In honor of Turkey Day, I’m reposting my article on what is the biggest film turkeys ever which somehow was transformed by the genius of Douglas Carter Beane into one of the best stage musicals ever.
Watching the Tony’s, I started to think back to some of my favorite Broadway shows. Then I thought: Was “Xanadu” the greatest musical ever? From my point of view, a definite “yes”. The fact that I saw it four times should attest to my love for the show. You ask, how could the great musical ever come from one of the worst musical films ever?
Let’s take a trip back down memory lane to that carefree year 1980 when the movie “Xanadu” landed in movie theaters. It looked like Ronald Reagan would be our next President, hostages were still being held in Iran, the economy was still in the doldrums, and worst of all, an active “Disco Sucks” movement was fomenting a backlash against the flowering of women’s sexuality, gay sexuality, and people of color.
So yes, the world needed a breath of fresh air; unfortunately, “Xanadu” wasn’t it. It started as a low-budget roller disco film, then due to the sudden backlash against disco and the addition of some big stars, they tried to morph it into something else without really knowing what they were doing.
However, you say, it’s got Olivia Newton-John! How could it fail? She was a hot commodity after “Grease” of course. And there were great songs, half from John Farrar, who wrote “You’re the One that I Want” and “Hopelessly Devoted To You”, and half from ELO. These assets could not overcome the limp story, cardboard characters, terrible direction, and miscast romantic lead Michael Beck who was no John Travolta. They did manage to cast the legendary Gene Kelly for a supporting role and there’s a charming musical number where he dances with Oliva called “Whenever You’re Away From Me”.
The story? If you must. Olivia plays a muse named Kira who lands on earth and falls in love with an artist played by Beck, encouraging him to pursue his dream of opening a club called Xanadu in the now-abandoned Pan Pacific Auditorium (incredible Streamline Moderne building later lost to fire) in central Los Angeles. With Kelly’s help, they do open the club, although due to her godly obligations, she can only spend opening night with him before going back to Mount Olympus. It’s all dull as dishwater. The filmed opened to a thud. It was nominated for six Razzies and won for Worst Director.
Flash forward 27 years. “Xanadu” had in the interim become a cult film. The very successful soundtrack helped keep it alive, having produced five Top 20 hits: “Magic”and “Suddenly” from Olivia’s side of the record, and “I’m Alive”, “All Over the World” and “Xanadu” (with Olivia) from ELO’s side. A plucky producer, Robert Ahrens, spent years wrestling away the rights, then approached playwright Douglas Carter Beane, who’d written the film “To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar” and was fresh off a Broadway success with “A Little Dog Laughed”, starring Julie White and Johnny Galecki.
Beane was skeptical himself about the potential to rehabilitate the story but decided to take on the challenge. They workshopped the show in 2006 with Jane Krakowski (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) as Kira and Cheyenne Jackson as Sonny Malone. Both had to drop out from doing the Broadway production due to other commitments.
Fate intervened, however. The new actor playing Sonny, James Carpinello, broke his leg in three places while rehearsing on roller skates just two weeks before opening. Cheyenne Jackson, luckily, was available but not for a few weeks, so they postponed the opening to July 10th, 2007.
You could not tell anything was amiss. When we saw the show the first time, it was perfection. Cheyenne Jackson seemed born to play Sonny while Kerry Butler, who had originated Penny Pingleton in “Hairspray”, was perfection–cute, funny, with a great voice and she didn’t fall once. Douglas Carter Beane miraculously found ways to strengthen the narrative considerably, adding a major plot element inspired by another cult movie “Clash of the Titans”, switching some elements around, adding two antagonists played by Mary Testa (currently in “Oklahoma!”) and Jackie Hoffman, and slyly, poking fun at the original film and actors (e.g. the muse Kira for some inexplicable reason still has an Australian accent).
“Suddenly”, we were charmed by Jackson’s Sonny and delighted by Kerry Butler’s cute-as-a-button Kira. We were even invested in his “Xanadu” dream which had seemed so lame in the movie, and now we were pulled into his romance with Kira, caught between heaven and earth.
Above all, it was hilarious. Along with all the jokes poking fun at the original film and the ’80s in general, Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman were a scream, at one point massacring “Evil Woman”, one of the three songs added along with ELO’s “Strange Magic” and Olivia Newton-John’s “Have You Never Been Mellow”(!). Apparently, the London production added “Physical”.
The second time we saw it, we sat onstage, a novel idea that was a bit of a trend for a while on Broadway. It was great because the actors would skate up to us and wink or whisper things. Amazingly, we didn’t notice until well into the show that Kira was being played by the understudy. She was fantastic. In general, I’ve found understudies to be excellent (Jeremy Kushnier in “Jesus Christ Superstar” was a revelation).
Below is their Tony Award performance, a bit fuzzy but a great reminder of how talented the two leads were.
To promote the show, they produced six shorts that were “behind the scenes”. This one has a nervous Nathan Lane backstage with all the boys of the show:
We saw it a third time and would have seen it again on Broadway, if it hadn’t unfortunately closed after 49 previews and 513 performances. Well, I think the show was too good for Broadway. Which is why it went on tour and that’s where we saw it a fourth time at the La Jolla Playhouse. Again, a hoot. The funniest thing was the fact that they found a Jackie Hoffman clone. She’s that good. If you haven’t seen her solo comedy shows, you must. At one of her shows, she talked about how she auditioned for “Fiddler on the Roof” and was told she was too Jewish. Rosie O’Donnell on the other hand, was just right.
It’s been 12 years since “Xanadu” closed. Isn’t it time for a revival? I’ll be first in line.