There appears to be a conspiracy afoot, one designed to prevent people of a certain age from forgetting one of the worst movie musicals of all time. And believe me, we'd like to forget Xanadu. But someone a secret government agency? a group of especially nasty theater queens? refuses to permit this. We are doomed, it would appear, to be forever reminded of a greasy-faced Michael Beck, roller-skating past garishly frescoed brick walls and crowds of extras dressed as mimes; of poor Gene Kelly, slumming his way through a wispy memory of his salad days, when movie musicals were scored by Porter and Gershwin, and not by Electric Light Orchestra; and of a Sominex-ed, gauzily clad Olivia Newton-John, sleepwalking straight into a career lull from which she'd never recover.
Forgetting Xanadu is not an option, apparently. Just as the unfortunate image of Livvie's glittery leg warmers and the thudding banality of her Xanadu megahit "Magic" was beginning to fade from our pop-culture-addled brains, the merciless roller-disco beat of this dreadful early-'80s monstrosity begins pounding again, in the form of threats that its flaky faux glam would be resurrected on Broadway. And those threats weren't idle, either: Xanadu opened last week at New York's Helen Hayes Theatre, in what will doubtlessly be a never-ending run because Manhattan's endless parade of tourists loves nothing so much as a trashy musical. (Remember: Mamma Mia! started out as a Broadway show and ended up a cottage industry with its own permanent performance kiosk in Las Vegas).
It was inevitable, really. America's preoccupation with nostalgic navel-gazing was destined to engulf musical theater once stage versions of Footloose and Dirty Dancing began selling out. Broadway's transformation from innovative art space to live-action revival house is now complete; for every Grey Gardens, we can forevermore count on two or three musicalizations of Hollywood flops. I promise you: Two years from now, people will be lining up to watch Matthew Broderick play Bruce Jenner in an adaptation of Can't Stop the Music. Just wait.
Xanadu the musical
I want to take some pleasure in knowing that the new Xanadu is in on the joke, that Douglas Carter Beane's book is a broad spoof of its sleazy cinematic counterpart. But I can't, because I want both the theater-going public and the people who are steering the musical theater industry to be past all this nudge-and-wink nonsense. I want there to be more original musicals about spelling bees and less "Aren't we clever? We think old crap is camp!" I want there to be a phrase ("Spamalotted"? "Musickitsch"?) onto which I can graft the word "post-", thus calling an official halt to all these loud, tacky revisions of lamentable Hollywood blunders.
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But no one is asking me what I think. Not Xanadu's producers, nor the Olivia Newton-John fans, nor the droves of people who are reportedly lining up to watch a musical satire of a bad movie about ancient Greek muses who come to Earth to inspire a roller disco. And certainly not Jeff Lynne of ELO, whose songs have been lifted wholesale from the movie and who is, therefore, receiving giant royalty checks without lifting a finger. I am a lone conspiracy theorist, one who has been listening to the Xanadu soundtrack the entire time he's been writing this hollow diatribe. The music still sucks, and I don't want to see this show, ever. But somehow I think I'd better. I'm afraid that if I don't go to Xanadu, Xanadu will track me down and force me to watch it. And I suspect that the only thing worse than a cheesy spoof of a crummy musical is a cheesy spoof of a crummy musical blasting away in your living room.