Headed to Broadway, Ready for My Close-Up

Onstage audience members are just feet from the dancing, roller-skating and drama of "Xanadu."
Onstage audience members are just feet from the dancing, roller-skating and drama of "Xanadu." (By Seth Wenig -- Associated Press)
By Tommy Nguyen
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 16, 2008

The first scene of Broadway's "Xanadu" begins mysteriously, with a young man chalking pretty pastel pictures on the stage floor as if it were a sidewalk in Venice Beach. It's the audience's first glimpse into the story of Sonny (Cheyenne Jackson), a California dreamer in search of a muse, not to mention their first eyeful of an actor whose snug jeans and tank top certify his top-shelf beefcake grade.

And yet my friend Steve, in a seat onstage just 10 feet behind Sonny, somehow believed that everyone in the audience was staring at him. At least, he was acting that way. Nearly frozen beneath the bright stage lights of the Helen Hayes Theater, Steve eventually shot a glare at me from his side of the seating section that seemed to ask, "Why did they have to separate us, why did I get stuck with the seat that directly faces the offstage audience, and why did I agree to any of this?"

Onstage seating -- an increasingly popular and often less-expensive option for theatergoers -- might not be for everyone. But I had a feeling that some level of immersion would be great for "Xanadu," one of Broadway's biggest surprise hits in recent memory despite its origin in a 1980 film flop starring Olivia Newton-John. The show's over-the-top, kinetically styled camp -- roller skates, Greek gods, leg warmers -- kicks off when Sonny meets his muse, the beautiful myth Clio (Kerry Butler), who disguises herself on Earth by talking like Nicole Kidman.

I knew it would also be a good place to catch a glimpse of the show's infamous fans (Fanadus, as many of them call themselves), whose rabid need for repeat viewings -- one was reported to have seen the musical 86 times, and that was back in October -- makes each new angle offered by onstage seating a must.

Finally, I also knew the drill. A year ago, I'd bought onstage seats for "Spring Awakening," the Tony Award-winning musical about forlorn adolescents going through sexually complicated lives in late-19th-century Germany. How different could it be?

* * *

Steve and I showed up early for "Xanadu," because I knew it would take some time for the ushers to go over their long do's-and-don'ts speech that hints at the risks involved when two worlds of disparate attractiveness and self-control share the same space. More important, I remembered to use the bathroom; short of hair catching on fire, onstage audience members are forbidden to leave their seats during the performance, and "Xanadu's" 90-minute run has no intermission.

Unfortunately, being early wasn't enough to keep Steve and me together. Though we had onstage tickets, the seating itself is first come, first served, and we were the last to arrive.

The onstage seating is divided into three areas at the rear of the stage, and those areas are separated by ramps that the performers use to enter and exit, many times on roller skates. That's why "Xanadu" had some important rules unique to the show. For instance, we were asked to dance with our arms held out front, not spread out at our sides, for fear that we might accidentally punch or karate-chop the performers should they come barreling down the ramp on wheels. A popular dance from the '50s that imitates the forward strokes of a swimmer, for instance, would be acceptable.

So safety was a big concern in the preparation of onstage audience members. But I was surprised that more onstage ticket holders didn't see the bigger issue in play here.

"What's this about dancing?" I asked the usher.

"At the end of the show, everyone gets up from their seats and starts dancing with their glow sticks," she said.

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