hard to stay away from what I had seen many, many times, for three or four years? Absolutely. But it was also time for me to say “What would I do?” And at the end of the day I want to be proud of the work that I did and not somebody else’s work that I just re-put up. And again, the show is the show so the Black Knight’s legs and arms may or may not fall off…the “Ni Knights” are going to enter, there’s a lot that’s going to look similar but I think it’s going to feel like a very, very different production. I think Python fans are going to get exactly what they want to see and what they expect and people who aren’t Python fans are going to be thrilled. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of Python or not, Spamalot IS for everyone. The humor is just silly and fun and obvious and not obvious; it’s a little bit of everything. I think it’s the perfect musical comedy for everyone.
You’re reading my mind on these questions, I was just about to say how are you making this appealing to people who either don’t know Monty Python, or people who don’t like Monty Python? What is it that you’re doing to make people want to see this particular show regardless of how they feel about Monty Python?
I would hope that people would give it a chance. It is not a Monty Python movie. It is a musical comedy, lovingly ripped-off from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Right? Right. So they’re going to get what a typical Broadway musical comedy gives you: glitz, beautiful showgirls, great dancing, silly funny humor. I think the set design and the lights are fantastic. David Hopkins was my scenic designer. I always work with David and Lighting Designer Coleen Foley because they know how I work and we communicate well. They don’t get defensive with me if I have notes or comments because we’re all working towards creating the best show we can create, and I think they deliver.
I’d say if you think that the Monty Python movie isn’t for you, well I thought that way back too. And I said it without really having a great Python knowledge. A friend of mine was playing Galahad in the Broadway production so I went to see him thinking, “Oh, am I going to like this? I’m not really that big of a fan of Monty Python.” I thought they did a fantastic job of making it work for everybody; Python fan, not Python fan, it works. Give it a second chance. You know, if you didn’t like one restaurant’s guacamole, give another restaurant’s guacamole a try before you decide you don’t like guacamole, because guacamole is DELICIOUS, and while the food item Spam may not be as delicious, the musical SPAMALOT is! I think if somebody says they don’t like Python and then they don’t come see Spamalot at Toby’s, they’re missing out on something really special. And they then might want to go revisit a Monty Python movie or two.
What has been the most fun element of this whole process for you?
The most fun I have had is, again, working with my friends. These are people who I respect on and off the stage. Seeing them, not just be good, but be really good. And when we work together and I see growth from the last rehearsal; that really makes me happy inside. I’ve made a difference. I’m making a difference.
What has meant the most to me about this production? Again, the respect that I am shown as a director, as a choreographer, by Toby, her staff and by the cast that I’m working with. People show up for a rehearsal at 10 in the morning and they’re not complaining about being tired, they’re not walking through the rehearsal. They’re giving me their 100% and when I say that doesn’t work for me, or I want more or I want to try something, they do it. And they do it with a smile on their face. They were and are incredibly respectful and that goes a long way with me.
Do you have a moment that inspires you to laugh in this production no matter how it gets played out?
Yes. Well, the show is filled with everything. There’s big, silly production numbers, but to me, I think one of the best moments of the show and one of the funniest is one of the simplest. It’s the “I’m All Alone” number. When King Arthur is on his quest, he’s found no knights to join him and he’s all alone. Now, I won’t give away what happens from there, but it always brings a smile to my face. It’s hilarious and touching. I just think it’s perfectly constructed in its simplicity. It’s smartly hilarious.
Any other reason we should come see Spamalot at Toby’s?
Need I say it again, the show is hysterical. There’s not much out there these days where you can come, sit back, laugh your face off, and leave with a smile. You know the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life?” It’s a great message, delivered differently than the movie version, but it’s a great message. It’s important, and I think people might leave a dramatic show these days and there’s a lot of heavy shows out there these days, but they’ll leave that sort of show feeling touched and moved and they talk about that. But I think when something really touches your funny bone I think people talk about that more. So I’m really hoping that people come and they talk about what a great time they had, and that word of mouth spreads. That they tell everyone how they sat there with a big smile on their face, what a fantastic time they had, and tell their friends not to miss it because the performances are great! I think Toby’s has succeeded again in delivering quality work that deserves sold-out houses every night.