Xanadu is cheese served on skates
“And you’re skating away, looking over your shoulder at him while he watches you…”
Glide, glide, backwards glance, bang! As director Dean Paul Gibson guides her, Marlie Collins, the tall blond star of the Arts Club’s production of Xanadu, stumbles on her rollerskates and botches her exit from the Granville Island Stage. Gibson barely pauses. “Perhaps a bit more gracefully next time?” he suggests playfully without missing a beat.
There’s knowing laughter all around, and the loudest giggles are from Collins and Gibson. Bruised bums (and egos) are something of a rite of passage in Xanadu. The musical is based on the campy film—starring Olivia Newton John as a goddess who inspires an artist to open a roller disco—that was universally panned on its release. A study in early-’80s excess, the movie was a bewilderingly fun fusion of Greek myth, musical theatre, fantasy, and leg warmers.
In the three decades since its debut, it’s become a cult favourite thanks to its kitsch factor and earnest message about art triumphing over greed. Everyone was baffled when it received a Broadway makeover in 2007. But more surprising? It was a hit.
Gibson admits that when the Arts Club’s artistic managing director Bill Millerd approached him about taking the helm, his first reaction was, “Xanadu?! The so-bad-it’s-good movie?”
“We went to see it and it was just—you know that thing when you see something and you’re like [his mouth gapes, and his eyes open wide]? So fuckin’ bad!” he laughs. “I think we’d smoked a bomber or something and thought, ‘This will be fun.’ I went to see it with my best pal, who’s creating the props for this production 32 years later, and there we were watching it and going, ‘Oh my god, that was so stinky!’ So stinky. Bad, bad, bad.”
Obviously, he’s come around. It helps that Douglas Carter Beane’s book is a frothy delight, and Jeff Lynne and John Farrar’s music and lyrics pay winking tribute to the celluloid source material.
“It is so much fun,” Gibson says of the production. “It’s just ridiculous and super gay. But it’s not just for the gays, God knows. There’s a little something for everybody. There’s the nostalgic aspect for anybody who’s middle aged, with the Electric Light Orchestra [songs], and the whole thing about the ’80s again, and it’s so bad it’s good now. And they harken back to the war, too, so there’s some stuff for an older generation. And then there’s stuff that’s more current for the younger ones, who’ll just go because the ’80s have become so cool.”
But delve below the disco-dazzle surface, tantalizing awfulness, and pouffy pop numbers, and there’s an even better reason why this fabulous failure found its home on Broadway. Xanadu’s earnest, heartfelt assertion that art matters validates every person, patron, or performer, in the theatre. The importance of art is a topic that hits close to home for many Vancouverites right now, and the musical’s unexpected, underlying resonance isn’t lost on Gibson.
“It’s so current! Ding, ding, ding!” he says. “God bless the developers who are getting bonus density so they can get the space inside the condos.…When you’re building, make sure you’re thinking of the community, too. That you’re creating opportunities for us to socialize and, again, have arts and culture in our lives.…It’s the muses. ‘I’ll inspire you and you’ll do good art and that will be true happiness.’ The message of Xanadu is exactly that. In a very silly, fun, good-times framework, there’s a profound message, and it’s a wonderful revelation that’s not a revelation at all.”
Xanadu runs at the Arts Club Theatre’s Granville Island Stage from tonight (June 21) to August 4.