'Spamalot' looks to be a 'Producers'-sized smash

NEW YORK — Not since 2001, when Bialystock and Bloom rolled into town in “The Producers,” has Broadway bristled with such anticipation of a major hit. This time, the theater biz is buzzing as King Arthur and his motley knights ride in with “Monty Python’s Spamalot.”

The show opened Thursday night at the Shubert Theater with a hefty advance of $18 million, wrapping more than $300,000 a day in sales. While not a record, those figures are big enough to have producers smelling a sizable hit.

“I think we’ve managed to please both the Python fans and the people who’ve never seen Python with this show, which has always been our goal,” Monty Python alum Eric Idle said on opening night. Idle penned the show’s book and lyrics and co-composed the score with John Du Prez.

Described in the Playbill as “lovingly ripped off from the motion picture ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail,’ ” the show includes new songs alongside the movie’s “Knights of the Round Table,” even sneaking in perennial Python fave “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from “Life of Brian.”

“It’s been an amazing reception in New York,” Idle added. “I’m off to meet the other Pythons now; it’s the first time we’ve all been together in seven years.”

The advance for “Spamalot” bodes well for its future on Broadway. “The Producers” opened with $15.6 million in sales, which quickly ballooned to $40 million after the stellar reviews hit and rapturous word of mouth spread. “Spamalot” is playing in a smaller theater, however, with a 1,447-seat capacity; “The Producers” plays the St. James, which seats 1,664.

As “The Producers” did before it, “Spamalot” hits New York pumped up by a commercially and critically successful tryout run in Chicago.

Hits like “Hairspray” and Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays” both opened with advances in the $10 million region. Another current crowd-puller, “Wicked,” opened slightly lower at $9.6 million but shot up after opening and now boasts advance sales north of $30 million. “Wicked” and Abba tuner “Mamma Mia!” now regularly outgross “Producers” week by week.

All the current Broadway box office phenoms pale, however, next to such behemoths as “Miss Saigon,” which opened with a reported $37 million advance, or “Sunset Boulevard,” with $32 million. Even “The Phantom of the Opera” hit New York with sales of $19 million prior to opening. However, those figures are debated, since they included group sales (for which tickets are accounted but haven’t been sold).

Scarce seats

In any case, “Spamalot” has the Broadway community in an uncharacteristically optimistic mood, with cancellation lines occupying the block around the Shubert every night through the show’s packed preview period. According to ticket agent TeleCharge, a pair of center orchestra seats at either the regular top price of $101.25 or the premium $201.25 rate is impossible to find before August.

Those raised on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and the British comedy clan’s movies are swarming the theater, snapping up merchandise that strays far beyond the usual T-shirts, baseball caps and coffee mugs. In addition to cans of the luncheon meat from which the show takes its name, Spam, souvenir stands are offering fanged furry rabbits, Black Knight figurines and coconut halves to replicate the clippity-clop of horse’s hooves, going for a mere $15 a pair.

The show’s top-billed stars David Hyde Pierce, Tim Curry and Hank Azaria will appear with Idle on this morning’s “Today” show.

(Robert Hofler and Willa Paskin contributed to this report.)

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