What chance did a 1980 movie voted one of the worst musicals of all time have of becoming a contemporary stage hit?
True, “Xanadu” had a soundtrack full of hits from star Olivia Newton-John and the Electric Light Orchestra. But they came in a loopy story about meeting a muse from Olympus, the opening of a roller disco nightclub, a weird animated segment and the worst script ever given Gene Kelly, in what was, sadly, his final film.
Most of the propulsion, though, comes with the wheeled footwear of the show. “Roller skates,” says Matthew Gardiner, who is directing and choreographing a version of “Xanadu” at Arlington’s Signature Theatre, “will be the death of me.”
But what might have otherwise been forgotten with the Village People musical of the same year (“Can’t Stop the Music”) has been kept alive as a kind of so-bad-it’s-good cult classic by those who saw it as children, diehard ELO fans or simple devotees of camp and the truly bad.
They combined to make a big enough audience to launch a combination parody/revival on Broadway — a re-creation based in an illogical love for the work, covered with a tart coat of pure ridicule.
Fueled by a similarly combined send-up and homage to the past found in “Grease,” and “Hairspray,” and the smorgasbord of nostalgia-aged cheese in the Abba-fueled “Mamma Mia,” a stage musical version of “Xanadu” seemed inevitable, especially after the success of a “Xanadu Singalong” in Hollywood in 2001.
And in 2007, when Douglas Carter Beane (“To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar”) did a sharp rewrite that ridiculed the film but nonetheless celebrated the songs — and the era of feathered hair and legwarmers — it earned a pair of Tony nominations, the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and the and the Drama Desk Award for Best Book, and ran for 500 performances.
“A lot of people don’t see how well constructed the piece is,” says Gardiner. The singing, roller-skating production that begins Tuesday stars Erin Weaver, Charlie Brady, Sherri L. Edelin and Nova Y. Payton.
Like a lot of the audience, “I grew up watching the original film,” says Gardiner, 28.
It starred Newton-John, the Australian pop singer who had helped revive the movie musical with “Grease” two years before, as a Greek muse come to life to inspire a dejected artist, played by Michael Beck, who had just become a star in his own cult classic “The Warriors” the year before.
As he chases her around Venice Beach and a number of oddly Art Deco-style sets, he runs into an old Glenn Miller sideman played by Gene Kelly, who is essentially reprising a role he played in 1944, nightclub owner Danny McGuire in the Rita Hayworth musical “Cover Girl” (although “Xanadu” essentially remakes another Hayworth musical, the 1947 “Down to Earth”).
“Xanadu” was one of the first credits of choreographer Kenny Ortega, who would go on to choreograph “Dirty Dancing” and direct and choreograph “Newsies,” the “High School Musical” films and “Michael Jackson’s ‘This Is It.’ ”
But his choreography in “Xanadu” “is the most atrocious ever on film,” declares Gardiner, who aims to blend in his choreography, per the playwright’s instruction, “Isadora Duncan and the Solid Gold Dancers.” Plus skates.
The movie wasn’t a complete failure – it made back its money in a way a movie with a soundtrack selling 5 million copies will do. But its reviews were so scathing (“Xana-don’t,” Esquire urged) that it effectively ended any hope of reviving movie musicals in the wake of “Grease.”
For Newton-John, “basically it ended her movie career,” Gardiner says.
She did well with her “Xanadu” singles, though, with the No. 1 “Magic,” the duet with Cliff Richard, “Suddenly,” and her hit version of the film’s theme song — the only intersection between her and Jeff Lynne, the ELO mastermind who wrote it.
For the 2000 boxed set “Flashback,” Lynne recorded a new version of “Xanadu,” which had reached No. 8 in its original incarnation and was the band’s only British No. 1 hit (“I always liked the song, and fancied another go at it,” he says in the liner notes).
But the British band scored three other hits from the project – “I’m Alive” (No. 16), “All Over the World” (No. 13) and “Don’t Walk Away” (No. 21 in the U.K.), which played during the movie’s animated segment.
The “Xanadu” songs came near the end of ELO’s time as a band. But there’s been a revival of its work in films and, especially, commercials this decade, with “Mr. Blue Sky” (1977, “Out of the Blue” album) alone used in ads for the movies “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Adaptation,” as well as in ads from Target, JetBlue, Sears and Volkswagen.
A couple of more ELO hits were added to the “Xanadu” stage musical — “Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic” — and it also adds Newton-John’s ever-cheesy ballad “Have You Never Been Mellow,” and a film song not included on the original soundtrack album, “Fool Country,” written, as were many of her hits, by John Farrar.
Despite all the hits, “When I’m directing it, it doesn’t feel like it’s a jukebox musical,” Gardiner says. “The songs actually propel the story forward and have a purpose.”
More cheesy pop revivals? Here are a few modest suggestions . . .
They may not be writing standards for the Broadway stage the way they were a century ago, but “Xanadu” proves there’s no end to the mining of soft rock and cheesy radio hits from the ’70s and ’80s.
Already, “Rock of Ages” has found the power of singing corny hair rock songs from the ’80s on Broadway — with a movie version starring Tom Cruise coming next month. And there’s room for more blasts from the past where that comes from. We offer these suggestions:
●“Sweeney Todd Rundgren” — Runt plays the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, lending menace to songs like “Hello, It’s Me” (1973) and “Can We Still Be Friends” (1978).
●“Sunday in the Rain, the Park and Other Things” — The Cowsills songbook, including the 1967 song embedded in the title, is featured in this adaptation of the Sondheim musical about Seurat.
●“Chicago 2” — The Oscar-winning musical named after the Windy City, infused with a new score from the band of the same name that gave us “Saturday in the Park” (1972) and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is” (1970). Chance of success: “25 or 6 to 4” (1970).
●“Wicked”— Not the Oz musical, but the Boston slang term for “very,” featuring music from the city’s hardest rocking bands: Aerosmith, the Cars, and of course, Boston, playing “Dream On” (1973), “Just What I Needed” (1978) and “More Than a Feeling” (1976).
●“The Bread-Winner” — The William Somerset Maugham play turns into a showcase for the songs of David Gates and his band Bread. Ticket-buyers will be saying, “Baby I’m-a Want You” (1971).
●“Long Day’s Journey Into Three Dog Night” — Descending into the bleaker ballads of the band, such as “One,” “Easy to Be Hard” (both from 1969) and “Mama Told Me (Not to Come)” (1970).
●“Tom Jones: The Musical” — There actually is such a title, featuring the character from Henry Fielding’s novel. How about one showcasing the guy who did “What’s New Pussycat?” (1965) and “She’s a Lady” (1971)?
●“O Captain, My Captain and Tennille” — Walt Whitman is the unexpected narrator of this musical showcase of the makers of “Love Will Keep Us Together” (1975) and “Muskrat Love” (1976).
Catlin is a freelance writer.
Book by Douglas Carter Beane, music by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar. Tuesday through July 1 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. 571-527-1860 or www.signature-theatre.org.