Films can achieve distinction in any number of ways. They can collect a record number of awards, break box-office records or introduce the public to an engaging new actor. "Xanadu," the infamous 1980 roller-disco movie musical, etched its name in the Book of Time by inspiring John Wilson to create the Golden Raspberry Awards, the annual "honors" that thumb their nose at Hollywood's worst efforts.
The Olivia Newton-John vehicle — which arguably killed the movie musical genre for a good 20 years — is still on many people's short list for worst film ever made. But redemption of a sort may be at hand. Librettist Douglas Carter Beane and director Christopher Ashley have devised the most unlikely entry yet in the jukebox musical and film-based musical genres. That's right: It's Xanadu the stage musical, complete with roller skate choreography and the film's Electric Light Orchestra songbook.
The idea for the project was producer Rob Ahrens'. "He had seen one of those events where people would get up and act out the movie," says Beane. "He thought, 'I think there's something here.' There was a kind of rabid interest among people who knew the movie."
In search of a bookwriter, Ahrens approached Beane — whose affinity for pop culture and kitsch is evident in such plays as The Little Dog Laughed and Mondo Drama. The playwright's initial response wasn't encouraging. "'No! Never!'" Beane recalls saying. "I passed several times, because it's a really bad movie." But Ahrens was persistent, and Beane reconsidered when he was told he would have free license to reinvent the story, which involves Kira (the Newton-John role), a muse who comes down to Venice Beach, California, to inspire Sonny, a struggling artist. "I had been looking for a while for a project that had the mixing of the mundane and the mystical," Beane explains. "Something magical, with a fish-out-of-water girl, like 'Bewitched.'"
Beane accepted Ahrens' invitation and ran with it. Asked what parts of the film story he changed, the librettist laughs and says, "Everything." He claims his script retained only 11 lines from the movie, while adding two quotations from Coleridge and a whole lot of Greek mythology. "Watching the movie, I can see the studio memo saying, 'Don't mention classical-Greek anything, ever! It will scare away the audience!' I just threw myself into that. I was fascinated with the idea of writing in the style of [classicist and mythology expert] Edith Hamilton — all the translations of Greek plays that I grew up with. It's sort of high-falutin', Victorian, trying-to-be-Elizabethan speak. Very grand. And then I thought it would be funny to have people like Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman saying things like 'Would that I were a god!'"
The dependably over-the-top Hoffman and Testa are indeed part of the cast, playing the villainous Muses of Tragedy and Epic, respectively — characters not found in the movie. "There actually is a line where they pass some scenery and they have to resist chewing on it," says director Christopher Ashley with a laugh.
Ashley was much easier to recruit than Beane. When Ahrens asked what he thought of "Xanadu," the director said, "I am a little obsessed with it." He claims to have seen the movie 148 times, but adds, "Forty-eight of those were after I started working on the project." (Oh. So, only 100 times then.) "I was about 16 when it came out, so the music is really entwined in my teenage years with what to me was romantic and sexy," he continues. The score includes such hits as "Magic," "I'm Alive" and the title tune. The stage show has kept those songs, while interpolating some other tunes from the ELO and Newton-John catalogues.
The rest of the cast includes James Carpinello as Sonny, Tony Roberts as Danny (a role created on film by Gene Kelly) and Kerry Butler as Kira. Rehearsals were unique, to say the least. The cast studied a variety of artistic influences, everything from the work of choreographers Martha Graham and Isadora Duncan to the classic camp film "Clash of the Titans." And every rehearsal included one hour of roller-skating, guided by national figure-skating pairs champion David Tankersley. (Butler spends nearly the entire show on skates.) "Hopefully the show will be hilariously ridiculous," says Ashley. "But as an acting style, we're totally taking it seriously. The central idea of our version is: What does it mean to create art?"
As if Xanadu wasn't quirky enough, the project boasts one other unusual aspect: It will open directly on Broadway, sans regional tryout or nonprofit premiere. Does the pressure cause Beane to lose sleep? "It would, if this was a big, two-act musical with vast patches of sincerity."