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Eric Idle: An Oratorio for Brian

In June 2007, I spoke with Eric Idle of "Monty Python" fame about setting "The Life of Brian" in an oratorio, akin to Handel's "Messiah."

Every Christmas, choral groups take a crack at Handel's "Messiah," a time-tested oratorio that uses the Bible as its text.

Next Sunday, Caramoor presents "Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy)," a new oratorio for orchestra, chorus and soloists written by Eric Idle and John DuPrez, the team behind the Tony-winning musical "Spamalot."

Idle, of course, was a member of the "Monty Python" troupe, whose 1979 film "The Life of Brian" provides the unholy text for "Not the Messiah."

"Brian" tells the story of a boy born under a star in a stable in Bethlehem - but not the right stable. He spends his life as the reluctant focus of speculation that he is the Messiah - star, stable, Bethlehem - and ends up being crucified on a hill full of crucified men singing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life."

"Not the Messiah" got its world premiere earlier this month in Toronto, with the Toronto Symphony led by Peter Oundjian, Idle's first cousin.

Oundjian - Caramoor's artistic advisor and principal conductor of the Orchestra of St. Luke's - will lead the oratorio again next Sunday, joined on stage by Idle, the Collegiate Chorale and featured soloists Shannon Mercer, soprano; Jean Stilwell, mezzo-soprano; Christopher Sieber, tenor; and Theodore Baerg, bass-baritone.

Idle phoned from L.A. to chat about his oratorio.

We're coming up on the U.S. premiere of "Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy)" which is based on "The Life of Brian."

"I'm looking forward to it. It should be fun."

Not exactly an ancient holy text to start with, although it is nearly 30 years old.

"It is revered and it is worshiped by some people."

You trotted it out in Toronto earlier in the month...

" 'Trotting it out' when you spent two years writing it and doing three performances at a festival for no money is a little unkind..."

"We very kindly contributed our time and efforts and talent to entertaining 2,700 Canadians a night for three nights. And they very kindly responded by standing and cheering."

That's the response you want from an audience of Canadians.

"Yes. I'm not sure it's worth it, but it's good."

What did you learn there?

"I learned that Canadians are wonderful audiences. And that the oratorio works like crazy. Long after we're dead, people will be trying to do this as a funny thing to do."

Your conductor then - as now - is your cousin, Peter Oundjian, a Caramoor regular. Are your mothers sisters?

"Yes, exactly so."

He's a Toronto native, but you grew up together in England?

"I knew him since he was about 10."

You're obviously musical, having written the music for "The Life of Brian" and a little show called "Spamalot" ...

"I co-wrote "Spamalot" with John DuPrez..."

Does Peter's branch of the family tree share the comic gene - or is it recessive on that side of the family?

"Oh, yes, we have a common great grandparent who was a ringmaster, Henry Bertrand, in the 1880s, 1890s. He was also an agent and manager. I have one of his notepads and he managed my favorite act, Robey's Flying Midgets, an act I've been trying desperately to book."

How did "Not the Messiah" get started? Did Peter come to you or did you go to Peter?

"I saw Peter conduct here with the L.A. Symphony and he's visited us on the road and he said 'You've got to do something with me and an orchestra.' This was before he got the Toronto gig.

"I said, 'Sure, someday, that'd be nice, thinking in the future. But what do I do? Fine, I come onto the stage, everybody laughs, but now what do we do for an hour and a half?

"It was only after "Spamalot" that I thought, 'You know what would be hilarious would be to do an oratorio based on "The Life of Brian," because it's just such a perfect conceit. To have "The Life of Brian" treated as if it were the Bible and then do it as if you were Handel.' The oratorio is such a lovely form, and I don't think anyone's ever done a comic one."

Although, I listen to "Messiah" all the time, and every time I hear the line "We like sheep," I kind of think it's a joke.

"I love 'We like sheep,' too. I came across that gag as well. It says in the text 'We like sheep have gone astray,' but the two commas are missing."

And that's what makes it funny.

"Yes. We actually have a song in "Not the Messiah" that's 'We love sheep.'

"I love 'Messiah' as well. I play it every Sunday. I don't think of it as religious. It's just a brilliantly inspired piece with fabulous melodies."

And the "Hallelujah" chorus...

"We have 'Hail to the Shoe,' it's a bit of a change. It's done like Handel would do it. We had 105 musicians on stage in Toronto, with The Mendelssohn Choir and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. I don't think so many people have gathered to give people such a silly time ever.

"You know what was great? The orchestra had such a blast. And the choir had just come off singing Mahler's Fourth. They're really serious musicians and they're singing doo-wops. And there are bagpipe players and even a bit of Bob Dylan. This piece is not allowed to relax."

Your collaborator on this, as in all things musical, is John DuPrez. What does he bring to the partnership?

"He's an amazing composer in his own right and when you let him loose on a libretto, he comes up with fantastic melodies. We've been working together almost 30 years. He's a proper Oxford conductor."

Does he ground you a bit?

"He flies me. I'm the grounder. I'm fiddling with my guitar and he just says, 'What if we do this?' And he lifts it up.

"At one point, we have a Welsh boys choir. Don't ask. And I brought in this tune that I liked and he said, 'The chorus should go like this,' and he just lifts the roof off. You just feel the hairs rise on the back of your neck. I found it very hard on stage not to cry when that happened. It was very emotional."

You won't be reading the script of "Life of Brian" - although that would be funny - but what does "Not the Messiah" sound like?

"It's 60 minutes sung. There is a song 'What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?' It tells the story of Brian, but really it tells the story of his mother, Mandy Cohen, who was knocked up by a Roman soldier and gives birth in the stable next door on the very big night. It's kind of tragic, really, when you look at it through the story."

I understand we'll hear "When you're chewing on life's gristle. Don't grumble, give a whistle..."

"Oh, yes. 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,' which does end the movie. It has to end every evening we do."

That's right. You used it in "Spamalot," too.

"We used it in 'Spamalot' and we used it on tour. It's kind of a Python anthem. But it has a legitimate usage here, because it was in the movie."

It was great to see David Hyde Pierce win the Tony. (Hyde Pierce was Sir Robin in the original Broadway cast of "Spamalot.")

"It was lovely. I wrote to him. I said 'It could have happened to a nicer person, but it didn't.' (He laughs.) He's such a lovely person. He was what gave our show such a fine feeling and spirit. He led the company."

Do you ever stop and think, "Wow! We were really pretty funny then!"? Not that you're not funny now...

"No. I don't sit around and think that. That would be awful. 'We were so funny then.' No, no, no. I tend to sit around and think what I'm working on now. Or what might be funny. Or here's something somebody wouldn't dare do.

"Or, how wonderfully odd to, having written a very successful Broadway musical, now put on an oratorio."

Talk about your cast at Caramoor. Is it the same crew you had in Toronto?

"We were fortunate to have Chris Sieber, who was Galahad in "Spamalot" on Broadway and in London. He's just fantastic. He's got this extraordinary gift, to combine deadpan humor with a great voice. It was lovely to have a Broadway voice for that, someone who really gets it. He really nails that, as Brian.

"So you've got Chris, three great opera singers - and me. So it's good news and bad news."

And your voice is 'baritone-ish'?

"That's how I like to describe myself, yes. I took singing lessons and my singing teacher is very proud of me. She says I could have had a career in opera."

Was this after you paid her, or before?

"During, I think. As we were haggling over the price."

What's on the program next Sunday?

"Peter conducts the orchestra in a few popular pieces to start out with.

"The reason Pythons gave their permissions to do this was to start helping orchestras attract people back into the concert hall. And it worked in Toronto. Kids said 'Can we go to another concert?' So they get a flavor of the real music and then they get our craziness."

So they get a 'Whitman's sampler' of orchestra music first?

"Yes. And they find out that it's not threatening. Orchestras are really hurting, because young people aren't going. One of our thoughts was to entice them back and show them it's OK."

Any concerns that all this comedy won't sit well with the real Messiah?

"Well, you're supposing a series of questions there. The theory of God seems to me to be an interesting theory, but seems to lack as much evidence as they claim evolution is supposed not to have, although there are millions of books on evolution.

"I think if you make people laugh, you're very close to the spirit of where we should be."

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