As a movie, Xanadu made a great poster.
Camp is a wonderful language we can use to reassure others that we, too, see the ridiculous pomposity of a work of art, a person, a situation. It is a mean-spirited but satisfying, unifying laughter.
But sometimes, when camp is the goal, it’s like the gay version of frat humor, an LCD way to wallow in our shared inability to be better, smarter, wittier.
This week, I saw two Broadway shows, a record for me (and damned if I don’t have a third coming on Wednesday). Both shows have a queer sensibility among other sensibilities: the Tony-winning Spring Awakening and Xanadu, which is still in previews.
The former represents how exciting it is when we aim high and score, and the latter—at least for me—represents why aiming low sells ourselves short.
I have a love/hate relationship with Broadway. People say it’s dying, and I say it deserves to die if it’s going to be dominated by terrible, unimaginative, overpriced fare. It’s gotten to the point where worthless debacles are crowd-pleasers (Mamma Mia!) and pretty good shows are considered beyond brilliant (Wicked, The Drowsy Chaperone). When something as exciting as Spring Awakening comes along, there is invariably the backlash of “it’s not as great as they say.” But then whenever I decide to bite the bullet and check out something that sounds like crap to begin with (Grease, Saturday Night Fever, Xanadu), people are saying “it’s great if you don’t expect anything.”
Sorry, but I think you should expect something—anything—from a Broadway show, a TV show, a movie, a conversation or a walk in the park. Even escapist fluff can be fresh and funny. I’d rather see a show that’s challenging or even one that tries and fails, than to completely give up and allow stupidity to wash over me for two hours. I guess some people find it comforting to get all the jokes.
What a topsy-turvy world we live in where the best is never good enough and the worst is not half bad.
Spring Awakening is among the best things I’ve seen on Broadway. Revolving around a group of German youths in the 1800s struggling with verboten sexual urges, the rock-infused show has an unlikely setting, subject matter and sound, a cast of newcomers (well, new if you don’t count their long histories with this production) and an almost eroticized sense of the risks it takes with the stale musical medium. It’s a beautiful thing to see something take so many chances and to succeed. It’s inspirational.
Knowing is better than not knowing?
The woman and her daughter who sat behind me at Spring Awakening were insufferable know-it-alls who’d seen the show ad nauseum and wanted to chat about it before, during and after. The one useful thing they murmured was when the mother called the show depressing and the daughter said, “No, it’s not depressing! It’s uplifting!” I agreed with the daughter even as I hoped for a stray piece of scenery to decapitate them—the show has dark turns, but for me, I feel uplifted by any show, no matter how bleak or angry or negative, when part of it speaks to me. In the same way camp lets you know other people get the joke, a transcendent experience like Spring Awakening connects you to other people who get that it doesn’t always have to be a joke. It’s reassuring to know not everyone wants LCD. Not everyone aims low, gets drunk on New Year’s Eve, sings “Louie, Louie” at a toga party, takes meth and bangs anonymously, gets married and stays married only because it’s what’s expected. It’s uplifting to find other people who appreciate aiming high. Sure, they’ve achieved it and I’m only paying to watch them achieve it, but it’s a temporary bridge to their heights.
I won’t spoil any part of it, but I can’t recommend Spring Awakening highly enough. Believe the hype. Better yet, don’t let hype or anti-hype inform your expectations of anything.
With Xanadu, I went in knowing it was a spoof of the campy 1980 Olivia Newton-John bomb movie musical. Despite the film’s bad reputation, I used to think it was quite enchanting, and regardless of its sometimes stilted Gene Kelly interludes, it boasted some pretty exciting music. Even within the confines of parodying an existing work, there’s plenty of room to cook up an inspired work in its own right.
I don't like ripping anything a new asshole. I was ecstatic when I saw Spring Awakening, partly just so I could finally say out loud, "I LOVED THAT." But as happy as that made me, it's upsetting to have to say that Xanadu is Xanadoo-doo.
Original Xanaduers Michael Beck, Olivia Newton-John & Gene Kelly.
Actually, the best way for me to say it is that it’s a painfully unfunny show that everyone laughs along with because we’re making fun of ourselves for having loved the movie so much as kids and never realizing at the time how insipid it all was. One line in the fourth-wall-busting show refers to itself as “children’s theater for 40-year-old gay men.” It’s supposed to elevate things by acknowledging the show’s own basement-level goals, but for me, it was beyond cynical. I almost wondered if the writer—Douglas Carter Beane—was releasing some resentment over the idea that writing a Xanadu revue is coming after mounting original works like As Bees In Honey Drown and The Little Dog Laughed, but he has gone on record attacking those who looked down on him for taking this job.
I’m sure some people reading this would find my take snobbish. What, am I too good for Xanadu? Yes, I am too good for (this) Xanadu. What, don’t I have a sense of humor? Yes, I do...that’s the problem. Leg warmers in and of themselves are not funny enough. How can I embrace a show that uses “baby daddy,” “bitch” and “oh, no you di’nt” in under 90 minutes? Oops, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up! And neither can Broadway, now that it’s stooped so low that a no-brow franchise like Xanadu is in the ‘hood.
Butler Kerrys the show.
A few positives about Xanadu: Kerry Butler is brilliance on wheels (literally) and has a beautiful voice. Also, she mimics Olivia Newton-John perfectly, although I felt the show relied too heavily on the hilarity of her Australian accent and exaggerated emoting as Olivia. James Carpinello is out permanently with an injury, so we had Curtis Holbrook, an understudy who is not going to be allowed to take over (ouch) and who knows it (ouch). And you know what? He was excellent. He’s got a fine voice, the same energy level as Butler, mad skating skillz and he looks superb in shorts. I think it’s insulting for the producers to let anyone think that they think he’s not up to the material, considering the material is made up of lame ’80s jokes and Clash Of The Titans references. I actually liked the whole cast—Xanadu, for me, wound up being a beautifully executed, dreadful show.
Nothing makes a gay man laugh as fast as a woman.
And to me, there is something even sadder and more wasteful about the fact that the cast is as good as they are. I just wish the talents of Broadway would stop telling us we have to believe they are magic...and start showing us real magic a little more often.
Actually, the original Xanadu made more money than Fame at the b.o., the modern-day equivalent of about $55 million. Not a bomb.