The philosophical answer to that is—none. It was more a case of downtown Kiki and Herb, playing to the multitudes on touristic Broadway for the first and, almost certainly, last time, managing to not be as bad as usual.
Mr. Carter Beane is inspired not only by Xanadu, but also by the second-worst movie ever made, Clash of the Titans (1981); it’s surprising he didn’t throw in Russ Meyer’s Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens while he was at it. He gets off a number of good jokes, though he should have resisted the tired shot at Andrew Lloyd Webber. (Spamalot did that already, and my favorite satirical revue, Forbidden Broadway, parodied Mr. Lloyd Webber at least a decade ago).
There are dead spots in Xanadu when it drifts and droops too vaguely into dross. Only 90 minutes long, it’s directed at a clip by Christopher Ashley (who brought us All Shook Up, the Elvis jukebox musical). There’s a delightfully funny performance from Kerry Butler as Clio/Kira, and Jackie Hoffman and Mary Testa—not ladies who know what it means to be a quiet riot—deliver a knockout version of “Evil Woman.” They are a big, indulgent laugh and pantomime fun as the evil sisters Caliope and Melpomen.
Xanadu on Broadway is the kind of show that used to thrive off-Broadway a generation ago. I see it as old hat, and unless you’ve seen the movie, there’s a danger you’ll find yourself somewhat bewildered, as I was, by the roars of laughter and recognition coming from the cognoscenti in the theater.
Having seeing the show, I rented the legendary movie and watched it one evening with three other initiates. After the second big number, titled “Magic,” the love of my life went to bed. After another 20 minutes, our friend slipped off into another room to read a good book, leaving her lover slumped asleep in front of the TV. What a swell party it was. I alone soldiered on to the bitter end, but I learned an important lesson. Bad entertainment has a strict scale of aesthetic values: good bad, bad bad, and too bad.
And then there’s Xanadu. The movie is in a league of its own. It achieves the impossible: Each scene is staggeringly worse than the last.
The problem with the Broadway incarnation of Xanadu, I now realize, is that it’s too good. It can’t compete with the badness of Xanadu the movie.