What is Xanadu?
It’s a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Yeah, but what is Xanadu?
Ok, well Olivia Newton John is generally remembered for three things: playing the Australian sweetheart in Grease, singing the pile of stinky cheese that is ‘Let’s Get Physical’, and one of the biggest flops in movie history: Xanadu. Xanadu was so bad that it sparked the creation of the Razzies – the anti-Oscars that reward the year’s worst films. The soundtrack, on the other hand, did really well – certifying platinum, and rightly so. Half of it’s written by Jeff Lynne of ELO, and that man knows how to write a good song.
The show has one of the best programme notes I’ve seen. Douglas Carter Beane, who wrote the stage adaptation, says of the film that it was “so mind-numbingly awful, so artistically disastrous that […] it dashed a lot of careers and is credited for killing the movie musical for decades”. What a way to sell a show.
Sure, but what is Xanadu?
It’s Greek Muses singing “I’m Alive” in colourful togas as they spawn from a blurry mural in sunny Venice Beach. It’s a lurid Eurovision nightmare. It’s rollerskates and leg warmers.
The only way to fit the strange ELO songs (“Evil Woman”, “Strange Magic”, “Don’t Walk Away”) into a plot is to make something so outlandish and bizarre that they seem normal: so, a struggling artist (Sonny) catches the eye of an Ancient Greek Muse, Clio, who comes down from Olympus to help him create art. She is forbidden from falling love with him, but does it anyway and together they deck out a dilapidated theatre as a state-of-the-art roller disco.
Forget the Almeida’s Oresteia: a climactic scene on Olympus which features Medusa, Polyphemus the Cyclops and Pegasus dancing around in lycra is one of the best examples of the ancient world on stage this year.
In every way it’s a pantomime. There are good goodies and bad baddies, there are brilliantly catchy songs, bright colourful costumes, there’s cross dressing and chunky sets, there’s fourth-wall-busting asides and utter silliness. There’s lots of slapstick choreography. Forget Aladdin or Snow White, this should be added to the panto canon. Lizzy Connolly as Calliope, one of the evil Muses along with her sister Melpomene (Alison Jiear – belter of a voice), is the perfect villain’s sidekick, a slightly thick comic stooge.
In fact the whole cast does a great job. At one point the Muses sing 7-part a cappella, and a lot of the time they’re on skates AND singing AND trying to stop various intimate bits of flesh from burgeoning out of their neon spandex – the singers’ harmonies are as tight as their lycra shorts.
And Jeff Lynne’s music is perfectly suited for a musical: each exquisite little three minute wonder has a catchy chorus, and those synth strings and vocal layers that characterise his 70s pop wonders are ripe for live performance in small scale musical.
Ok, but what is Xanadu?
It’s a mythical place, an Elysium, promised by the gods to Clio the leader of the Muses. It’s also a dilapidated theatre that Sonny and Clio turn into a roller disco.
So, what is Xanadu?
It’s a candy camp acid trip, the wackiest, hammiest, most stupid, brilliant musical. It’s gaudy, naff, brash, bright, spangly, cheesy, camp as all Christmases at once. It’s wonderful.
Southwark Playhouse know how to do small scale musicals really well. They also know how to dash expectation, taking shows that could be dreadful and turning them into thoughtful, polished little productions. They did it with Carrie a few months back, while In The Heights is enjoying its West End transfer. And they’ve done it again with Xanadu. While the film forgot that the seventies were over, Douglas Carter Beane’s stage version is self aware in the extreme, taking one of film’s biggest flops and prising open its inadequacies with a wink and a big, big smile.