As one of the inspirations for the creation of the annual Golden Raspberry Awards (the “Razzies”), which recognize the worst in film each year, the 1980 musical fantasy Xanadu, starring Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly, was one of that decade’s biggest bombs. But let the gays get hold of it — and suddenly it’s magic.
“At the centre of this awful movie was a gem,” says original Broadway producer Robert Aherns, who first encountered an illegal version of Xanadu onstage in Los Angeles in 2001.
Mixing Greek mythology with legwarmers and roller skates, Xanadu tells the story of the muse Clio, who descends from Mount Olympus to 1980s Venice Beach to inspire struggling artist Sonny to establish his greatest creation: a roller disco. Disguised as an Australian roller girl, in an obvious nod to Newton-John, Clio falls in love with Sonny, risking eternal banishment to the underworld.
“On the surface, the love story is totally heterosexual, but where it gets gay is in its flamboyance and in the fact that it doesn’t hold back. It really is bold, and no one on the team was too concerned that it was too gay,” Aherns says.
The fact that the movie version was such a failure didn’t dissuade Aherns, who obsessed over the film as a gay kid, persevered and finally acquired the rights to the story.
Aherns enlisted the help of writer Douglas Carter Beane, whose work includes the screenplay To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, to pen the script for his new Broadway stage version.
“Douglas had written a spoof called As Bees in Honey Drown, which both celebrated New York and made fun of it at the same time,” Aherns explains. “I had an idea that he would poke fun at Xanadu in the same vein. The movie was really flawed, and we were trying to let the show finally be what the movie might have been.”
The resulting stage version, which retains the film’s original songs but only five lines of its dialogue, not only satirizes the so-bad-it’s-good film, but builds on its camp sensibilities. With tongue firmly in cheek, Beane even lets one of the characters in his Xanadu acknowledge just how gay the show really is by declaring, “This is like children’s theatre for 40-year-old gay people!”
Local gay director Dean Paul Gibson, who is at the helm of this summer’s Arts Club version of Xanadu, immediately saw the camp.
“This show is fucking gay as all hell,” says Gibson, who sees Xanadu as an antidote to the more classic canon he is used to directing, including his work once again at Bard on the Beach this summer.
“From this horrible, horrible movie came this oh-so-right musical, which has been made gayer than gay in this live musical version,” Gibson says. “We gays have been sending stuff up since history began, and with a show like Xanadu we can take these characters and blow them up even larger.”
Actor J Cameron Barnett agrees. He is immensely proud of the fact he is basing his own character on another larger-than-life character from the 1980s: Solid Gold’s lead dancer Darcel Wynne. “Finally, I am not only able to be exactly who I am, but I’m able to turn up the volume. I’m so excited that I get to jump around and be gay onstage this summer,” Barnett laughs.
For Aherns, Xanadu never tried to be something it was not: “It was different and wacky and it makes no apologies. And that is exactly what being gay is: being true to yourself.”