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Springtime for ‘Xanadu’

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Olivia Newton-John in the film Xanadu, 1980.  

“I didn’t realize the following Xanadu had until I started touring again and started singing the songs,” says Newton-John. “Everyone loves to sing along to ‘Magic’ and ‘Xanadu.’ I think people connect with the music mostly. I also think everyone loves a bit of fantasy. There is so much reality on TV, in films and onstage these days, that I think that everyone likes to escape a bit.”

Ahrens was assisting a development executive at Paramount in 2001 when he saw Xanadu Live!, an unauthorized Los Angeles stage production in which actors delivered the movie’s dialogue and lip-synched to the songs—to a month of sold-out crowds. Shortly thereafter, he quit the studio and went on an existential surfing trip to El Salvador, where, he says, “I was thinking, What am I going to do when I get back? I think I’ll get the rights to Xanadu.’ ”

It took Ahrens four years to wrest permissions from five rights holders. During that time, Ahrens produced the indie films WTC View and Book of Love—both sentimental efforts that met with so-so reviews. “I had to make a lot of calls,” he says. “There was a little bit of, ‘Who is this guy wanting to do this?’ But the music has value. The project was a $20 million motion picture—everything had value to it. In theater, everyone makes money on the back end, no one’s really making money in the front end.”

To direct, Ahrens hired Christopher Ashley, who’d brought another cult film to the stage with The Rocky Horror Show. “When they asked me to do it,” Ashley says, “I said, ‘Oh, my God, I’m a little obsessed with that movie.’”

If Beane is the revisionist and Ahrens the opportunist, then Ashley is the pure, unadulterated fan. “I’m a bit fonder of the original than Doug is,” says Ashley, who, as a teenager in Ann Arbor, Michigan, spent his adolescence at midnight-movie showings of Rocky Horror and Xanadu. “I was 16 when it came out. I saw it five times in the first week and a half. This album was playing when I had my first date, when I was learning to drive. I know every bit of every orchestration.” At its heart, it’s that most bankable Broadway genre show: the jukebox musical. Think Mamma Mia! or Movin’ Out. “You get this familiar rush of ‘Oh, I love this song’ when you hear the downbeat of it,” says Ashley.

Douglas Carter Beane is a substantial guy who looks like Tim Russert’s loonier younger brother and operates on a continuum from exuberant to maniacal. He refers to the address of his libraryesque loft off Union Square as Two Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar Boulevard, named after the breakout success that financed it—his 1995 drag-queen comedy produced by Steven Spielberg.

Beane lives in a sea of earth tones amid antique-y lamps, vintage theater posters, Paper Chase–like leather couches with his partner of six years, the composer Lewis Flinn, and their 2-year-old adopted son, Cooper. “Nothing I’ve ever done has captured New Yorkers’ imagination—and lack of imagination—like this show,” says Beane. “People freak out: ‘You can’t do this!’ It’s just been so much fun to watch. There was one of those ‘Let’s talk about the big shows coming to Broadway this spring’ shows on television. And I watched the whole segment of people screaming—not having a spirited debate, but just screaming—about Xanadu. Jesse Green of the Times was howling, ‘Why? Why?’”

The son of a telephone company vice-president and a housewife, Beane grew up in the affluent suburb of Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, surrounded by Amish country. His parents were atypical country-clubbing Wasps who “whispered in my ear how great I was all the time,” he says. “Consequently, I think I’m really great all the time.” In 1979, he enrolled in the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts to study acting. (“The year Xanadu was filmed!”) Unable to get roles, he started writing comedy sketches. He checked coats at theaters. He bartended with Aaron Sorkin. Beane says they both were fired.

Beane’s first play, Advice From a Caterpillar, was produced in 1991, followed by the surprise success of Wong Foo, which he had written as a script sample. As the founder of Drama Dept., the now on hiatus West Village theater company that nurtured Cynthia Nixon, Amy Sedaris, and Tom Everett Scott, he has been involved in 41 shows in New York.

“I’ve always wanted to do something like Thornton Wilder, where something mystical enters into ordinary life,” he says. “It took me a while to realize what I was searching for was in Xanadu. It was just so incredibly well disguised by a lack of craft. I’ve been wanting to talk about creativity—what does it really mean in the world? Why do we create as a way of postponing mortality? But if I said I was doing an evening of that, no one would come. I love that in Xanadu, you can have this guy in satin shorts, roller skates, and a surfer-dude accent saying, ‘I need to create!’ ”


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