film reporter

'Xanadu' is perfect stage for schlock

What do the Village People movie "Can't Stop the Music," the Queen-scored sci-fi flick "Flash Gordon" and the Olivia Newton-John/ELO musical "Xanadu" have in common? Yes, they're all cheesy, critically reviled 1980 boxoffice bombs featuring songs from '70s icons, but there is a far more disturbing connection. The first two are now being shopped around as potential theater musicals, and the latter — delayed by an unfortunate roller boogie accident involving its leading man — skates onto Broadway on Tuesday.

It's hard to recall a more unintentionally bad film in the past 30 years than "Xanadu." Political documentarian Robert Greenwald's feature directorial debut, it cast a post-"Grease" Newton-John as a Zeus muse who helps a young artist and an old codger find Nirvana at a roller disco — it just might have been the last great gasp of the '70s. (Full disclosure: I'm the creator of "Xanadoozy," an unofficial compilation of the soundtrack, rare b-sides, remixes and a title song remake from an unknown Slavic artist.)

Possible exceptions in the bad-film sweepstakes are the 1995 stripper drama "Showgirls" (being developed, of course, into a musical) and 1981's "Mommie Dearest," which somehow managed to make child abuse a laughing matter. It hasn't hit the boards yet, though a drag queen musical version of the Joan Crawford family docu "Christmas With the Crawfords" has. The trend of cinematic schlock turned into musical theater is now upon us.

Perhaps after years of such disastrous musicals as "Carrie" and "Saturday Night Fever," derived from popular and critically acclaimed hits, some feel they might as well start with a feel-good bad film and diminished expectations.

With the notable exception of the 1982 off-Broadway musical "Little Shop of Horrors," musical adaptations of films in the past have been mainly highbrow affairs. Oscar-caliber works such as "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "81/2" (turned into "Nine") and any number of acclaimed Disney films became Tony-winning hits.

But look at Broadway today. The original rock musical "Spring Awakening" might have grabbed last month's Tony for best musical, but the favorite of many was "Grey Gardens," an adaptation of the 1975 docu following the eccentric Kennedy cousins Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale. The film's cult audience learned the pair's bickering "dialogue" by heart. Although it didn't earn any Tonys, "Legally Blonde" has been doing good business, based in part on the campy appeal it brings from the screen.

What separates "Xanadu" from the pack is that it satirizes the whole phenomenon of schlock on Broadway through a witty book by playwright Douglas Carter Beane ("The Little Dog Laughed"), whose dialogue notes the link between movie adaptations and "jukebox musicals" like the ABBA-filled "Mamma Mia!"

"This is 1980, the muses are in retreat," exclaims Tony Roberts as Zeus. "Creativity shall remain stymied for decades. They'll just take some old stinkeroo movie or some songwriter's catalog, throw it on a stage and call it a show."

Although the theater world might be ready to turn unintentionally bad films into intentionally good musicals, not everyone is applauding. Beane notes that producers Joel Silver, Lawrence Gordon and a young development executive named Brian Grazer all helped make the original "Xanadu." "You have never seen people run away so quickly from a project," he laughs. That includes Universal Pictures, which chose not invest in the new production. As Beane observes, "I think executives there view it like an abused woman looking back at her past relationship."