XANADU * Book by Douglas Carter Beane * Music & Lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar * Choreographed by Dan Knechtges * Directed by Christopher Ashley * Helen Hayes Theater, New York City (open-ended run).
A gay chauvinist friend of mine likes to say, “We gave them the Sistine Chapel. They gave us
The Newlywed Game.” Good line, right? But let’s be real – along with some of the highest achievements in civilization, the gay tribe has produced its own share of cultural kitsch. Think about Liberace…rainbow tsotchkes…padded-butt briefs… sing-along showings of the gawdawful 1980 movie
Xanadu. In fact, the whole notion of “It’s so bad it’s good” – the essence of camp sensibility – is one of the most pervasive gay contributions to the world of culture, and it’s a mixed blessing. On one hand, camp taste comes from homosexual defiance, identifying with what’s been discarded and relishing what’s been scoffed at by others. On the other hand, in a world that inundates us with junk, what’s the point of spending time and energy celebrating trash?
Ambivalence may be the central thread linking camp to homosexuality, and no one knew that better than Susan Sontag. Though the late great writer remained a closeted lesbian her whole life, her classic essay “Notes on Camp” masterfully explored that smoke-and-mirrors act we call gay sensibility. Appreciating camp, Sontag wrote, “requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.”
The new Broadway musical Xanadu, featuring the hit songs from the movie soundtrack, is loosely adapted from the screenplay, a cheesy vehicle for Olivia Newton-John as a heavenly muse who appears to a sidewalk muralist and inspires him to live out his dreams by opening a roller disco. The Broadway show is not really what Sontag would call camp. Tongue-in-cheek? Over the top? Yes, and also self-referential and deliberately silly. But as a piece of entertainment, it’s very well executed. Nevertheless, the show’s team of gay creators openly play with camp sensibility. The deep sympathy to the movie was supplied by producer Robert Ahrens and director Christopher Ashley, who obsessed about the movie as gay kids. Representing revulsion was book writer Douglas Carter Beane
(The Little Dog Laughed), who refers to the movie as “what happens when you let straight men near the musical” and spruced up the dramatic structure with comic scenes drawn from Greek mythology. “I wanted to be as smart as I could be and as stupid as I could be at the same time,” says Beane. Together with choreographer Dan Knechtges, a crack team of designers, and a good game cast, these alchemists have transformed
Xanadu from lead into not exactly gold but at least the kind of fun show that another friend of mine instantly dubbed “craptastic!”
Kerry Butler as Clio and
two "sister" muses
Like a gayer version of Spamalot, Xanadu lards its vaudevillean sketch humor with lines from old movies (“People come and go so quickly here”) and contemporary slang (“He my baby daddy”). And it both plays to and makes fun of the audience’s love-hate for the original material. When the muse Clio (sensationally played by Kerry Butler) takes roller-skating human form to engage with the despairing artist Sonny (hunky Cheyenne Jackson plays this surfer dude as no dummy), she also assumes Olivia Newton-John’s Australian accent and pastel leg-warmers. Beane surrounds the boy-girl love story with a Greek chorus of Clio’s five sister muses, two played by men and two played by rubber-faced Jackie Hoffman and leather-lunged Mary Testa, outrageous comic character actors who not only chew the scenery but make jokes about it. Hoffman gets to deliver what’s immediately become the most famous line in the show: “This is like children’s theater for 40-year-old gay people!”
The most mind-boggling number takes place on Mt. Olympus, after Clio has disobeyed Zeus’s wishes by falling in love with a mortal. To plead her case to Zeus (Broadway veteran Tony Roberts), the muses bring on the Cyclops, Medusa, and a Centaur to serenade him with “Have You Never Been Mellow?” And the title-song finale fills the stage with mirror-balls and disco-dancing queens in star-spangled jumpsuits and purple paisley tights spinning on roller skates, flagging, and waving glow sticks. I swear it’s the single gayest thing I've ever seen on Broadway.
When I mentioned that to the producer Rob Ahrens, he knew exactly what I meant.
“We think it’s very gay,” he said. “But a lot of straight guys really like it, and I don’t know if they think it’s gay. They just think it’s funny.”
Ahrens and his team of five co-producers (all of them straight and first-time theater producers) had a hair-raising time getting
Xanadu to Broadway. Jane Krakowski (of 30 Rock), who was their bankable star during development, dropped out in January. During previews, the male lead James Carpinello (who starred in the benighted stage version of
Saturday Night Fever) broke his foot roller-skating. Luckily, Cheyenne Jackson had worked with the director and playwright on another show and was willing to come in at the last minute. Skepticism ran high among theater gossips that anything good could come from such tainted source material – an assumption that ecstatic audience reception and rave reviews have handily reversed.
What kept Ahrens on track despite all the obstacles was his very personal identification with
Xanadu. He definitely sees a special gay connection to the movie that spills over to the Broadway show.
“The movie had a lot of holes in it, and gays can fill in the holes themselves,” he said. “It’s a fantasy about your problems getting solved pretty easily, and for gay men we’d love that to be true. It’s about a man who’s frustrated with his career and his life, and this beautiful woman falls down to give him both relationship and career fulfillment. Ultimately, she forsakes immortality to be with him. Wouldn’t we all like someone beautiful to drop out of the sky who loves us enough to make the ultimate sacrifice?
“Then there’s also Olivia Newton-John singing those songs and the ELO music. It’s mysterious and fun. What is this place called Xanadu where nobody dared to go? Your mind can ruminate – what does that song mean?” Into that mystery, gay kids could read their own secret dreams and fears. Activated imagination is the sympathetic response to camp.
It’s the aesthetic reaction to failed seriousness that produces the amused revulsion Sontag referred to as the driving force behind camp taste. How else do we understand the willingness of perfectly intelligent gay men to repeatedly watch crummy movies like
Showgirls or Xanadu? “Part of the bad-movie obsession comes simply from finding pleasure where you've been told by experts that none exists,” asserts queer studies scholar Michael Schiavi, who’s writing a biography of pioneering film historian Vito Russo. “The exuberant opening number of
Xanadu, ‘I'm Alive!,’ peels chalk muses off a wall, puts them on roller skates, be-ribbons their hair, and then offers up as their enchanting representative the utterly uncharismatic Olivia Newton-John, who reads every line with a doped flatness that suggests barfly, not demi-goddess. There's infinite fun to be had in parsing just when the spectacle falls apart and studying the gap between intention and execution. When you can share that joy with other like-minded gay men, it's communal heaven.”
a slightly edited version of this appeared in The Advocate,
August 28, 2007