You understand fully that it will not be a typical show when a horn player grabs a scarred metal flask and asks, “Is this the tequila or the scotch?”
The musicians are as usual dressed in all-black, as is required, fitting for the funereal event about to unfold. But it is not entirely somber as the musicians who play such numbers as “Find Your Grail,” “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway” and “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life” in Monty Python’s Spamalot. The brilliant but ill-fated musical is closing, and I am seated in the belly of the beast for the finale, behind my French-horn playing friend Beth Lano and in front of guitarist Larry Esparza, who is remarkably patient and focused as I continually slam my elbow into his music stand as I take notes and adjust my ear buds, which are plugged into the feed that allows us to listen to the orchestra mix and the show onstage.
The pit is aptly titled: dark, cramped, dank, musty, cavernlike and not at all glamorous. No preening, no choreography, no show-stopping moves are preformed in the pit. A total of 12 musicians are packed in tightly, sort of like being ensconced in a can of Spam. The conductor, Wayne Green, toasts the group with a glass of red wine poured by violinist Lisa Viscuglia and says, “Here we go, kids.” The players watch sets of glowing monitors, which show Green in black and white and the stage in murky color. This is how they take in the finale, disjointed from the audience so it’s often difficult to detect how the performance “plays” to the theater. Jokes that usually draw a roar from the crowd – “How can you tell he’s the king?” “He’s not covered in s***!” – soar off into the great unknown.
The music feels mechanical, but is beautiful nonetheless. After the first few numbers, the “Fisch Schlapping Song,” “King Arthur’s Song,” and “He is Not Dead Yet,” Green blows a kiss toward the camera and triumphantly flings the sheet music to the floor, which is already covered with the circular confetti dropped from the rafters after every show.
The musicians sweat, a lot. To my left is percussionist Mark Pardy, the boy in the bubble, surrounded by thick plastic glass. I feel the continual pounding of his foot pedal on the bass drum, even through the bubble. I turn toward him and he’s soaked. He catches my eye, grins and throws another blow to the snare. To my right, next to Beth, is the great trumpet player Gary Cordell, who picks up the famed “Spamahorn,” a blue-painted instrument bedazzled with rhinestones and fashioned from PVC pipe, one last time. He plays “Call To The Post,” too aggressively, the point in the show where Green pretends to shoot him dead. Cordell plays the Spamahorn in a downward spiral of notes, pretending to meet his demise. Funny, as usual, but also a little sad on this occasion. Cordell should be allowed to keep the horn, for posterity.
The show moves along, crisply, and during the scene leading to the wild number, “He is Not Dead Yet,” where hooded characters stride across the stage and pound their heads with bibles, smoke fills the stage. It also fills the orchestra pit in a cloud so thick it brings tears to my eyes and causes me to gag. I ask if this happens every night and Beth says, “It used to be worse.” The pit is the final stop for confetti and smoke, and on several occasions, the head of the knight who tangles unsuccessfully with the killer rabbit has tumbled into Green’s lair. At least once, the giant cow was catapulted onto the violinists, and limbs of the bravely clueless Black Knight have also fallen to the orchestra. Break a leg, yes.
I look around at the musicians’ keepsakes, which will be taken later from the space. A little megaphone. A killer rabbit puppet. Little Christmas stockings. Near the back, a poster of the similarly inspired Avenue Q, another Tony Award-winning musical that proved luckless in Vegas. It’s Lucy T. Slut, showing cleavage behind the message, “Warning: Full Puppet Nudity.” It hangs back there on this last show, looking almost like a tombstone.
One stirring moment: During the French Castle scene, in which a number of stereotyped French figures take to the stage, we hear Green abruptly announce, “Julie is onstage!” That’s Julie Taber, a cast member who has been fighting cancer and was spotted before the show in the lobby with a bandanna wrapped around her head. She hasn’t performed in months, but made the finale, high-stepping across the stage as a cancan dancer.
There are countless such nostalgic moments. Cordell has tucked cast photos inside the sheet music of each musician, so when a page is turned a happy murmur sweeps through the pit. Before "You Won't Succeed on Broadway," Reed player Dennis Wilson, captain of Team Jocularity in the Spam pit, fires a rubber band up toward Green (who is as omnipresent figure high above orchestra as the John Cleese-voiced God in the production), and narrowly misses the conductor’s head. “Oh! Damn!” Wilson calls out, laughing. Later he hands out tickets to the post-show party at Lucky Strike, which will keep much of the crew out most of the night.
There are moments that make clear, as lead John O’Hurley said prior to the show, that it was not the fault of the performers that the production failed to “meet its numbers” and is giving way to the relentlessly reliable Danny Gans. If there were a list of the best scenes of Las Vegas productions, past or present, the taunting guard in The French Castle – “Geet out of he-ar, you son of a window dresser, or I will be forced to taunt you again!” – and the killer rabbit – during which O’Hurley’s apoplectic “Jesus Christ! drew laughs from musicians who had seen the show nightly since March 2007 – would be on it.
At show’s end, O’Hurley -- as the show’s star, also its de facto leader and spokesman – walked out for a final bow with his 18-month old son, William Dylan, in tow. William was just a month old when the show opened in Vegas, and as O’Hurley said, “I want you to remember a night in Las Vegas when your father held you on a stage, and he was the happiest you ever saw him.” By then the musicians were craning their necks to see what was happening onstage. O’Hurley also praised Green and the orchestra, rightfully so.
The end was not dramatic, hardly theatrical in any sense. I expected a big group hug and lots of tears but witnessed neither. There were some moist eyes, to be sure, but these people are pros and will make money playing music on (or under) another stage, soon enough. It was O’Hurley who told the group, on the night it was announced the show would close, that show business is a business, and the list of shows he has closed is quite long. He has even referred to himself, half in jest, as “The Killer.”
As the group funneled out I caught up with Green, the lone member of the orchestra required to wear a tux. I congratulated him, and he bent over and seemed to be looking for something on the floor of the pit.
“Sheet music,” he said. “I can’t leave without my sheet music.”