When Jane Krakowski, who had starred in a successful workshop of the campy new musical Xanadu, declined to appear in the Broadway version of the show, producers turned to Hairspray veteran Kerry Butler, who was involved in some early readings, to play the dual role of goddess Clio/Australian roller-cutie Kira. While the cast rehearsed, and endured the exit of injured leading man James Carpinello, pundits gleefully predicted that the show „ based on one of the most awful films in Hollywood history „ would lay an egg of historic proportions. But, lo and behold, opening night was greeted with huzzahs, and Xanadu soon began to break box office records at the Helen Hayes Theatre. Reviewers were particularly appreciative of Butler's sly mix of cloying sincerity and subtle self-parody, not to mention her dead-on Olivia Newton-John vocal impersonation. Broadway's only roller-skating star spoke to Playbill.com about the new hobbies and habits the hit show has brought into her life.
Playbill.com: How is the roller-skating going? Are you getting better every night?
Kerry Butler: I am, yeah. I actually love it now. It's really fun. I won't try anything crazy, because I don't want to test fate, but I think when I'm done with the show, I will still do it. Then I'll try some crazy things, because it won't matter if I break my leg.
Playbill.com: So you'll keep skating as a hobby.
KB: Yeah. I finally found something that I'm kind of good at.
Playbill.com: Do you always wear the same skates?
KB: I have two sets of skates. One is a trick skate for when a character pulls off my skate. But I wear the same skates otherwise, and I get really nervous if anyone messes with my skates. Any tiny thing can throw off my whole show. If they loosen my wheels, it completely changes the way I skate. That used to happen a lot in the beginning, in rehearsals. People would just change our skates, because they thought they were doing us a favor.
Playbill.com: The show has a kind of free-for-all feeling to it. Was there a lot of improvisation in the rehearsal process, a lot of experimenting with the production?
KB: There wasn't a lot of improv. We stuck pretty close to the script. It was more like people would throw out ideas. I think James [Carpinello] came up with the idea for the chorus to hold up the scoring cards for my skating. Things like that we had more input on. But I didn't change anything in the script. The creators changed a lot during previews. They would add new jokes and change things around a little bit. Playbill.com: How did you manage to perfect your Olivia Newton-John singing voice? It's eerily accurate.
KB: Oh, thanks! That was one thing I didn't have to work hard on, because growing up I loved Olivia Newton-John. I listened to her all the time when I was little. You just think growing up that if you love somebody, that's how you want to sing. I would sing all her songs and try to sound like her. So, I didn't do much work on that when I did the show. I listened to some of the stuff just to remind myself. I hadn't done the breathy stuff before, but when I listened to the songs again, that kind of struck me, so I added that to the show.
Playbill.com: Do you still have her old albums in your collection?
KB: I think my parents have them in their garage. I should actually look for them! That's a good idea!
Playbill.com: What was your reaction when you woke up the morning after opening night and realized the critical reaction was so positive to Xanadu? The show was expected to flop, after all.
KB: My husband said, "I know you're not reading reviews, but you've just got to hear this New York Times review, because they said some really nice things about you. Who knows if that will ever happen again?" (Laughs) So he read that to me and I was like, "Wow!" But, I can't place too much importance on that now, because the next time I'm in a show, then I might have that anxiety [about the critics].
Playbill.com: A lot of the reviews said this performance was the best they had ever seen from you. Does that seem strange to you that your finest moment should be in this very unlikely project?
KB: That's what my family says, too. They say, "This is the perfect part for you." But you'd think the part would be a lot easier to play, if it was the perfect part for me. I had to work hard to get where I am in this part. The Kira part comes easily to me. I was never worried about playing the Australian Kira. I could always see what fun I could have as that. The grounded goddess Clio part is kind of far for me, so [director] Chris [Ashley] worked with me a lot and really pushed me. I think it's a good part of me, because it shows so many different levels. It really challenged me to go outside of my comfort zone.
Playbill.com: You said you were an Olivia Newton-John fan. Does that mean you saw the movie "Xanadu" when it came out? You must have been very young.
KB: I was young, and I saw it and I loved it. I used to sing all of those songs. I hadn't seen it since I was little, and it didn't hold up for me as much as an adult, I have to say. But the music is still great, and I still loved Olivia Newton-John when I watched it.
Playbill.com: It's been a few weeks since opening. Does it seem to you that the audience is still having fun? KB: Yes, the audience always has a fun time. And it's actually getting more fun for me. In the beginning, the show was always fun, but all the stories of people getting hurt „ it's hard to really enjoy yourself when you feel bad about people breaking legs all over the place. It's hard to get that out of your mind when you're on skates. We do a little prayer circle before each show and our list keeps getting longer. We're like, "Please heal James. Please heal Kenita. Please heal Martyƒ" (Laughs)