Xanadu: An Everlasting World

The following piece was published in the program for Out Front Theatre Company’s 2021 production of Xanadu (directed by Paul Conroy; book by Douglas Carter Beane; songs by John Farrar and the Electric Light Orchestra; October 21st to November 14th, 2021, Atlanta, GA). The production was a co-production with Georgia State University’s Department of Film, Media & Theatre. This piece was written with the support of my amazing assistant dramaturg Daria Dozier.

That is the greatest achievement any of you might hope for.
To love someone else and to create art.
from the screenplay to Xanadu (1980),
written by Richard Christian Danus & Marc Reid Rubel

The cast of Out Front Theatre Company’s XANADU (photo by Tyler Ogburn).

When Xanadu opened in movie theaters at the end of the summer of 1980, it had a lot going for it: between Saturday Night Fever and Fame, glitzy, modern musicals were all the rage, and this one starred one of the most famous people in the world, Olivia Newton-John, just two years after Grease rocked the world. It was a surefire hit. What could go wrong? In fact, almost everything.

While initially conceived as a flimsy update of a mostly-forgotten Rita Hayworth vehicle from 1947 called Down to Earth, Xanadu’s script existed mostly in theory even as shooting was underway, and it shows. Words fail to truly capture the experience of bizarre experience of watching the film: characters behave with almost no discernible motivation and the songs (by John Farrar and the Electric Light Orchestra) are, at best, ill-fitting in the context of the plot, which is stretched so thinly beyond its premise that there’s almost no conflict. Both critics and audiences hated it: Xanadu barely made back its budget, and a review in Variety called it “stupendously bad.” Perhaps its most enduring legacy (other than the soundtrack, which went double platinum and charted five singles on the Billboard Top 20) is that it was one of the primary sources of inspiration for the Golden Raspberry Awards (or the Razzies, for short), an annual event “honoring” the worst films of the year.

Almost thirty years later, the stage adaptation of Xanadu opened on Broadway, one in a steady stream of Broadway musicals based on well-known films. Xanadu’s secret weapon turned out to be its source material: musicals like Hairspray and Spamalot and Legally Blonde are all based on widely known and beloved films and all have to contend with their audience’s memories of those films. Meanwhile, Xanadu is based on a film that (outside of a respectable cult following) hardly anyone likes. The songs may have considerable cultural cache but the film itself? Not so much.

The other secret to Xanadu’s onstage success is the way that the script (written by Douglas Carter Beane, who won a Drama Desk Award for his work on the show) actively encourages the audience to both laugh at the very premise of the story and laugh with the performers. This doesn’t mean Xanadu is a mean-spirited show: even as it laughs at everything from Australian accents to roller discos to musical theatre as an art form, there’s a real beating heart at the center of the musical that’s more or less absent from the film. This is a musical that’s deeply romantic about the artistic process, even (especially?) if the results are no good. The character Kira — that is, Clio, the Muse of History, in full Newton-John drag — sums it up best: “It’s awful, but I did it. And it’s there. Maybe for all time. Maybe for a long time, maybe for a short time, but it’s there.”

Director Paul Conroy is clear about why Atlanta audiences need Xanadu now more than ever. “We all joy. We all need to laugh,” he says, “It’s as simple as that.” He also wants audiences to come away with a renewed sense of hope: “This concept of “Xanadu” doesn’t have to be this unachievable thing. It can be as simple as falling in love with a girl you meet on the boardwalk and opening a roller disco. Find your own Xanadu — find your dream — and go for it.”

We could all use that push to “go for it,” as Conroy puts it. It can be easy to get caught up in day-to-day anxieties and to feel the weight of the world bearing down on us, especially as we’ve all tried to process these last eighteen months. Hope and joy are elusive. Maybe that’s part of what makes them so powerful. Xanadu might not fix all of our problems, but partaking in that ancient communal tradition — coming together with a room full of strangers to laugh at some seriously goofy jokes and to nod your head along to some genuinely great music — might just give you that elusive shot of joy.

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Elliott Folds

Atlanta-based freelance actor, dramaturg, and musician. Sometimes I watch movies. Hoping to use this as a place where my dramaturgical notes can live.