The musicals have earned a permanent niche in American culture, and yet within the last 40 years, has been virtually ignored and
neglected. An era that produced such standards as Gigi, Singing In The Rain and High Society began to chafe at the introduction of
rock & roll into the American cultural psyche in the mid-50’s. To make a long sociological treatise short, ‘Rock’ won the hearts-minds-
and-wallets battle for cultural supremacy by the late 50’s. Caught in the undertow was musical as a cinematic genre; except for a few
notable exceptions (such as My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Sound Of Music, Oliver! et al.), the widely held perception was that a
younger movie-going public had lost interest in the musical. That sad fact of demographics, as well as the increasing persuasiveness
of television, served to lessen the appeal of the musical to the movie studios, who increasingly viewed them as expensive loss-
leaders. Ironically, the elements that lead to the demise of the musicals would eventually serve to resurrect them, at least temporarily....
As the seventies reared it’s head, nostalgia for the 50’s began to materialize (of course, when the eighties came around, a 60’s craze
came to pass and in the nineties...well, the twenty-year cycle makes itself obvious). The political and cultural turbulence from the sixties
and early seventies made many yearn for the “simpler times” of the 50’s-thus groups like Sha-Na-Na and singles like Yesterday Once
More became big hits. In addition, the success of films like George Lucas’ American Graffiti and Peter Bogdonavich’s The Last Picture
Show showed that American pop culture’ infatuation with the 50’s was not abated. This 50’s fixation did not go unnoticed by Broadway
or the television; thus, 50’s inspired creations like the Broadway hit Grease and the TV series hit Happy Days made their presents felt
during the early to mid 70’s.
So, after Happy Days became a solid hit during it’s second season in 1974, the powers that be in the movie industry took the hint and
started to search for ways to cash in. An obvious golden goose was the still-phenomenally popular Grease-all that remained to be
seen was who would be the first to offer the golden eggs. Eventually, Alan Carr bough the movie rights along with Paramount Pictures
and record mogul Robert Stigwood (from RSO Records, which housed Eric Clapton and the Bee Gees). John Travolta and Olivia
Newton-John were picked for the leads, though there was some adjustment to the screenplay that had to be made to accommodate
Olivia’s Australian/English accent and bearing.
Travolta was riding on the success of the hit TV series Welcome Back, Kotter and was about to make a bigger splash with his Oscar-
nominated performance in Saturday Night Fever. Olivia, on the other hand, found her singing career to be on a holding pattern. During
this time, her album sales were beginning to sag and her soft countypolitan sound was falling out of step with the record-buying public.
Landing this role in Grease would give her career a much-needed jolt.
Interestingly enough, Grease was Olivia’s third film. She made her movie
debut in a unnoticed Australian film called Funny Things From Down
Under when she was 16 years old and only as a walk-on number
(“Christmas Time Down Under”) with a couple of lines. She would make a
bigger impact in Britain in the 1970 sci-fi musical Tommorrow. Produced
by Don Kirschner (of Monkees and Archies fame) and Harry Swezter (who
co-produced the first few James Bond films), the film’s haphazard plot was
about a rock band at a art collage who was being followed by an alien race
from another galaxy because of the band’s “feel good vibe” from one of
their instruments. After a big casting search was undertaken for the lead
parts, Olivia was chosen for the part of the lead female musician.
The film was made and the music was recorded with Olivia singing lead
on several songs on the soundtrack. After a massive publicity blitz and
reports of production trouble surfaced, the film bombed. From there, the
“band” broke up and poor Olivia was left to try her luck as a solo act. Within
a year and a half, her cover of Bob Dylan’s If Not For You would hit the
charts and would establish her as a international attraction.
Grease was made, the soundtrack was recorded and both were released
during the summer of 1978 and turned into an international smash! There
had been other musicals around the time of Grease that tried to connect
with the jaded movie-going public and with the exception of Bob Fossie’s
rather bleak Cabaret, which won an Oscar for Best Picture for 1972, most
of which were forgettable. Mame, with Lucille Ball, Francis Ford Coppola’s
Finnegan’s Rainbow with Fred Astaire, Starlet, with Mae West and The
First Nudie Musical (which inexplicably featured Cindy Williams with a Ron
Howard cameo) were among the corpse that littered this cinematic
landscape. Grease may not have gone as far as single-handedly rescuing
the musical, but it did prove that the patient at least had a pulse.
The phenomenal success of Grease would allow its principle stars to ride
its coattails for the remainder of the 70’s and the early 80’s. Travolta would
see his career skyrocket with the one-two punch of Grease and Saturday
Night Fever; these two films would establish him as the top box office
attraction of the late 70’s, though he was briefly side tracked in 1979 with
Moment By Moment, a romantic/drama co-starring Lily Tomlin (yes, THAT
Lily Tomlin). He would come back on top in 1980 with ‘Urban Cowboy’.
A young Olivia in a still from Funny Things From
BELOW: The album cover of Toomorrow's first and
Olivia’s career got the charge she needed from Grease. The success enabled her to revamp her image in a way that would make her
much more appealing to her new audience. New opportunities that never existed before were suddenly opened to her, and she wisely
took advantage of them. Even though she chose to take a temporary hiatus from movies, her change in attitude had instantly reflected
on her singing career with her 1979 LP, Totally Hot, which had her covering material that she would never touch three years ago. An
example of this new change was a cover of Spencer Davis Group chestnut Gimmie Some Lovin’.
As is usually in show biz, many a producer and studio head felt that if Carr and Stigwood could make a few bucks out of this musical
revival, so could they; whenever there’s a fad wave rises, more than one will attempt to ride it. After watching Grease rake up a small
fortune in box office receipts, virtually every studio rushed their own musical into development. Even upstart drive-in/action/B-movie
studio Cannon Pictures came up with one called The Apple. (#1) It was also during this time that plans for a musical based on a pair
of off-beat minor characters from Saturday Night Live, known as The Blues Brothers, were announced.
Soon, both Carr and Stigwood figured that lighting might strike
again…only separately. First to strike was Stigwood with Sgt.
Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band, a Beatles musical staring the
Bee Gees, Peter Frampton and George Burns. Some time later, it
was Carr’s turn with his disco musical Can’t Stop The Music,
starring The Village People, Steve Guttenberg and Bruce Jenner.
(#2) Needless to say, these two films would end up being better
known as spectacular disasters, both financially and critically.
Regardless of the outcomes and foreshadowing, the lethal
combination of the sudden musical revival and the roller disco fad
that was freshly in the cultural air in the late 70’s was still too good
to pass up. It was only inevitable that someone somewhere would
make the explosive connection….and at this intersection,
Xanadu would happen…
|ABOVE LEFT: a promo from Can't Stop The Music
ABOVE RIGHT: the cover of the rare Marvel comic book
adaptation of Sgt. Pepper. This was only released in Latin
America, but not the US.