MGF Reviews Xanadu on Broadway – The Original Broadway Cast Recording

Xanadu on Broadway – The Original Broadway Cast Recording
PS Classics (1/8/08)

Available at

Oh, is this one going to require an explanation. Fortunately for you, I was there for all of it. And, yes, I remember it well. So grab a seat, a refreshing beverage made by PepsiCo, and some popcorn. This is going to take a while. I’d advise you hitting the restroom before I start.

Ready? Snacks all prepared and your bladders empty? Good. It all started a long, long time ago with an article in Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone was hip, edgy, and the arbiter of everything that was cool in music…

…will you please stop giggling? Yes, I know that what I said is inconceivable and ridiculous, but this was a long, long time ago, so long ago that CDs didn’t exist and Professor Eric hadn’t even hit puberty yet. As I said, a long, long, LONG time ago. So shush and let me tell the story.

As I said, it all started with an article in Rolling Stone. The article was called “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night”, and told the story of the mini-society that was creating itself inside of a disco in Brooklyn and its attendant sociology and values. It was a revelation to readers. Once you entered that disco, the rules of life changed. Losers became winners based on their ability to do the Hustle. The inside of a disco could be as foreign and disconcerting as the jungles of New Guinea. Great piece.

Eventually, someone thought it would be a terrific idea to make it into a movie. Hey, why not? Everything can be made into a movie, after all. There was only one snag: since it involved a disco, the movie would have to be a musical. The movie musical had been dead for nearly a decade. It was a tough sell. However, the film got sold for two reasons. First of all, the budget would be low, so if the movie tanked, no skin off anyone’s nose. Second, the star of the film would be the breakthrough performer on the hit TV series Welcome Back, Kotter, a young performer named John Travolta, who was perfect for the lead role.

The film would eventually become known as Saturday Night Fever. It was a huge hit. The soundtrack was an even bigger hit, front-loaded with appealing songs by the Bee Gees, one of the few established groups who successfully adapted to the needs of disco. It’s still the biggest-selling soundtrack album in history and one of the biggest-selling albums of any sort ever. It alone extended the lifespan of disco far past its sell-by date.

So, here was Hollywood with a very unexpected hit on their hands. Naturally, this being Hollywood, they had to figure out how to make more money off of this. Fortunately, someone had a great idea. ’50s nostalgia was huge at the time—the two biggest shows on TV were Happy Days and its spin-off Laverne and Shirley. On Broadway, one of the biggest new hits played directly off of this nostalgia craze. Grease was a musical that seemed to appeal to audiences of all ages. It was pulling in big box-office. But with the exception of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (at the time, still not a cult favorite), Hollywood hadn’t tried to adapt a Broadway musical since someone thought it’d be a good idea to have Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood sing in Paint Your Wagon. The movie industry was gun-shy about a movie adaptation of a Broadway hit. But, what if Travolta could be convinced to do the lead? He could sing—he’d already had a Top Ten single. And what if they paired him with an established rock star as his female lead? There was someone who seemed to be ideal for the role: Australian chanteuse Olivia Newton-John. She had the perfect image and the vocal chops.

Everyone got on board, and Grease became an enormous hit, with another enormous soundtrack album trailing in its wake. All was well and good. Except for one thing: this was Hollywood, the land of drawing general conclusions from specific circumstances. Lots of people came to different conclusions about the meaning of the successes of Saturday Night Fever and Grease. And the results were, shall we say, dire. Here’s a scorecard of some of those conclusions and the results:

Broadway musicals were now fair game again. Result: The Wiz, which ended Diana Ross’ acting career for good. Somehow, Michael Jackson escaped blame for this disaster. Imagine if he hadn’t, and how different the world would be.

You can do a movie musical as long as it had loads of disco music. Result: Thank God It’s Friday, an expensive dud, and Can’t Stop the Music, the ultimate in kitsch, which really can’t be described. It was one of the stakes in the heart of the Village People’s career, yet, somehow, Steve Guttenberg escaped blame. Imagine if he hadn’t, and smile.

The real reason for the success of Grease was Olivia Newton-John:. Result: Xanadu.

This is a film that a lot more people have heard of than seen. It’s regarded as one of the Legendary Film Disasters of the Eighties, right up there with Heaven’s Gate and Ishtar. You’ll understand why when I quickly summarize the plot. A Venice, California, street artist (Michael Beck) is sorely in need of inspiration. Answering his call, one of the Greek Muses (Newton-John) descends from Olympus to inspire him. Apparently, dressing like a late-’70s bimbo and strapping on a pair of roller skates is an integral part of this process. In the process of inspiration, Newton-John runs into a musician that she inspired during World War II (Gene Kelly). Together, the threesome, mutually inspired, come up with the ultimate expression of their combined inspiration: a combination of a ’40s nightclub and roller disco called Xanadu.

Look, there was cocaine involved. Lots of it. Anything that might seem inexplicable and insane from this era can be easily explained by the involvement of tootski. Thanks to Peruvian marching powder, someone, somewhere, thought this was a perfectly acceptable plot for a movie musical. Someone else was able to drag Gene Kelly out of retirement by promising him that this would be just like a ’40s MGM movie, but with a “modern” twist. And someone else decided to get Jeff Lynne involved. And that’s how I entered the picture.

It’s well-known that I’m the world’s biggest ELO fanboy. I’ve been so for a long time now. Lynne’s involvement got me into the theater to see this steaming pile of feces. Little did I know that I was collateral damage. Lynne’s ego is very well-known now, but not so back in 1980. He’d always wanted to do a movie soundtrack, and with ELO coming off of their two biggest albums to date, Out of the Blue and Discovery, he was a hot property. So, a division of labor was made in regard to the music. ELO would do half of the soundtrack, and John Farrar, Newton-John’s chief collaborator, would do the other half. The two would get together on the closing number.

Because of this, Xanadu has become the exemplar of a phenomenon of that era: movie bombs with big hit soundtrack albums, and this soundtrack was a great one. Disengaged from the film and played on radio, audiences responded to the music (one has to wonder what would have happened had MTV been around and videos based on the movie were made). ELO had a Top Ten hit with “All Over the World” and a Top Twenty hit with “I’m Alive”. Newton-John went to #1 with “Magic”. The title track duet went Top Five. The album went to #1. This is an element of the film that’s usually ignored by movie historians, and helped color one of the biggest misconceptions about the film.

Xanadu is said to be a career-killer, and such is its reputation that the statement is accepted at face value. It’s also completely wrong. Michael Beck’s career was killed, but that’s about it. Newton-John ended up having her biggest hit the year after Xanadu, the song that’s now regarded as her signature number, “Physical”. ELO’s next album was Time, which contains the song that’s earned Lynne more money than anything he’s ever done, “Hold On Tight”. The Tubes, who performed in the show-stopping (and movie-stopping) number “Dancin'”, had their two biggest albums and biggest single right after Xanadu. Cliff Richard, who duetted with Newton-John on “Suddenly”, had his biggest hit in the US in the wake of Xanadu, with “We Don’t Talk Anymore”. It didn’t even kill Newton-John’s movie career. That had to wait until 1983 and her big reunion with Travolta, Two of a Kind.

So, essentially, Xanadu passed into pop culture without a trace. And it would have stayed in the memory hole if not for circumstances beyond anyone’s control.

Somehow, for some reason, ’70s nostalgia became big. Anyone like me who lived it has wondered how this happened. I have no clue, and, frankly, I don’t wish to analyze it. However, its effects were far-reaching. One of the pillars of that movement is Mamma Mia. It’s drawn capacity audiences all over the world for two reasons: (1) the ABBA soundtrack, and (2) its pleasing plot, which isn’t afraid to delve into the ordure of pure kitsch. It’s a harmless, entertaining theater experience. However, Broadway is as copy-cattish as Hollywood. And sitting right there in the pop-culture trash bin is something as kitschy as Mamma Mia, something that’s as much of an artifact of its time that can be sold as post-modern nostalgia, with all the intendant winking and giggles that process involves. And it’s already pre-made as a musical with just enough of a plot to hang it together. So why not bring Xanadu to the stage and sell it as a corny good time? Heck, the audience won’t even mind the roller disco elements thanks to Starlight Express.

Oy, vey.

Here’s the problem that anyone familiar with the material will have: these songs are distinctive. They’re very closely connected with the artist that originally performed them, much more so than ABBA’s rather universal material. Jeff Lynne wrote his material for him to sing and ELO to perform. John Farrar wrote his material for Olivia Newton-John. Can the songs be disconnected from the artists for someone else to sing? There’s an acid test here that’s instructive. ELO recorded a version of “Xanadu” with Lynne singing lead and no Newton-John to be found. It was horrible. It’s a major test for the performers here to create that disconnect and then sell it. How well did they do?

In its original version, “I’m Alive” has a wonderful sense of grandeur to it. Even Lynne’s worst critics have to admit that he can turn a mere song into a mini-epic, and it’s used quite well in the film as a dance number involving the Muses. The soundtrack undercuts this grandeur by using the song as the set-up for the goofy plot. The vocals don’t really kick in until the last verse, by which time it’s too late. “I’m Alive” is one of my favorite ELO tracks, so maybe nothing could live up to the original in my mind. But this version doesn’t even really try. It’s obvious that the key selling point of the stage version is the kitsch. There’s a very fine line in post-modernism between selling kitsch to the audience and pushing it on them.

Olivia Newton-John has put out a lot of audience-pleasing MOR pap over the last three decades plus. But one vocal performance of hers that no one has ever critized has been her wonderful, sweet “Magic”. It’s always been her most respected song. In contrast, Kerry Butler’s performance here is far too brassy, even for a stage version. Sticking to the song instead of trying too hard to sell it to an audience is sometimes the best approach in situations like these. Her in-and-out Newton-John impersonation is the final factor that sinks the song.

In order to pad out the musical, some non-Xanadu tracks were taken from the Lynne and Farrar songbooks. The choice of this addition material is, in general, unfortunate, since the tracks chosen are very well-known, moreso than the Xanadu material itself. “Evil Woman” is certainly one of ELO’s best known songs. It works well in the context of being sung by the female antagonists of our story, and Jackie Hoffman and Mary Testa’s gospelesque vocal touches work decently. However, the “humorous” vamping does hideous violence to a song that’s on heavy rotation on every classic rock station in the world. It makes one realize what a genius performance Kristin Chenoweth gave in Wicked. She could have gone totally over-the-top as Glinda and no one would have blamed her. But she utilized vocal subtleties to flesh out the character and impart sympathy. Of course, Wicked wasn’t being played for yucks.

Butler’s indecision about her Newton-John impersonation helps to undercut “Suddenly”. Cheyenne Jackson does honor to Cliff Richard’s original, and he does blend quite well harmonically with Butler, but Butler’s vocals, with their occasional descent into chopped, almost staccato, patterns, make it difficult to do so. Give credit to Jackson for his efforts.

Butler, though, still has an opportunity to redeem herself. For the Gene Kelly role, Tony Roberts has been cast. Roberts has demonstrated time and again, both on Broadway and in Woody Allen films, that he has the ability to lift his castmates to a new level. He is a performer’s performer. If anyone can set Butler on the straight and narrow, it’s him. Roberts goes to town on “Whenever You’re Away from Me”, bringing his undeniable energy to the ’40s-style number that was supposed to make Gene Kelly feel comfortable in the original (unfortunately, Kelly’s age prevented him from bringing the song the same energy). Roberts’ mere presence tones Butler down and focuses her. Her scat singing even works. The style of the number also plays to Butler’s strengths. I don’t necessarily want to hear her sing Olivia Newton-John numbers, but I’d love to see what she could do in a revival of, say, Carousel.

“Dancin'” has always been a problematic number in Xanadu. As I said earlier, it was meant to be the show-stopping big production number, but it ended up stopping the movie dead. It was the demonstration of the vision of the dream of the two male leads, starting off with a ’40s big band and transitioning to an ’80s rock band (played by the Tubes in the movie) in what was supposed to be a gigantic ensemble. It lasted far too long in the movie. The producers saw the same problem I did. They’ve chopped the number down to two and a half minutes and increased the focus on the terrific merged ending. Too bad the Tubes aren’t here to do this version.

And that leads us to another moment of dread. If there’s an ELO song that shouldn’t be fooled with, it’s “Strange Magic”. It was done perfectly the first time, and it certainly doesn’t have a place here. Well, not in the way that it’s used, anyway. If it had been done as a ballad duet between the leads, it might have worked. However, Hoffman and Testa are given the first verse, and gospelesque just doesn’t work with this song, especially when played for laughs. But here Butler’s vocals work and mesh surprisingly well with the others. It’s both a relief and a regret that they kept this version short at two minutes even. If the goofy level had been turned down, it could have been a great number.

“All Over the World” has been moved up in the program; in the movie, it’s one of the final songs, used at the opening of the roller disco. Here it’s rather inappropriately used for the renovation-of-the-warehouse-into-a-roller-disco scene. The quality of the song still shines through, with one caveat: anyone who hears this will hope that we never see a Tony Roberts Sings the Jeff Lynne Songbook album. After Jackson’s rather soft vocals, hearing Roberts growl his way in is rather disconcerting.

That being said, there are certain styles of songs that Jeff Lynne shouldn’t sing, even if he wrote them. “Don’t Walk Away” is one of them. It’s always been a tough fit in the ELO catalogue. Jeff Lynne is much too white to do call-and-response. It’s been recast here as a duet between Jackson and Roberts. Jackson’s theatricality and ability to work within a gospel framework provide the song with a much more appropriate vocal and is an improvement over the original. As for Roberts’ vocal, see “All Over the World”.

After this, the soundtrack takes a short dip into the external Newton-John songbook with a minute-and-a-half rendition of “Fool”. It’s well-performed by the three lead ladies in the cast, but it’s too short to make any real difference.

That leads us to another tough fit in Lynne’s work, “The Fall”. It’s always seemed like a leftover to me, something he had lying around that he never got to use. It sounds like it would have fit in perfectly on side 1 of Out of the Blue, which is where I suspect that it was originally destined and didn’t make the cut; too bad, since it’s a better song than “It’s Over”. Again, Jackson gives it a wonderful vocal treatment. He has a superbly powerful high tenor, and I’d like to see what he could do with the song in full instead of a two-minute excerpt.

“Suspended in Time” is the least-distinctive song in the original Xanadu, a typically-bland Newton-John ballad. As such, it’s the song where Butler’s attempts at a Newton-John accent work the best. Of course, in the stage show, she’s also flying above the stage on Pegasus…

…look, when you have cocaine psychosis being played for kitsch, situations like those happen. Just go along for the ride and thank God that Xanadu wasn’t done five years earlier under the influence of Quaaludes. And speaking of Quaaludes…

If there was a vote for Ultimate Quaalude Song, I have this suspicion that “Have You Never Been Mellow” would be the hands-down winner. It’s certainly one of the most-ridiculed songs of the most-ridiculed time in music, the mid-1970s. Naturally, it has to be imported into the stage version of Xanadu. And, naturally, it’s been turned into the big ensemble number, addressed to Zeus, who, if Greek mythology was correct, was a lot of things, but “mellow” was not on the list. Regrettably for me, you can’t really find Quaaludes anymore. I mean, I’ve got some good prescription stuff, but this really needs methaqualone. There’s just no substitute.

And after that bit of trauma, we have the closing title number. “Xanadu” was actually a revelation at the time. Newton-John fit in shockingly well into Lynne’s ELO instrumental framework, and he contributed superb background vocals that enhanced Newton-John’s lead. Also, the song was a stretch for Newton-John. She rarely got to use her top range in Farrar’s compositions, and it was a surprise that she was able to put that much power into it. Butler doesn’t have the necessary power in the upper range to handle the bridges, and the final chorus here falls apart. She’s not able to take it up into the stratosphere like Newton-John on that final note, which provides most of the song’s excitement.

There’s a rule of thumb to be followed with musicals: the stronger a musical is, the less its soundtrack depends on actually seeing it. A strong soundtrack can be listened to independently and appreciated without reference to the production. That’s certainly the case with Xanadu‘s nearest contemporary comparisons, Wicked, Mamma Mia, and Spamalot. This soundtrack, though, is a hard sell without actually seeing the production on stage. Kitsch is difficult to work in only one element. What doesn’t work on CD may work perfectly well on stage, with all the intended humor included. If you’ve seen the show and enjoyed it, then by all means get the soundtrack. If you haven’t, honestly, get the movie soundtrack. That way, you’ll get the best part of Xanadu without having to actually watch the movie.