Springtime for ‘Xanadu’

Illustration by Sean McCabePhoto: Paul Kolnik/Courtesy of Blue Current PR

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.)

Olivia Newton-John in the film Xanadu, 1980.Photo: Universal/Everett Collection

“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!’ ”

Douglas Carter Beane at a rehearsal for his Broadway version.Photo: Kevin Cooley

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.”

After Jane Krakowski dropped out as the lead, the Broadway chat rooms reported that the role was offered to seven actresses, from Sarah Jessica Parker to Veronica Mars’s Kristen Bell, and declined by all. “In this process, I have been fascinated by the level of lies going on,” says Douglas Carter Beane, who adapted the movie for stage. “Sarah Jessica Parker read it and passed? She didn’t!”

SEE ALSO: Who’s Who in the Original Xanadu Crew

Springtime for ‘Xanadu’