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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

I'm Robert Siegel.

And now, for something completely - well, not completely different.

(Soundbite of musical "Not a Messiah: He's a Very Naughty Boy")

Mr. ERIC IDLE (Actor/Comedian): (Singing) Once I was a lad in the Hudson Bay. I cut down trees every night and day. I'd cut down trees both night and day and walk away contented with a fair day's pay.

SIEGEL: Eric Idle, a member of the comedy team Monty Python, has again cleverly reworked one of the group's own classics. This time, the result is a work billed as a comic oratorio. It's based on the 1979 movie, "The Life of Brian."

(Soundbite of musical "Not a Messiah: He's a Very Naughty Boy")

Mr. IDLE: (Singing) Yes, I was a lumberjack, okay, going to the lavatory every day. I'd work very hard with my tiny, little axe. At night I'd visit naughty girls to help relax.

It was a very serious oratorio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IDLE: Obviously written for orchestra and chorus and sheep. And for now, leaf blower. We've added a new instrument to the orchestra, and bagpipes.

SIEGEL: Eric Idle's ambitious new production is called "Not the Messiah: He's a Very Naughty Boy." It's scheduled to be performed this evening at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia. The music is by John Du Prez, who was Idle's collaborator on the Broadway musical "Spamalot." That was a reworking of the old movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." "Spamalot" was so successful, you would think that Broadway is in the future for "Not the Messiah: He's a Very Naughty Boy."

Mr. IDLE: No, no. We deliberately set out not to do a musical. We made too much money, so we thought, let's find something that won't make any money at all. Let's have 140 musicians on stage.

SIEGEL: This is a story which, when Monty Python made the movie initially, it was a controversial film. This was a movie accused of blasphemy and, I believe, banned in some places, yes?

Mr. IDLE: It was - absolutely. And mainly by people who haven't seen it...

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. IDLE: ...and then didn't because they banned it.

SIEGEL: Yes.

Mr. IDLE: So, you know? Yeah.

SIEGEL: There is that problem there.

Mr. IDLE: It's a Catch-22 thing there.

SIEGEL: Because it's - in a way, it's a parody of the Gospels, to put it lightly.

Mr. IDLE: Well, it's - it is in a sort of way. I mean, the story is about Brian, who is a boy who joins the Republicans, desperate for power...

SIEGEL: In ancient Judea?

Mr. IDLE: In ancient - I'm not talking about current-day Republicans, obviously.

SIEGEL: Oh yeah, yeah.

Mr. IDLE: And then he is mistaken by a mob for the Messiah, which is a dreadful tragedy for him because he's then arrested and crucified.

SIEGEL: Yes. Brian Cohen, actually.

Mr. IDLE: Brian Cohen is his name, you know.

SIEGEL: That is his name.

Mr. IDLE: Although his father is a Roman.

SIEGEL: Have you gotten any complaints about blasphemy this time or is that all in the past?

Mr. IDLE: Not a single one. And I think that's partly to do with the fact that it is oratorio, so that we are wearing white tie and tails, there's nobody with beards and crosses running around and hurting people's images of religion. And also, it isn't offensive. In reality, you could - the Pope could come, Jesuits could come and enjoy this, because it also parodies the tradition of secular religious music over the last three or 400 years. I mean, there's every form of it in there.

(Soundbite of musical "Not a Messiah: He's a Very Naughty Boy")

Unidentified Man #1: Look, in the sky over Bethlehem. Jesus Christ!

Unidentified Man #2: No, next door.

Unidentified Man #1: Oh, this is Cohen's.

SIEGEL: There's another good joke you tell, which is, on a couple of tracks, people begin by - or at least at one point, someone asks, is it A.D. yet?

(Soundbite of musical "Not a Messiah: He's a Very Naughty Boy")

Mr. IDLE: It's about a quarter to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IDLE: But it's a vast conceptual idea that there was a night when A.D., you know, B.C. turned into A.D.

Soundbite of musical "Not a Messiah: He's a Very Naughty Boy")

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) Oh, we are humble shepherds and our flocks we keep.

SIEGEL: There's a wonderful number when the shepherds sing about how much they love sheep.

Soundbite of musical "Not a Messiah: He's a Very Naughty Boy")

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) We count them every day and night until we fall asleep. And then we count them once again 'cause we love sheep.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Sheep, sheep, sheep, sheep, sheep, sheep, sheep, sheep.

SIEGEL: And what do we see on stage during the oratorio, during that?

Mr. IDLE: Well, usually, it's like Handel's "Messiah." We wear white tie and tails. In the summer, we wear, you know, dinner jackets and things. But we have brought on the stage - an entirely trained little chorus of sheep have been made by someone from "Sesame Street" and they come on and they sing "Sheep, sheep, sheep, sheep, sheep" chorus, which is nice.

Soundbite of musical "Not a Messiah: He's a Very Naughty Boy")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Sheep, sheep, sheep, sheep, sheep, sheep, sheep, sheep. Sheep, sheep, sheep, sheep, sheep, sheep, sheep, sheep.

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) They're full of woolly thinking, intellectually not deep. But never mind their minds, we find we all love sheep.

SIEGEL: Are they people in sheep's outfits or are they…

Mr. IDLE: No, there's a shepherdess and the sheep, they have their own bodies and they're politically correct sheep - they're of all hues. Shaniqua is clearly the black sheep of the family. And they sing. They actually get more applause than we do, it's rather annoying.

(Soundbite of musical "Not a Messiah: He's a Very Naughty Boy")

Mr. IDLE: (As Brian Cohen) (Singing) Always look on the bright side of life. (Whistling)

SIEGEL: How long can you work the same joke? I mean, for how many decades can you tell the same joke in various different media and vehicles?

Mr. IDLE: I'll tell you, but we're still going strong, you know? As long as you can recycle, that's just fine.

(Soundbite of musical "Not a Messiah: He's a Very Naughty Boy")

Mr. IDLE: (As Brian Cohen) (Singing) When you're feeling in the dumps, don't be silly chumps. Just purse your lips and whistle - that's the thing. And always look on the bright side of life.

SIEGEL: This is a version of recycling, that's what it is.

Mr. IDLE: It is. It is recycling. I have to say that that song - we're talking about recycling - is in the top 10, and has been for 10 years, of songs sung at funerals.

SIEGEL: "Always Look at the Bright Side"?

Mr. IDLE: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: Who exactly is keeping count of the top 10 songs being sung in funerals?

Mr. IDLE: I have - well, everybody keeps count of everything. It's the Web, you know?

SIEGEL: So - and you think that's a - do you think someone has missed the irony of...?

Mr. IDLE: No. I think it's a tribute. It says always look on the bright side of death, is one of the lyrics - just before you draw your terminal breath.

SIEGEL: So, the song has actually become - it's become a part of life?

Mr. IDLE: It's an anthem. I mean, it was sung by - in the Gulf by the troops, when they went off to war. It's actually sort of a wartime song. It's a sort of parody wartime song, because all of our fathers were in World War II. And so, it has that cheery, brighty, "Bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover," cheery-uppy-kind of quality to it.

SIEGEL: (Laughing) But there isn't - shouldn't I detect a slight cynicism in it about those songs?

Mr. IDLE: I think irony. Definitely irony. I mean, they were ironic when they were used. But people - they were used to cheer people up in impossible situations.

SIEGEL: You think those people singing "we'll meet again" really meant that we would be crashing into the channel and...

Mr. IDLE: They were hopeful. I think they were hopeful that they would meet again. They don't say where they were going to meet again, on what planet.

SIEGEL: Eric Idle, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. IDLE: My pleasure.

(Soundbite of musical "Not a Messiah: He's a Very Naughty Boy")

Mr. IDLE: (As Brian Cohen) (Singing) You'll see it's all a show. Keep 'em laughing as you go. Just remember that the last laugh is on you. And always look on the bright side of life. (Whistling)

SIEGEL: Eric Idle talking about his musical extravaganza, the comic oratorio "Not the Messiah: He's a Very Naughty Boy." There's a one-night performance today at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. It'll be performed once more at the Hollywood Bowl, and next year at the Albert Hall in London for the 40th anniversary of "Monty Python's Flying Circus."

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