Messiah complex

Eric Idle's hands are devilish tools in a new comedic oratorio.

FUNNY BUSINESS Eric Idle (left) and John Du Prez hope to lure young audiences back to the concert hall.

FUNNY BUSINESS Eric Idle (left) and John Du Prez hope to lure young audiences back to the concert hall. Photograph courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Inc.

What happens when a Python manhandles Handel? The answer can be found this weekend at the Caramoor International Music Festival in Katonah, New York, when music director Peter Oundjian leads the U.S. premiere of Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy), a new comic oratorio by Monty Python veteran Eric Idle and his musical partner-in-crime, John Du Prez.

A 50-minute oratorio for five vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra, Not the Messiah is based on the Pythons’ 1979 film Life of Brian, which follows the misadventures of an unfortunate fellow born in a stable down the street from Jesus. The collaboration is the brainchild of Idle and Oundjian, his cousin, who joined forces to create something that would attract young audiences to struggling concert halls.

“That was really our goal, and it’s why the Pythons consented,” Idle says by phone from Los Angeles. “Orchestras are hurting all over North America. People are no longer going en masse—they’re getting older and they’re just not going—so this is a delight that they need reintroducing to, in a way.”

The project gave Idle and the Oxford-trained Du Prez—whose partnership began with Life of Brian and continued in the Broadway hit Spamalot—the opportunity to blend their comedic sensibilities with classical music, a genre in which they are both extremely well versed (Idle having even trod the boards in Jonathan Miller’s production of The Mikado).

“We’ve been collaborating for 30 years, almost, and have written hundreds of songs,” Idle says. “[This] came out of Python music, which is sort of generic, but we slip into almost any style, and that’s kind of fun. We’re always trying to come from left field, you know? Why Mexican for the Judean People’s Front? Why mariachi? Why not?!? It gives people a flavor of all sorts of music, and that’s what we do, really.” The two explore themes such as sheep love, operatic amour and biblical Broadway via inspirational movements such as “O God You Are So Big,” “Amourdeus,” and “Hail to the Shoe!”

Not the Messiah has continued to evolve since its premiere in early June at Toronto’s inaugural LuminaTO festival, and Idle hopes it will eventually become an evening-length work. (At Caramoor, it will share a program with orchestral favorites.) Whether or not it ends up at a Wagnerian four hours, the duo has created a satirically reverent piece that looks as if it will fulfill its mission.

“When we had this gala good night at LuminaTO, several people stood up and said that they’d taken their kids to see this,” Idle recalls. “And they had independently said, ‘Oh, I enjoyed it so much! Could we go back and see a concert sometime?’ Which is really nice, isn’t it?”

The Caramoor International Music Festival presents Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy) Sun 1.