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Clay TIme How "American Idol" Clay Aiken became a Broadway knight.
"Simon Cowell can kiss my butt if he wants to use that 'Broadway' insult again," quips Clay Aiken, the former American Idol star now enjoying a stint as Sir Robin on the Great White Way in Monty Python's Spamalot (now in its final months at the Shubert Theatre). "So often the judges on Idol will use 'Broadway' as an insult for a singer's performance. But I think there's more talent onstage here at the Shubert Theatre than in all of the music industry."

Aiken's casting, along with that of Idol contender Fantasia as a replacement Celie in The Color Purple, has raised a few eyebrows. Were these reality TV creations really qualified to strut their stuff on the Main Stem?

"I think one reason people who've been on Idol are showin' up on Broadway is that they're people who can do something live," Aiken notes, making a clear contrast with both film and TV actors and studio-produced pop singers, all of whom get multiple takes to get it right. "The talent for singing live—that's what you need here."

Of course, there's more to a Broadway role, even in a silly romp like Spamalot, than a good singing voice. There's also the acting and the dancing. Aiken credits author Eric Idle and director Mike Nichols with steering him well in the first department.

"Eric Idle was very complimentary, which always helps when you have no idea what you're doing," Aiken says. "Mike Nichols, in addition to being the premeir director of our lifetime, is very easy to work with. I like to think I take direction well, but I can imagine that sometimes a director might have a really hard job in explaining a part, and what's required. Mike comes up with the most colorful and hilarious ways to explain what he's looking for."

Nichols also stressed something you might not expect in such a go-for-broke comedy.

"Overall, I probably have a tendency to overdo certain things," Aiken admits. "Mike is big on subtlety and kept reminding us, 'You aren't funny—the script is funny.' It's all very silly, but what makes it funny is that none of the characters realize how stupid they really are, so it actually gets more laughs when the lines are played a little more straight."

As for the dancing, Aiken says simply: "Someone giving me choreography, that's just a catastrophe waiting to happen."

This North Carolina native, who still has a slight twang, is nothing if not forthright.

"I had absolutely no exposure to this material before," Aiken admits. "I literally thought Monty Python was a person. And the first time I saw the show, actually, I thought it was stupid. At the end, I thought, 'Really? It's so silly.' "

This impression was largely the result of what Aiken calls his "limited exposure to Broadway—show likes Wicked, you know, with soaring melodies and big plotlines. I looked as hard as I could at Spamalot and couldn't find the plot."

He's glad he gave it another chance.

"When I saw it again, I realized, there's still not much of a plot here—but it's the funniest thing in the world. It's very sarcastic and intelligent humor, and I'm an intelligent person, I like to think."

When he met Eric Idle, he recognized him not from his Python days but from the broad 1990 comedy Nuns on the Run. "I remember that film because it was the first time I ever saw naked boobs on-screen." (Not Idle's, we're presuming.) "And I'd seen John Cleese on Will and Grace."

Then Aiken dropped a whopper.

"I still haven't seen the movie," he says, meaning the 1975 classic, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, on which Spamalot is based. "I've been avoiding it like the plague. I mean, I play Eric Idle's part, and I'm sure I would just copy everything he did."

As you may have noticed, a big part of Aiken's disarming, country-boy charm comes out in his light but persistent self-deprecation. Asked if he ever breaks character to laugh at his colleagues' onstage antics—i.e., if he ever "loses it," he responds, "I lose it regularly—lose my place in the script, lose my place in the dancing."

But yes, he has broken up onstage, as well: "Rick Holmes, who plays Lancelot, is one of the funniest people in the world," Aiken avers. "And regularly while I'm 'dead' onstage, Rick will say something that's not in the script, and we just can't stop laughing. You know, in this show it's OK, because the audience can see that the people onstage are having just as much fun as they are, and the people up there—minus me—are so good at what they do."

Critics have been kinder than that, noting how well Aiken fits into the show. A future on Broadway could be in the cards for this Clay Idol.

Click here for more information about Monty Python's Spamalot.