- By Sarah Kiser, Co-Editor-in-Chief -
This week, Feb. 13-18 at 7:30 p.m. Meredith College Theatre will be performing Xanadu,a pop-rock musical based off the 1980 movie of the same name, in Jones Auditorium.
The score features a range of songs from Jeff Lynne, the main composer of the Electric Light Orchestra in the 70’s and 80’s, and John Farrar, who composed for Olivia Newton John. All of which will be played backstage by a five-person band that the cast and crew affectionately call ‘the skids 2.0.’
Director Steven Roten said “many of the audience will have heard these tunes before. If you’re an Olivia Newton-John fan you may know it. If you’ve seen the cheezy 80’s movie you will know it; this just takes all that information and twists it.”
Music Director Dr. Jim Waddelow explained that the film Xanadu “was universally panned… but everybody really liked the music.”
Waddelow, who will lead the band and play bass during the show said that “instead of being exactly what the movie is on stage, they kind of make fun of the movie. There’s an awful lot of jokes that are catered toward people [who grew up in the 80’s]. In many ways it’s a big valentines to the 80’s, but it also makes fun of it.”
The style of the musical is a fusion, stage manager Leslie Castro explained. “It pulls costume inspiration from three different time periods because you have the muses, goddesses, and gods from ancient Greece; there’s a fun, colorful take on grecian attire. Then, in the present day the musical is set in 1980.” And, “there is a 1940s flashback.”
Waddelow said that “channeling back and forth between present day and Greece is something that happens from song to song.”
Castro explained that the story centers around seven of the nine “Greek muses who come to life” out of a mural done by “struggling artist,” Sonny. “Specifically Kira, the lead, inspires him and helps him realize his dream which is to open a roller disco at this theatre called the Xanadu…Over two different lifetimes, it’s a quest to get the theatre open” Castro continued. Throughout the plot, the characters seek out the answer to ‘what is Xanadu?’
“A majority of the show takes place on Venice Beach in California and on the Santa Monica pier” Castro said. So, they built a pier. It extends 15 feet beyond the stage in a wide U-shape around the organ. Castro said “it closes the aesthetic distance between the actors and the audience.”
She also hinted that “muses are forbidden to announce that they are a muse to a mortal, which creates some problems in the play… It is forbidden for a muse to love a mortal, or to announce that she is a muse, or to create art. Kira does all of those things.”
Roten said of why he chose this show because “I love the music, I love the attitude of the show,… and it’s got really great female roles. They’re all Greek muses right out of…mythology, and they each inspire a different area of art. They’re embodied in these muse characters that step out of a painting.” Their personalities, he said, range from “super dramatic to clumsy to slapstick-kind-of funny to Mariah Carey-like.”
Waddelow said that “you’ll watch the show and go ‘those people look like they’re having such a great time.’ It’s 90 minutes. It has all the energy of a bottle of champagne being opened up at the beginning of the show… and it never really slows down.”
In separate interviews, Roten and Castro both described Xanadu as “meta-theatrical.” Roten said that “it makes fun of itself; it makes fun of musical theatre; it makes fun of the movie that it was based on, and it makes fun of the ‘80’s. It’s a sort of love poem to 1980 with a good dose of sarcasm at the same time. It’s very aware of itself as a piece of art, and the trend of making musicals out of old, bad movies.”
Waddelow commented that “it makes fun of devices, the things that we consider as normal as devices in the theatre where we have to suspend reality.” For example, the characters say, “Well, it’s a flashback.”
He continued, “but these songs are so great, so it’s a valentine to them too.”
In order to make the show’s music as authentic to 1980 as possible, Waddelow has dug up a 1985 synthesizer out of one of Wainwright’s storage closets. All three synths have been “meticulously programmed to recreate sounds from 1980.” He has also rearranged the songs to be closer to the original 1980 recordings than the mid-2000’s score.
Xanadu is written to be a light, entertaining story, but it also carries a message about the value of “lov[ing] someone else and creat[ing] art” according to Castro. Roten said that “it’s just a celebration of art itself, how art makes us human.” He continued “it’s not afraid to make fun of itself, and it’s wildly entertaining.” His “approach has been to underpin it with enough truth and depth of characterization so that we really do care about these 2-dimensional characters.”
Roten said that “despite all the fun that I say it’s about, it has been an amazingly difficult play to stage. Let’s take the lead character of Clio/Kira. That character changes her name to Kira, uses three different accents…she roller skates, she dances, she sings, and almost never leaves the stage. It’s a demanding show, and the choreography that’s been provided by Courtney White..it’s all great 80’s movement. It’s upbeat, and I mentioned tap dancing earlier, so it is moving all the time. There is one stand and sing number. Everything else is moving and skating all over the place.”
About balancing near-constant motion with singing, Waddelow said “as a singer, your energy comes from your lower body. One of the things we talk about is ‘plant yourself’…that’s taken off the table and it changes your breath support. Another thing that changes your breath support is some of the dance is really pretty fierce and complicated. Right, you’re at a disco while you’re singing ‘Xanadu.’ So it’s really active choreography.”
In some spots, the cast holds a note for 16 counts after a breath-taking dance number.
Waddelow said smiling “so you try singing a solo while wearing a centaur costume.”
In addition to be physically demanding to perform, the technical aspects of the show are extremely numerous. There are at least 300 cues that have to happen at each performance. Castro explained that “this is the most technically demanding show that Meredith has done in the last three years. This show only has nine cast members,” but “there are at least twice as many crew members because seven of the nine cast members play multiple characters. Four of them play four characters, so there’s a lot of quick changes.” In addition to all of the character changes that have to happen, Xanaduinvolves using the rail system, “so we’re gonna have things flying in and out,” Castro said. Audiences can also expect stage fog, laser lights, a moving sign, projection, mirror balls, and many more surprising elements to this musical. Actors even occasionally ride things offstage. To put a complicated show quite simply, Castro said that it is “special effects heavy.”
Part of the tradition surrounding Xanadu is that it is often performed with doubling, actors playing more than one part. Roten said “part of the fun for an actor in doubling is that you can put on another costume and suddenly become somebody else, and these actors all get to do that at least once. Some of them do it two, and three times. They become these mythological characters, a cyclops, a centaur, Medusa. I wanted the actors to get a chance to do that. It’s a real skill in to build in in your training ability to put on a new jacket and become somebody else… and it’s fun for the audience too I think to see Calliope be this wild, over-the-top epic, and then she becomes Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and becomes completely different and has these great lines. And then the play itself makes fun of the fact that she’s double cast and cannot be here to be outraged with Melpomene.”
Roten said finally, “this is my little gift to the community to say ‘come on and laugh with us and forget your troubles for a little while, and you’ll step lighter as you go out the door.”
All performances begin at 7:30, and admission is free of charge for the Meredith community. Non-Meredith students/seniors tickets are $5. Adult tickets are $10.