Broadway Cast Recording – Xanadu
have to admit that I am much more familiar the 1980 camp-classic film
Xanadu than any adult heterosexual man ever
should be. In the interest of full disclosure, when I was young, Olivia
Newton-John was my first real celebrity crush. And, frankly, at the time of
Xanadu, Newton-John was at her most spectacularly attractive.
Therefore I have seen Xanadu probably dozens of times – though it is
sort of a love/hate relationship.
Intellectually, I know it is a horrible movie. Just the concept – one of
the mythical muse daughters of Zeus (Newton-John) comes down from Mount
Olympus to Santa Monica to inspire a struggling painter (Michael Beck) and
an aging former jazz player (Gene Kelly) to open a roller disco – should
give you an idea why the film has received such delicious scorn.
is pretty much sacrilege that this was the final film role of legendary song
and dance man Kelly (Singing in the Rain, An American in Paris, On the
Town). It essentially scuttled the promising career of young actor
Beck, who had an impressive break-out role just the year before in the
low-budget thriller The Warriors. It also dealt a pretty extreme
blow to Newton-John’s acting side-gig after her smash hit version of
Grease – though that was not completely derailed until the
badly-conceived romantic comedy Two of a Kind four years later – her
reunion with Grease co-star John Travolta.
some deep-down part of me, despite realizing its cheesiness, loves
modern Broadway – where it is nearly impossible to sell a completely new or
serious musical – this kind of cockeyed nostalgia has become a staple. From
Mamma Mia to Footloose to countless others, ironically
detached and whimsical has pretty much replaced legitimate singing and
Here, unfortunately is the one real problem with the Original Cast Album of
Xanadu. Everything about the film deserves the smirking post-modern
scorn that is heaped on it by the play – with one exception: the music.
After all, the soundtrack album was broken into two sides of music featuring
arguably two of the biggest acts in popular music at the time
Newton-John and the Electric Light Orchestra. It spawned
five smash hit singles – the title track, “Magic,” “Suddenly,” “All Over the
World” and “I’m Alive.” Some of the non-hit songs on the album were even
better than the better known ones – specifically Newton-John’s show-stopping
love song “Suspended in Time” and ELO’s mournful “The Fall.”
Besides, you have to be impressed by any album which would team Newton-John
up for duets with legendary hoofer Kelly, arena-rock supergroup ELO, the
then-resurgent former Brit teen idol Cliff Richard and the
edgy-and-not-quite-popular-yet pop/punk group The Tubes. The music director
has to have been some sort of imaginative
to this the fact that the Broadway Xanadu soundtrack also mines into
ELO and Newton-John’s back catalogues for other strong, well-known songs
(“Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic” for ELO and “Have You Never Been Mellow”
for ON-J) that have nothing to do with the movie. In fact two of those were
essentially already golden oldies at the time the film was made.
Therefore, just listening to it as a CD, with all the funny and affected
vocals – while they may be perfectly acceptable on stage – skirts from
amusing to obvious to exasperating.
Take, for example, the standout love ballad “Suddenly.” While male lead
Cheyenne Jackson plays it mostly straight, female lead Kerry Butler flitters
back and forth from exaggeratedly breathy to an oddly-nasal Brooklyn accent
to an obviously-bad fake Australian accent to a normal and very pleasant
straight-forward vocal. I don’t point this out to denigrate Butler’s
performance. I have no doubt that on stage it is exactly what the book
calls for. However, it kind of ruins the listening experience. Then, if
this isn’t distracting enough, the song is stopped occasionally for the
actors to do short snippets of dialogue.
Almost all of the songs are here – most of them played relatively
straightforwardly and essentially well-sung. Particularly interesting are
the soulful re-imaginings of “Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic.” Yet
all-too-often you have the same dismayed reaction to the theatricality of
the comic performances. These songs are too good to be mocked so
Xanadu – The Original Broadway Cast Album
really does make me want to see the musical, so I guess it is achieving its
main objective. The play sounds like it will be a hoot. However, next
time I have the urge to hear these songs, I’m much more likely to dig out
the old movie soundtrack album.