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Springtime for ‘Xanadu’

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Douglas Carter Beane at a rehearsal for his Broadway version.  

Beane wrote a script that was a conglomeration of Xanadu and Clash of the Titans—he remembers both playing relentlessly on HBO, and they intertwined in his brain—adding a plot in which Kira’s jealous sister-muses doom her to fall in love with a mortal, incurring the wrath of their father, Zeus. Kira’s inexplicable Australian accent remains.

Staged readings were held in April and August of last year. Audiences responded but wanted more of the film’s love story and less metaverse. Beane cut entire sections of eighties satire. “I had Urania, the muse of astrology, talking to Nancy Reagan and singing ‘All Over the World,’ ” says Beane. “They didn’t care about Nancy, but the minute they’d start ‘All Over the World,’ the audience would applaud.”

The original cast included Broadway veterans Jane Krakowski, Cheyenne Jackson, and Tony Roberts (whose contract precluded him from being on skates). Beane and the producers envisaged a modest Off Broadway run in the spring, possibly staged at the roller-disco Roxy. The building was promptly sold to developers. In January, Beane walked past the Helen Hayes and noticed it was closed for renovations. Ahrens booked the space for May. Suddenly, Xanadu was a Broadway show.

Then Krakowski—the bankable 30 Rock star who won a Tony for Nine in 2003—abruptly dropped out, citing her TV shooting schedule (never mind that the show films in Queens and would have wrapped by May). The lead went to Kerry Butler, a Broadway journeywoman who had good reviews for Bat Boy and Hairspray but negligible box-office clout. Broadway chat rooms spread rumors of impending disaster; Beane knows what they say because he visits them constantly. “I honestly don’t know why Jane left—it came down to her schedule.”

A Tony-qualifying May opening was pushed back to late June, based on the producers’ pragmatic assumption that “we probably wouldn’t be up for anything major anyway,” says Beane. Xanadu will be the first show of the new Broadway season.

It’s not a Producers-style spectacular, however. If Xanadu, the film, was nonstop production numbers, the Broadway version is scaled closer to the clandestine show Ahrens saw back in L.A. It’s presented partially in the round, with some audience members seated in bleachers on the stage. The film’s parachute-pants-clad army of dozens of backup dancers has been reduced—almost unthinkably—to five. “We’ve chosen to do this as a chamber musical,” says Ashley. “There’s times that’s ridiculously tiny for a large production number.”

Tone has also proved to be a challenge: Is it tacky enough? “When we’re quoting the movie, we try to give some delight to the people who know the movie inside out, to give them their experience of the movie again.” says Ashley. “When we go into fresh territory, it’s tough. That was true of Rocky Horror also—you’re serving two audiences: an audience that’s never seen the movie and the cult. That’s a tricky balance.”

Although she has obviously not been kept entirely in the loop, the production has Olivia Newton-John’s approval. “From what I hear, they’re rewriting the script a bit,” she says. “So hopefully Broadway will welcome it with open arms.”

‘I see the initial audience as New Yorkers between 30 and 50—New Yorkers, like me, who have a memory of the movie,” says Ahrens. “I think it appeals much more to suburbanites than people think. We’re working with a place called the Xanadu Preservation Society on the Internet, and they’ve been very supportive.”

But even some in the theater community don’t quite get it. “I’ll tell people what I’m doing, and they’ll be really excited about it, but they’ll say, ‘But is it camp?’ ” says Beane. “Like it’s this really dirty word. There is the last hint of gay sensibility that freaks people out.” Nonetheless, at the final dress rehearsal, the night before the first preview, the marquee outside the Helen Hayes bears a testimonial: “Do you love it—or do you love it?” The quote is from the gossip blogger Perez Hilton.

In its raw form, the show reveals itself to be nearly 100 percent over-the-top commentary in the script—which is relentlessly, hysterically funny—and 100 percent emotional sincerity in the songs. The impression is one of aggressively self-aware romanticism, a polyglot sensibility unfamiliar to Broadway. Will it suffer the same fate as Beane’s The Little Dog Laughed, a comedy about a closeted A-list movie star, his hustler boyfriend, and his ruthlessly (and hilariously) pragmatic agent, which transferred to Broadway last year on a wave of critical raves but didn’t last long once there?

Even if it does, Xanadu’s resurrectionist enabler seems protected from the fates. In Hollywood, word has been getting around about Beane’s rewrite; his version of Fred Astaire’s The Band Wagon will open in San Diego next year. He is writing the film version of Little Dog and a suburban sitcom for Lorne Michaels. But there’s that other issue.

“Today, the word camp,” says Beane, “is sort of like when people say black politicians are well spoken. It’s a way of dismissing. I’ve run into the last vestiges of manliness in American theater. In one of the first plays I wrote, a straight man said, ‘I don’t like gay people.’ And someone said to him, ‘Do you think they’re coming on to you?’ And he said, ‘No, I think they’re laughing at me.’ And I think that really is a terror. It’s been a constant stream of, ‘It’s camp, it’s camp, it’s camp.’ Well, it’s got to be more than that,” Beane says. “It’s got to be 100 minutes long.”


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