PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Xanadu — Talent to a Muse

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Xanadu — Talent to a Muse "Xanadu," that cinematic mega-miss of 1980 (of all the eighties), was not casually arrived at, and neither was its second coming — as a Broadway musical full of glitz-up and go — which hit the Helen Hayes July 10 with a full complement of mirrored balls and disco sounds.

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The fallout from the film is famous. It pretty much stopped screen careers of new (Olivia Newton-John) and old (Gene Kelly, in his last star part) alike. In one case, a star was stillborn: Michael Beck. After a strong debut in "The Warriors," he was tapped to play the hapless hero who had to lug the lead-heavy plot around. "'The Warriors' opened a lot of doors in film for me, which 'Xanadu' then closed," he'd say. He now does books-on-tape.

The movie was nominated for seven Golden Raspberry Awards, including the one for Worst "Musical" of Our First 25 Years, and it actually won a Razzie for Worst Director (Robert Greenwald, who had never done this sort of work before). Also nominated and pretty directionless was the screenplay by Richard Danus and Marc Rubel, who are dutifully acknowledged — albeit, in tiny type — on the Playbill cover page of credits.

Why then, you have to ask, would one fly in the face of such classic criticism and create a Broadway musical? Lead producer Robert Ahrens' hand shot up. He was four years old at the time of the film's release, and he was able to recruit other like-minds. (Four of his co-producers were born in 1980 — clearly, the cult following was slow to take hold.)

"I'll confess: I had the idea," admitted Ahrens, still wide-eyed and smiling at the opening-night party at Providence. "I hope I prove them wrong. The critics are still out, but I hope I prove them wrong. I thought the movie had so many elements that were great for the stage — great music and great energy. Obviously, it didn't have a great script, but I felt that I could solve that problem by getting Douglas Carter Beane to do the book."

Beane, fresh from writing Julie White a Tony-winning role in The Little Dog Laughed, was beaming — from relief, he readily allowed, but happy with what he had wrought. "Initially, I was a little afraid, but I liked the fact that I got to rewrite it. I, very particularly, got to do that myself. The characters all sound like they're my characters." That kind of control was becalming for him, and he charged full-throttle into the assignment. "Also, I realized if I got it right, I'd really be doing something. It's like if you take a really good movie and turn it into a hit, they say, 'Oh, that's really good work,' and, if you take an awful movie and turn it into a good musical, that would be art."

Marking those words, Beane has set a very high site for himself next, rushing from the ridiculous to the sublime: He's adapting the 1931 Broadway revue/1953 movie musical, "The Band Wagon." The MGM film is generally regarded as the first or second best American screen musical of all time (depending on how deep your affection runs for 'Singin' in the Rain' from the year before). "I'll be incorporating a lot of music from the original revue, and the movie storyline is what I'll use for the book — along with all those great songs. Barry and Fran Weissler are producing, and Gary Griffin is directing."

Newton-John, on the arm of a man identified only as John, lent some authentic glamour to the hot (oppressively so) evening — and proved an all-round good sport about the brickbats flung however gingerly and affectionately in The Main Event. Beane's wickedly, winkingly camp book lapses into self-commenting film criticism, stepping outside the action to assess the absurdity of the situation rather than flatly reprise the film.

"I loved it," she trilled. "It thought it was wonderful, so funny and so clever and witty. I thought the staging was great, and I liked the way they made fun of things — rightly so, too."

Come curtain call, she gamely took the stage and mimed her thanks to the cast. Accompanying her onstage was the silver-haired, movie-star-handsome John Farrar, who, with the A.W.O.L. Jeff Lynne, wrote the show's score. They did it separately, and each did his own words and music. Farrar has written quite a few of Newton-John's greatest hits, including "Xanadu"'s first hit (of at least four), "Magic." He also spruced up the "Grease" film score for her with "You're the One That I Want" and the Oscar-contending "Hopelessly Devoted to You."

"There is no new music in Xanadu," he said, when asked if he provided some new numbers. "What they did was add an old song of mine, 'Have You Never Been Mellow?' and two of Jeff's songs. The only new things in the show are songs from our catalogs."

He was in the process of penning his Broadway debut score when Xanadu came up from behind and made it across the finish line first. "It's startling. I'm surprised and so pleased because it's a shame when you see something you worked on all those years ago just sorta disappear. There were parts of it that I thought were worthy of keeping. Now they have."

The musical currently occupying him is that surf flick from '58, "Gidget," which started up starring Sandra Dee and used different actresses in the title role for the rest of the series.

He has an improbable collaborator: "Francis Ford Coppola and I have written a whole lot of new songs. He can do anything. This will all be new stuff, nothing from the movies."

His elegant Mrs., Pat Carroll, said she and her hubby have known Newton-John for 45 years. In fact, "Olivia and I sang as a double act for many years, called Pat and Olivia."

Xanadu's heroine is one of Zeus' nine daughters who comes down to earth, disguising herself with an Aussie accent and a pseudonym (Kira, or, as it's pronounced Down Under, Keeera). By any other name, she's Terpiscore, Goddess of the Dance, as played by Newton-John in Xanadu and by Rita Hayworth in 1947's "Down to Earth," a hazy precursor of "Xanadu" and itself a reimagining of 1941's "Here Comes Mr. Jordan"), but Beane redubbed the part Clio. "I wanted her to be the leader of the muses, not just the Goddess of the Dance, and Clio in some classical circles is considered the head muse."

Kira (or Kitty, as Rita did it) has come to earth to play muse for a struggling young artiste named Sonny Malone. The movie has him painting album covers, but in the musical he is reduced to the ephemeral — chalk-drawings on the sidewalk. She gives him inspiration, and he gives her love, which is reciprocated — a definite no-no for mythology-morphing plots.

Xanadu is a roller-disco they create with the help of a nightclub owner whom Clio mused for in a previous life. His name is Danny McGuire, just like the nightclub owner Kelly played in 1944's "Cover Girl," opposite Hayworth. It is here in this gaudy ballroom that the forties are supposed to happily merge with the eighties, but, in truth, in the movie this only happens one time, and that is when Kelly and Newton-John come together and dance to "Whenever You're Away From Me." It would be Kelly's last dance on screen.

Doffing his hat to another screen moment, the then-68-year-old Kelly donned roller skates — and "It's Always Fair Weather" all over again — but Tony Roberts, who plays McGuire (and doubles, in a pinch, as Zeus) and is a year younger, eschews the skates.

"I couldn't skate when I was 11," he confessed. "I could ice-skate a little bit, but I only went to the ice-skate outings for the girls. I would sit and say 'Hi' as they skated by. It's not my thing. Also, I didn't think I should cost the state taxpayers' money and workman's comp, and that's the reason that I had it put in my contract: 'I don't skate.'"

Roberts owned up to having seen the film — kinda. "After I got the part, I looked at the movie, but I did a little skipping forward because life is short, and that's a movie without a plot, so it's hard to stay with it, but the songs are so wonderful. They still are wonderful."

Originally, he said, "Xanadu" was to have been a straight roller-disco flick, but when Kelly entered the picture with his forties baggage, everything changed, and things got off in all directions. "He had the permission of the producers to do anything he wanted to the script. What Douglas Carter Beane came up with is so entertaining, so make-believe, that you can't resist it. You have to be crazy if you can't have a good time with this. It's pretend, in the best sense of that word, for theatre. I'm just judging from the reactions. Every audience in this seven weeks of previews is weeping and hollering and carrying on. It makes me feel like I'm in a rock concert. This is as close to Sting as I'll ever get."

Prominent, as usual, in Roberts' rooting section is Penny Fuller, a pal since they played young marrieds in the original production of Barefoot in the Park. Her upcoming gigs? "I'm doing my cabaret at the Metropolitan Room, and I'm doing the new Horton Foote play at Primary Stages [Dividing the Estate, opening Oct. 2, co-starring Elizabeth Ashley and Gerald McRaney, directed by Old Acquaintance's Michael Wilson]."

Weathering the evening with a set smile and crutches was James Carpinello, the show's No. One Sonny, who was sidelined by a roller-skate mishap. "I broke my ankle in two places and my tibula," he said. "It was a silly fall. It wasn't anything spectacular." He made it up the winding stairs of Providence to the press room by doing "a little dance" (it looked like the bunny hop) and became the center for well-wishers. But it was a tough night for him: "Oh, it was terrible. To spend so much time working on something and not be able to do it! But I'm glad I'm here, and I'm going back in the show as soon as I can."

Meanwhile, the role usually played by James Carpinello is being played — clearly, this is a job for Superman — by Cheyenne Jackson, who, in point of fact, was appearing in It's a Bird . . . It's a Plane . . . It's you-know-who at the York Theatre when he got the S.O.S. to join the show. Two-and-a-half weeks later, he owns the part — a real trouper's turn. Of course, the rush reduced his research time. "I wouldn't call it research, but, yeah, I did see the movie. My parents were ex-hippies from California, and they could never get through it."

Kerry Butler had the uncomfortable star-spot of the evening, playing Olivia Newton-John with the lady herself in the audience. "Yes, I was very nervous," she admitted. "I was so nervous that she wouldn't like the accent or breathy thing, so I thought I was a tiny bit rocky because I was just thinking about her. But she couldn't have been nicer to me. She said she's never laughed so hard. She said, 'You even got the way I move my body.' I said, 'I wasn't going for that, but thanks.' I was channeling or something."

Most of the hilarity of the evening was centrally located on Beane bags — Jackie Hoffman and Mary Testa, onstage at the same time, passing for Greek chorus but screaming contemporary. Happily, and as you might well suspect, it is a Mutual Admiration Society.

"We have a great time together," Testa said. "It's a pleasure to work with her because she is as funny as hell. She's a dreamboat, and I adore her. We are good friends now."

Hoffman returned the serve, but first she had to tear herself away and put her mother in a limo — a caring, loving gesture. "There'll be stars in your crown," she was told when she returned. "Yes," she said. "And it's never enough. If you're Jewish, it's never enough."

Best gag of the night occurred in the doorway of the theatre where Cindy Adams had taken shelter from the swelter to greet the arrivals. She oohed and aahed over an aqua necklace Liz McCann was wearing, prompting the producer to say, "Do you know how often I get admired for junk jewelry? This is table decoration from the Tony Awards!"

Top: The company of <i>Xanadu</i> takes its opening-night bows; Bottom: John Farrar and Olivia Newton-John join Kerry Butler, Cheyenne Jackson and Tony Roberts for <i>Xanadu</i>'s opening night bows.
Top: The company of Xanadu takes its opening-night bows; Bottom: John Farrar and Olivia Newton-John join Kerry Butler, Cheyenne Jackson and Tony Roberts for Xanadu's opening night bows. Photo by Aubrey Reuben