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THE Holy Grail is changing hands at "Spamalot."

Acclaimed Shake spearean actor Simon Russell Beale was scheduled to take over the role of King Arthur from Tim Curry last night in the hit Broadway musical.

Curry, who was nominated for a Tony, played the role for nearly a year, a run that, backstage sources say, has exhausted him.

A chain smoker who sometimes ducked out of the theater for a drag between scenes, the 59-year-old Curry often joked, "I'm too old to be doing this."

He will, however, likely reprise the role in the London production next year.

Beale, who was nominated for a Tony Award a few seasons back in "Jumpers," doesn't have much of a track record when it comes to musicals. But sources say that in rehearsals, under director Mike Nichols' guidance, he's been very funny.

He joins a cast that includes David Hyde Pierce, still getting big laughs as Sir Robin; Hank Azaria, recently back from a six-month hiatus while filming his television series; and Lauren Kennedy, who's replaced Tony Award-winner Sara Ramirez as the Lady in the Lake.

Nichols keeps a tight rein on "Spamalot," and people in the show say it's as sharp and funny as it was on opening night.

Even so, its producers are puzzled: Since August, sources say, there has been a sharp drop in advance ticket sales - from a high of almost $30 million over the summer to less than $20 million now.

Nevertheless, "Spamalot" is still a big hit. Premium tickets, which go for $250 or more, are selling as much as $200,000 worth every week, and there's always a cancellation line at the Shubert Theatre box office.

Still, it appears that "Spamalot" is beginning to slip from the ranks of such Broadway blockbusters as "Wicked," which in its third year has an advance of almost $35 million, and "The Lion King," which in its 10th year has around $15 million in the bank.

Sources say that "Spamalot" producer Bill Haber is concerned enough about the slippage that he's trying to figure what happened and how it can be reversed.

One theory is that "Spamalot" kept too short a leash on tickets. Broadway producers believe it's crucial to create the impression that a show is so hot, tickets are impossible to come by. The harder it is to score a seat, the louder the public clamor to get in.

Producers create this phenomenon by putting tickets on sale only for a limited number of weeks, generating what's called "a tight ticket."

That tightness may have backfired. Demand was so great right after "Spamalot" opened that many theatergoers may have concluded it was impossible to get a ticket.

"Sometimes what happens is people get tired of hearing good seats aren't available, and they move on to other shows," says a veteran Broadway producer.

Because "Spamalot" was so hot - and was always in the press - the producers cut back on advertising. But in a world where there's so much competition for the entertainment dollar, it may no longer be possible to coast on reviews and press coverage.

"Spamalot" producers should take a page out of Cameron Mackintosh's playbook. The legendary producer of "The Phantom of the Opera," "Cats" and "Les Miserables" spent vast sums of money advertising those shows even when they were sold out. He believed it was important to "brand" a show while it was hot so that it became part of the landscape. The "Phantom" mask, "Cats" eyes and "Les Miz" waif became ubiquitous.

To get its advance back up to blockbuster territory, "Spamalot" may have to start plastering that Holy Grail all over a lot more billboards around town.

SPEAKING of "Spama lot," the word from Las Vegas is that Steve Wynn wants to put a production into the theater at his hotel that currently houses "Avenue Q."

That little puppet show, as The Post first reported, is playing to houses that are less than half full. Wynn's plan, sources say, is to shove "Avenue Q" into a 300-seat cabaret space at the hotel, and reconfigure the theater to accommodate a multimillion-dollar production of "Spamalot."

Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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