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Springtime for ‘Xanadu’

Can the famously nonsensical disco-movie flop make it on Broadway?

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Illustration by Sean McCabe  

As a film, the 1980 Olivia Newton-John roller-disco fable Xanadu was the epic failure to end all epic failures—for a few years, anyway, until Ishtar. It flummoxed the Times reviewer, who complained, “Too many different things are going on here, and they don’t have much to do with one another,” before dismissing it as a “desperately stylish” movie “best watched with your eyes closed.” It was nominated for six Razzies that year—its director won one—and inspired reviews such as the one-word “Xana-don’t!”

So why did an adaptation begin previews at the Helen Hayes Theatre last week? Even in this era when a Broadway musical isn’t a Broadway musical unless some element of dismay is expressed at its source material, Xanadu is a tough sell. When Douglas Carter Beane, the playwright whose The Little Dog Laughed is up for the Tony for Best Play this year, was approached about redoing the script to lend it some coherence, he wasn’t sure he wanted to get involved. “At first I said, ‘No way: This is theater suicide wrapped up in a nice box,’ ” he remembers.

He eventually came around. After all, Xanadu has developed one of the more impassioned cult audiences in bad-movie history; YouTube is rife with amateur tributes. But more important, there’s the music. Packed with shimmery, romantic pop songs by the British arena-synth band Electric Light Orchestra and John Farrar (who composed all of Newton-John’s hits from “Have You Never Been Mellow” to “Physical”), it was one of the biggest albums of 1980, spawning five top-twenty singles, hitting No. 4 on the album chart, and accompanying millions of proms and surrendered virginities.

Beane liked the music too. Besides, “I loved the idea that it played into Broadway’s tendency to take itself seriously in a really aggressively provocative way,” Beane says. “It’s like, ‘You don’t like jukebox musicals? We’ll give you two jukebox musicals in one. You don’t like movies onstage? We’re going to take the worst movie ever made—how about that?’”

The show’s producer, Robert Ahrens, is a very tanned, very young-looking 37-year-old who seems like he should be well beyond his adolescent trauma. But as a teenager, Ahrens felt betrayed by Xanadu. “I had an idea of what the film was before I saw it,” he says. “I thought it was this mysterious paradise. I thought it would answer a question, I guess, like, ‘What is Xanadu?’ I thought it was going to be illuminating.”

Based on the 1947 Rita Hayworth vehicle Down to Earth—in which Terpsichore, a muse from ancient Greece, infiltrates a Broadway show about the nine muses, inspiring the composers to change it for the sake of accuracy, thus producing a flop—the 1980 Olivia Newton-John vehicle centers on Kira, a muse from ancient Greece who is transported to Venice Beach to inspire a frustrated young artist and a forties bandleader to open a roller-skating nightclub. Newton-John, very hot off Grease, played Kira as Australian, for reasons unelucidated by the script. Gene Kelly was the aging musician. The male lead, Michael Beck, had starred in The Warriors, the previous year’s Pauline Kael–approved fantasia about New York City street gangs. (Andy Gibb, a Newton-John friend and Beck’s doppelgänger, had originally signed but dropped out, perhaps wisely opting to stay home and snort cocaine instead.)

“Basically,” says Beane, “it’s what happens when you let straight men near the musical.”

Produced by a young Joel Silver, the film was directed by Robert Greenwald, whose previous efforts (the TV movies Katie: Portrait of a Centerfold, Sharon: Portrait of a Mistress, and Flatbed Annie & Sweetiepie: Lady Truckers) had not prepared him to depict the ambitious post-disco universe required. The screenplay, where evident, is a bewildering mash-up of forties swing and eighties proto-punk, mortal and supernatural elements, tap dancing and roller-skating. The last half-hour is basically an opera, indicating surrender in the editing suite; it all ends in a production number involving five mimes, two tightrope walkers, six dozen roller skaters, and Olivia Newton-John gamely singing “Open your eyes and see / What we have made is real” in a medley, wearing a bronze jumpsuit, cowboy regalia, and what appears to be a thin sheen of vegetable oil. She looked beautiful, and sang beautifully, but “the main trouble was the script,” says Newton-John, who is performing Xanadu’s hits on a tour of Asia. “We had so many story changes during filming.”

“I blame cocaine,” says Beane of the film’s glazed messiness. “It’s like people say, ‘When you hear Ray Charles play, you can hear the heroin’? When you watch Xanadu, you can see the cocaine up on the screen.”

Consequently, Xanadu is a secret pop-culture club that works on both distant and deeply affecting levels: You can openly scoff at the story line but secretly admire the love songs. (Next month, the Provincetown International Film Festival—Kathleen Turner and Alan Cumming are promised guests—will screen the film and host a sing-along.)


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