The Big Problem with Xanadu? It Isn’t Bad Enough to Achieve Greatness

How bad does a musical have to be for it to become a whopping success? My question is provoked by the deliberately drecky Broadway version of the 1980 disco movie, Xanadu, which has been greeted by critics with joyful approval (“Heaven on wheels”—The New York Times; “Ridiculously brilliant, lavish and sublime”—The New Yorker).

The camp classic movie is so bad it famously finished off the meteoric movie career of the pert Australian singer, Olivia Newton-John (Grease), and pulled the plug on an entire generation of Hollywood musicals. Yet the smart playwright and Tony nominee Douglas Carter Beane saw enough value, and opportunity, in its fabled awfulness to adapt it for Broadway by parodying an apparent parody.

Scholars will recall that Xanadu is about the Greek goddess Clio who descends on earth to help the angst-ridden wannabe artist, Sonny Malone of Venice Beach, California. Sonny has created a chalk mural of the goddesses on the sidewalk, and they all come alive. Clio becomes Kira in roller skates and leggings; she inspires Sonny to fulfill his dream of opening a roller disco. They also fall in love, though muses from Mount Parnassus aren’t supposed to do that.

It doesn’t get any kitschier—except perhaps for the global phenomenon of Mamma Mia! When it opened on Broadway in 2001, I confidently predicted that it would close within a week, describing the ABBA musical in my review as “the worst musical ever—and proud of it.” But its badness is at least sincere. Mamma Mia! flirts with kitsch, whereas Xanadu on Broadway laps up kitsch and flirts with the audience. Xanadu winks compulsively. “This is like children’s theater for 40-year-old gay people,” Caliope, the show’s Greek muse of heroic poetry, announces happily.

The proudly gay Mr. Carter Beane has it both ways, if I may say so. He has fun with the camp of Xanadu while pointing out the opportunistic awfulness of the show itself. “The muses are in retreat,” thunders Zeus (played by the game Tony Roberts, who also sings—he shouldn’t). “Creativity shall remain stymied for decades. The theater? They’ll just take some stinkeroo movie or some songwriter’s catalogue, throw it onstage and call it a show.”

In such fashionably ironic ways we’re invited to indulge both Xanadu’s deliberate and unintentional crappiness, its cheesy sets, swishy disco-era choreography and naggingly bland score by Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra and John Farrar of “Hopelessly Devoted To You.” It’s all so third-rate, the creators of the show are saying, that you’ll love it!

On the other hand, a show like The Drowsy Chaperone is a spoof musical that shines in its own right as an original pastiche of bad 1930’s screwball comedies. I was sold on it from the opening lines of the droll man in armchair: “You know what I do when I’m sitting in a darkened theater waiting for the curtain to rise? I pray.”

Coincidentally, The Drowsy Chaperone also has a roller-skating hero, but he roller-skates blindfold while singing a very witty ballad entitled “Accident Waiting to Happen.” It takes real talent to be as bad as that.

The standards of showbiz kitsch are no simple matter. At a recent meeting of the New York Drama Critics Circle, it was proposed that the notoriously camp cruise-ship cabaret act of Kiki and Herb be given a special citation for their Broadway debut last season. When one member argued that the masters of low camp weren’t quite as good as usual, John Simon—who loathes the act anyway—asked amusingly, “What’s the difference between good Kiki and Herb and bad Kiki and Herb?”

The Big Problem with Xanadu? It Isn’t Bad Enough to Achieve Greatness