Funny what a Broadway hit can do for a writer. Douglas Carter Beane had only written one musical before, an allegorical romp set on a terrorist-beset cruise ship called The Big Time
, which had a brief production as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2005 but has since languished on producers' desks.
Enter a Greek muse on roller skates. With a disco ball, leg warmers and an Australian accent.
"I was approached by the producer, Rob Ahrens, who had somehow gotten the rights to Xanadu
from about 8,000 people," Beane says of the misbegotten 1980 film musical that effectively ended Olivia Newton-John's career but gave the world such immortal hits as "Evil Woman." "I passed on it a number of times--like, six or seven times. I have great self-preservation genes; I thought, 'I've survived this long in the theatre, I didn't want to blow it all on one shot.' "
He was won over eventually by the enthusiasm of his colleague from Off-Broadway's Drama Dept., Michael S. Rosenberg, now a producer with East of Doheny (Grey Gardens
"I discovered that he was a straight man obsessed with Xanadu
, and that there are many more of them out there than you would think," Beane says. "He told me I should do it." When Ahrens basically told him he could write whatever he wanted as long he kept the musical score, Beane's interest was piqued--"not because I'm such a megalomaniac or control freak, but because it was a chance to be entirely creative."
His original draft was "very angry and political," taking advantage of the musical's 1980s setting to savage Reaganite politics from a distinctly gay perspective; Nancy Reagan's astrologist and Tammy Faye Bakker figured into the mix. A reading in April, 2006 convinced him to jettison the politics in favor of the central love story--mainly due to time considerations, he explains.
"You really feel it when someone is not singing in a musical," Beane says. "It really has to be very concise writing. Even when we cut all the political stuff, it was still a two-act musical, so it's just been tightening, tightening, so the evening feels light and impromptu, as if they're just coming up with it on the spot."
To the film's silly roller disco plot, Beane added a pair of acerbic, wisecracking Greek muses played by Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman. With director Christopher Ashley and choreographer Dan Knechtges, Beane handily parodies everything in sight, including Broadway's recent spate of jukebox musicals. He likened the challenge of writing such a knowing piece of fluff to "like when you're a kid and you're playing with a balloon, and you keep tapping it because you're desperate that it never touches the ground. It was like that, this particular adventure."
His next project has more gravitas, though it's also a musical. Indeed, far from ending his career, writing Xanadu
's camp-tastic libretto has opened a new career chapter for Beane, best known for the non-musical comedies As Bees in Honey Drown
and The Little Dog Laughed
. Not only is The Big Time
suddenly looking a lot more attractive to producers, but Beane is currently working on a new stage adaptation of the 1953 film classic The Band Wagon
, scheduled for a pre-Broadway opening at the Old Globe in San Diego next year under director Gary Griffin (The Color Purple
, the challenge was to make it funny and interesting and smart," Beane says. "With The Band Wagon
, the challenge is to make it theatre-worthy--to make it deep and rich. The writing is darker and more interesting, and we're looking at a lot of things that were only hinted at in the movie."
Not that Beane would ever slight the work he's done on Xanadu
. Indeed, to critics who might carp that such self-referential showbiz parodies are a sign of musical theatre's bankruptcy, Beane would answer with reference to the form's infancy.
"A lot of people have said this show is very much of the moment, sort of post-camp--it's very much what's happening now," Beane says. "But if you really look back at musicals in the teens and 1920s, they were quote-unquote burlesque musicals; they were just taking off on what was going on then. I look at the stuff George Kaufman and Morrie Riskind were writing for the Marx Bros.; they have a bit where they're making fun of Eugune O'Neill's Strange Interlude
. And they would reference the audience; Groucho would say, 'Here's the ballad, you folks might want to head for the lobby.'
"That attitude is so essentially New York, and I've always wanted to see it in musicals," Beane says. "It's a cross between a wink and a smirk--I'm not sure where on the face it falls--but it's a very snazzy, sassy attitude I pick up when I read the books of older musicals."
It's a long way from his childhood in Reading, Pennsylvania--which, he notes, was the last place Beane strapped on wheels.
"My last roller-skating experience I remember because it was also my last date with a woman," says Beane, now the proud gay dad of two adopted children. He places the date in 1974 or 1975: "It was with Elaine Rohrbach at Juniors Skateaway in Reading. We held hands and roller-skated around; the Tony Orlando & Dawn song 'Candida' was playing. And deep in my soul I said, 'I think I want something else. This is fun, but I don't think it's going to be my main focus.' "
Certainly roller disco hasn't been this playwright's main focus, but it has provided an unlikely pivot for his rolling career.
For tickets to Xanadu, go here.