The word tireless in the dictionary should come with a photo of James Monroe Iglehart. This fall, the actor is doing two shows back-to-back, literally. The Tony winner just finished playing Louis Armstrong in A Wonderful World, the Broadway-bound bio-musical that had its out-of-town tryouts in New Orleans and Chicago. That show ran October 1-29. Then immediately after on October 31, Iglehart began previews for Spamalot on Broadway, where he plays King Arthur (that show opens November 16 at the St. James Theatre).
When Playbill spoke to Iglehart in September, the 49-year-old actor was rehearsing both shows at the same time in New York City: From 10 AM to 6 PM, he rehearsed with Wonderful World, and then from 6 PM to 9 PM, he rehearsed with Spamalot. Then in October, he performed in Wonderful World and on his days off, he flew back to New York to rehearse in Spamalot.
The cherries on top of that very busy sundae: Iglehart learned how to play the trumpet, and he worked with Alex Brightman’s Beetlejuice vocal coach (Deric Rosenblatt) to achieve Armstrong’s gravelly singing voice. “I am absolutely insane,” he admits, laughing.
But when he spoke to Playbill on his lunch break, Iglehart did not sound tired. Instead, he sounded exhilarated, like he had been waiting his entire career for this kind of challenge. Though at the same time, he’s approaching it with humility, saying, “There was a moment to be able to do these two great shows, they just happened to come at the same time. It was an opportunity I couldn't resist.”
Here’s the thing about Iglehart: He’s the kind of performer who goes the extra mile, who says “yes, and” (fitting because he’s a regular player in the improv hip-hop group Freestyle Love Supreme). Iglehart broke out with his revelatory, award-winning performance as the Genie in Aladdin, adding his own ebullient (and slightly unhinged) spin to a character that has been so defined by the late Robin Williams. He’s made a career out of playing side characters that carry a big impact—like Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton, Phil in Hercules. “When you get to be the featured actor, you kind of come in and do your thing and go away…you have to stay on the sides through the whole piece,” he explains of his career so far.
But now, Iglehart is in a new phase. Not only is he doing two shows at the same time, he is carrying both shows as the lead character. As Louis Armstrong, he hardly left the stage. As King Arthur, he only leaves the stage twice. It’s a whole new world for Iglehart; it’s the first time he is playing a lead role on Broadway.
“It's kind of fun to be in the lead seat," he remarks. "I have a lot more respect for those wonderful performers that are in the lead. It's a lot of work, and it's a lot of preparation. When you're featured, not to say it's not a lot of work, but you get to go home. When you're the lead, you're there! You're talking to the director, you’re talking to the musicians, you're talking to producers, you're talking to everyone.”
As a featured actor, Iglehart is used to coming in and stealing the show with some well-placed one-liners and virtuosic singing. But for Spamalot and Louis, Iglehart is tapping into his more serious side. He is the heart of both shows—it is his emotional and physical journey that propels the story forward, and it's up to Iglehart to make sure the audience stays invested in him the whole time. That type of storytelling obligation is new to the performer, who remarks, "I have been stretching my acting chops on these two shows," adding, "Both Louis and with King Arthur, you're in the center, and I get to see the whole show around me the entire time...you get to watch everyone shine, as well as driving the story forward. So I'm having the best time of my life. I really am."
Spamalot first premiered on Broadway in 2004. It features a score by John Du Prez and Eric Idle, with lyrics and a book by Idle. It is based on the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a spoof of the King Arthur mythology, which spawned instantly quotable lines such as “I’m not dead yet!,” “I fart in your general direction!,” and “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen sparrow?” Spamalot won a Tony Award for Best Musical, and its score includes musical comedy classics such as “Find Your Grail” and “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life.”
The revival is directed by Josh Rhodes and also features Nik Walker, Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer, Christopher Fitzgerald, Michael Urie, Ethan Slater, Jimmy Smagula, Taran Killam (who will later be replaced by Alex Brightman as Lancelot)—in short, it’s a roster of comedy all-stars. This will be the first revival of the work and the test of this production's success will be if its brand of chaotic, slightly offensive, humor is still funny in 2023. After all, one of the song lyrics is, “You won’t succeed on Broadway, if you don’t have any Jews.”
Iglehart admits the cast was worried about the humor not aging well. But once they performed the show at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and people laughed, it quelled their fears. “We realized that as long as we play it truthfully, the audience will laugh because we're not making fun. We're just trying to make you laugh,” he explains. “It's all said with love.”
Iglehart also sees this as an opportunity to introduce Spamalot and Monty Python to a whole new audience. Though looking at the advanced photos, the production aesthetic does hew quite closely to the original production and film (so much so that the Washington Post described the show, in a rave review, as “retro”). But there is one key difference in this revival: This cast is much more diverse. Out of all the men who have played King Arthur on Broadway in various musicals, Iglehart is the rare Black man to do so. Or as he jokingly remarks, “Now there are two kings on Broadway: There's Mufasa. And now me.” It's not quite an accurate statement (since there's a King George at Hamilton and Hades in Hadestown). But Iglehart is making a greater point about representation.
To him, this revival of Spamalot will be a way to bring the material to a younger audience, and a more diverse one. “You have a show where there's a poster of a Black guy in the center and a brother on the side, and I'm wearing a crown—that's going to make some people just go, ‘Well, what is this?’” says Iglehart.
While the original Monty Python and the Holy Grail used the King Arthur mythos to spoof the act of moviemaking, Spamalot is a gentle lampooning of Broadway. The songs are filled with musical theatre references, including from Funny Girl, Fiddler on the Roof, and Sound of Music. And in this new production, Kritzer (who plays the Lady of the Lake) even delivers her version of the “Defying Gravity” vocal riff from Wicked at the end of “Find Your Grail.”
In today’s more cynical time, Spamalot’s earnestness and commitment to the bit is much-needed, according to Iglehart. “When you watch the news, you see things that are, ‘Oh, that's silly, and it shouldn't be. If I don't laugh, I'll cry.' This [show] is just to really make them laugh, this is just to make people have a truly good time…This is the perfect type of show for what Broadway needs right now.”
And if Iglehart has his way, after he does Spamalot on Broadway, he’ll eventually return to Louis Armstrong. Wonderful World has its sights set on Broadway—Vanessa Williams is one of its lead producers. What ties both of these roles—one comedic, one dramatic; one that is based on myth, the other based on real American history—together is Iglehart, who is basking in his current moment, where he is able to showcase all he is capable of as an actor and as a human.
Considering he’s just played Louis Armstrong, who encountered racism throughout his career and who struggled to be seen as a full person—the poignancy of the present moment isn’t lost on Iglehart. “I think sometimes we get caught up in, ‘OK, I am this type of person.’ And it's just one thing.” And here Iglehart speaks, earnestly, “I am more than just a Black man: I am a Black man. I am a human. I am a dad. I am a husband. I am a performer. There's so many other layers to who I am.”
So watch out Broadway, you think you knew James Monroe Iglehart, but you haven’t seen anything yet.