Just as Xanadu Live was closing up shop, something bigger was
brewing on the horizon, it was something that would take Xanadu further
onto a whole other level no one had even thought of before….except for
Robert Ahrens (left).
Ahrens had his own personal Xanadu history, though, as with the original
film audience, he was a bigger fan of the soundtrack than the movie. “I
though it was going to be magical. The name intrigued me, and the title
song did, too, especially the line…’A place where nobody dared to
go…the echo of long ago’ but seeing the movie was a big
Flash forward to 2001 and Ahrens found himself watching a XL!
performance to see a friend who was playing a muse role. Even though
he wasn’t impressed with the production, he was taking note of the
strong audience reaction around him and thought that there was
something going on here. “I wondered if Xanadu could be freed to be
itself on stage. I felt that Xanadu was trapped in a bad film, and that if we
put it on stage and let its music and its energy lead it, Xanadu could be
what it might have been.”
When he later quit his job as an assistant executive at Paramount Pictures and went on a surfing trip to El Salvador, he was still
thinking about the XL! audience and the film’s cult status. It was by the end of his trip that he decided to get the stage rights to the film
and put on a off-Broadway show in New York City.
The first hurtle was contacting and negotiating with the owners of Xanadu (Rubel, Richard Danus, John Farrar, Jeff Lynne &
Universal). At first, many of them didn’t take Ahrens’ advances seriously. “As soon as you say Xanadu,” he would later remark, “they
either get it right away or they look down on you and call the police.” Four years later, his stubborn persistence won out and he was
able to rope in the rights.
Then there was finding the money for this independent production. By this time, however, Ahrens had collected a dedicated team of
producers: Dan Vickry, Sara Murchison, Dale Smith, Brain Swibel and Tara Smith, all of whom were young (average age 34 ½),
passionate and some with off-Broadway experience. Despite the level of experience, the team certainly made up for it with, what the
New York Times later attributed to them, a “gung-ho, let’s-put-on-a-show” spirit.
Ahrens was now looking for a writer to adopt and “improve”
the movie for the stage and one came instantly to mind,
Douglas Carter Beane. Beane’s career as a playwright had
started with his first play ‘Advice From A Caterpillar’ in 1991
and included a 2006 Tony nomination for The Little Dog
Laughed for best play and as a screenwriter with the 1995
Steven Spielberg produced movie, ‘To Wong Foo Thanks For
Everything, Julie Newmar’.
Beane had his own history with the movie, which explained
his reaction when Ahrens first approached him. “I passed,
quickly, many times…” he later said, until Ahrens persistence
struck again, this time with an offer to give Beane free creative
reign to do anything he wanted with it.
|ABOVE (L to r): Xanadu On Broadway producers Robert Ahrens,
Dale Smith and Brian Swibel
As one might easily suspect, there was nowhere else to go with the script but up and Beane knew this all too well. “I blame the
cocaine,” Beane said to New York Magazine. “It’s like people say, When you hear Ray Charles play, you can hear the heroin? When
you watch Xanadu, you can see the cocaine up on the screen.” (#11)
Ahrens then hired director Christopher Ashley, who was use to taking cult productions to the stage as his did a similar job with a
recent Broadway production of Rocky Horror Picture Show. Like Beane, Ashley had his own history, but unlike Beane…. “I said, “Oh my
God, I’m a little obsessed with that movie,” he said, “I’m a bit fonder of the original movie than Doug is. I was 16 when it came out. I
saw it 5 times in the first week and a half. This album was playing at my first date….I know every bit every orchestration.”
Next step was to find the actors to fill in the major roles. Jane Krakowski, Alan Tudyk and Richard Kind were originally hired to play
Kira, Sonny Malone and Danny McGuire with a supporting cast rounding out the muses and minor characters.
A series of ‘workshop’ readings of the new script began on April
21, 2006 in Manhattan with the first of many revisions and
changes to follow; a major one was changing the original plot of
having the muses run rampit through early 80’s Americana and
creating havoc with many of it’s figureheads like Tammy Fee
Baker, Margret Thatcher, Aaron Spelling and Nancy Reagan to a
more simpler one closely aliened with the movie’s basic plot, only
replacing the antagonist plot device of the screaming Simpson
with two jealous and mischievous muses: Melpomene, muse of
tragedy and Calliope, muse of epic poetry and rhetoric, later
played by Mary Testa and, a Beane favorite, Jackie Hoffman.
Casting changed as well, most notably Ms. Krakowski, who had to
leave the show due to a schedule conflict with her major role in
the NBC TV series 30 Rock. So Kerry Butler, who’s resume
includes the role of Penny Pingleton in the original Broadway
production of John Waters’ Hairspray, was hired. James
Carpinello ended up as Sonny and, for a brief time, Ben Verean
was pinned for Danny. However, Verean suddenly left and veteran
Tony Roberts stepped in.
Then there was a change of venue. Xanadu was to have been an
off-Broadway production in an accordingly sized theatre. Then,
one day, Beane was walking down a section of the Broadway
theatre district and noticed that the Helen Hayes Theatre was
empty due to a recent renovation with no show scheduled. Soon,
one inquiry lead to another and the show found itself in a theatre
with an actual Broadway address!
Despite all the changes and the heightened camp element, there were a few original movie parts that remained, it was the movie’s
sincerity and music with a few of the film’s lines (total: 5) tossed in for good measure. “We’re trying to stay true to the spirit of the film,”
Ahrens said, “But nothing is perfect, so we’re trying to improve it.”
Not only did the music remain the same, some numbers where added, a couple of ELO hits from 1975: Evil Woman (which was
incorporated in a show stopping scene with scheming Melpomene and Calliope) and Strange Magic and one ONJ hit from that same
year, Have You Ever Been Mellow, was used to serenade some sympathy out of Zeus. They even used a part of Fool/Country when
Kira breaks up with Sonny.
As the production moved from readings to previews, momentum amongst the cast and crew was getting stronger and the responses
from the preview audiences and some unofficial reviews helped even more. Still, there were naysayers and the sounds of scratching
heads, supplied mainly from internet message boards, abound.
There was one case when the producers where taking a lunch break at a café not far from the theatre and producer Swibel overheard
a waitress saying to one of the Union crew members that it was a shame that the Hayes Theatre “get those stinkers.” Swibel got up,
approached her and asked “You haven’t seen it, have you?” When she sheepishly replied no, he went out and bought a pair of tickets,
gave them to her and proudly told her “If you want to talk badly after you see it, whatever, but I guarantee you will enjoy it!” The Union
men applauded him and told him he was now a producer.
At this point, such dedication in the face of obstacles and
comparisons to Sonny Malone’s artistic plight wasn’t lost on anybody.
Swibel: ”Sonny’s trying to achieve this dream that everyone thinks is
ridiculous – and not just mediocre, but abhorrent. And yet, what’s
charming about that character is that he is innocent and the audience
is in love with his dream. We felt like Sonny.”
Ahrens also notes the connection in an interview with the BravoTV
blog: “I did feel a very strong connection to Sonny during our
workshop…and our Broadway previews. He is trying to create
something that keeps falling apart, he needs to assemble a team to
work with him and his journey is similar to a lot of the processes that
people in the creative industries go through. Although I don’t dress
Such drive kept the echoes of doubt at bay…or the theatre doors,
though, as they were getting closer to opening night of June 12th, the
rumors of a so-called ‘Xanadu’s curse’ started to get louder. The
noise level peaked when, just two weeks before the opening,
Carpinello broke his ankle in three places while skating during
rehearsals. Quickly, Cheyenne Jackson was called in to fill in Sonny’s
skates. This caused the opening to be moved to July 10th. This delay,
however, turned out to have had a silver lining as the new date gave
the production the pole position for the 2008 Tony Awards
nominations as it was now the first show to open for the new season.
The curse rumor aside, the show had another more positive angle
going for it, the shear audacity, or “gumption”, of putting on such a
show based on such a movie! Even the more skeptical remarks only
fueled the notoriety and publicity behind the show. One of the
sharpest lines thrown down came from an episode of ABC’s
Nightline. After a five minute segment about the show, one of the
show’s hosts, Cynthia McFadden, casually remarks: “it opens
tomorrow night here in New York….(dramatic pause)…..we’ll let you
know when it closes.” (#12)
|ABOVE LEFT: Cheyenne Jackson as Sonny
ABOVE RIGHT: Xanadu On Broadway ON Broadway
thanks to the Helen Hayes Theatre
(l to r) Mary Testa as
Melpomene and Jackie
Hoffman as Calliope
the smiling Kerry
Butler as Kira