This story is part of a series of articles previewing Thespian troupes and the shows they’ve been invited to present on the 2019 International Thespian Festival main stage.

TROUPE 7023 of Arab High School in Alabama returns to the International Thespian Festival main stage with Xanadu. The troupe previously presented main stage productions of Pippin (2012) and Zombie Prom (2016), as well as early show presentations of Little Shop of Horrors (2007) and Little Women (2010).

STORY

Anna Quillin and Carson Reed in Arab High School's production of Xanadu.

Anna Quillin and Carson Reed in Arab High School’s production of Xanadu. Photo courtesy of Arab Musical Theatre.

In 1980s Venice Beach, Sonny Malone is your typical struggling artist. When his latest failed project — a giant chalk mural of the Greek muses, goddesses of the arts and sciences — leaves him convinced he’ll never accomplish his dreams, Sonny hits rock bottom.

From Mt. Olympus, Clio, the muse of history, sympathizes with Sonny’s plight and finds herself inspired to help him complete his quest for artistic achievement by fulfilling his destiny to converge all the arts in the creation of the world’s first roller disco. But Zeus prohibits the muses from revealing themselves to humans or creating their own art. So, Clio disguises herself as the leg warmer-wearing, roller skating Kira, helping Sonny connect with a local businessman who can assist him with the club.

With success on the horizon, two of Kira’s sisters, jealous of the favor Zeus shows her, threaten not only to spoil Sonny’s dreams but also to condemn Kira to an eternity in the underworld by cursing the two to fall in love. Ultimately, Kira must trust that love conquers all obstacles before she can comprehend the true meaning of Xanadu.

BACKGROUND

With music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar and a book by Douglas Carter Beane, the basic plot of Xanadu is taken from a 1980 film starring Olivia Newton-John, Michael Beck, and Gene Kelly, which was itself loosely inspired by the 1947 movie Down to Earth. Generally considered a box office failure and panned by critics, Xanadu  nevertheless became a cult favorite. The movie also launched several pop hits for Newton-John, including “Magic,” “Suddenly,” and the title song.

The stage version enjoyed a happier fate. Workshopped in 2006 at New York’s Minetta Lane Theatre before opening on Broadway in 2007, it was nominated for four Tony Awards, including best musical. When asked why he’d want to adapt Xanadu for the stage, Beane told The New York Times, “What I was interested in was making fun of the lowest of art forms, which would be a bad movie from the ’80s, and the highest of art forms, which would be a classical Greek drama, and mixing them all together. … That was my idea, that it could be this fun, smart, silly, stupid time all at the same time.”

TROUPE 7023’S PRODUCTION

Xanadu almost never saw the lights of the Arab Musical Theatre stage. “At the end of each season, we do a big reveal to announce our shows for the following year,” said Brian Quillin, director of choral and musical theatre at Arab High School and Thespian troupe director. “We were planning on producing School House Rock Live! for our fall show, and the day before we announced, I mentioned to my assistant director, Taylor Hyatt, that I just did not feel great about that pick for us this year. His response was, ‘Don’t guffaw, but maybe we should take a look at Xanadu.’ I guffawed and said, ‘I don’t think so.’ But after 20 minutes of research and laughing hysterically, I called him back and said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ That’s certainly not our normal mode of operation, but it seemed to work out pretty well. This year, we wanted something fun and lighthearted for our fall show. Xanadu was the perfect fit.”

The design of the show presented unique challenges for Arab’s program, which is housed in a school of about 750 students in a small town in northern Alabama. “Our home theatre is actually a concert stage in our school auditorium,” Quillin said. “With a 70-foot wide proscenium and no fly system, we have to get very creative with our production designs.”

For Xanadu, the solution was to include a 32-by-18-foot projection screen and four large scaffolding units, which establish different scene locations and support transitions. “Creating unique, original content for the entire show that was cohesive with other production elements was a big undertaking,” Quillin said. “We spent approximately six months just designing the projections. It’s really a simple set with lots of lighting and projection complexities that help propel the story forward.”

The show’s cast took matters into their own hands when it came to mastering Xanadu’s complex roller-skating choreography. “Skating was a new thing for me, but it was definitely a challenge we were willing to take,” said Anna Quillin, the Thespian senior who portrays Kira. “In June, the summer before the show, we took private lessons with an instructor in Madison, Ala. He taught us tricks, how to be smooth on skates, and how to present ourselves confidently.”

The show’s outrageous sense of humor and over-the-top characters appealed to Thespian senior Gloriannah Phillips, who plays Kira’s envious older sister Melpomene. “She’s kind of that evil person you love to hate, and it was really fun for me because I have always played good characters. I’ve never really played a villain before, so I enjoyed getting out of my comfort zone.”

For senior Carson Reed, who plays businessman Danny Maguire, Xanadu offered another memorable opportunity: The Alabama Chapter State Thespian Officer introduced the show at his state festival. “It’s one of those special experiences getting to see every single aspect of festival and then the pride of getting to see your show do so well,” Reed said. “Just getting to experience all the work that the State Thespian Officers put in and how much love they have for the event goes unmatched.”

Reed can’t wait for audiences at the International Thespian Festival to experience the show’s many theatre references. “I think Xanadu is made for theatre people,” Reed said. “The audience at ITF is going to understand every single joke. They are going to eat up the script, every single song. It is just such a Thespian-oriented show.”

“Something about our hometown is that not everybody here understands the dedication and hard work we put into these shows,” Phillips said. “But when you’re in a place with more than 4,000 kids who are just like you and who love what you do and understand the difficulties, it’s really cool.”

For Anna Quillin, who took the plunge to pursue theatre after watching her friends perform at ITF in Zombie Prom the summer following her freshman year, taking the stage in Lincoln with Xanadu is the ultimate culmination to her high school theatre journey. “We’re just so honored to perform our show on the international stage, and we cannot wait to see everyone else’s shows and get to applaud everyone else. We’re super excited for the whole experience.”

POST-SHOW DISCUSSION

  1. Xanadu mixes the structure of Greek drama with 1980s pop culture. In what ways does the plot of the show mirror that of a classical Greek play?
  2. Onstage, Xanadu is unapologetically silly, succeeding where Xanadu the film failed because it fully embraces its over-the-top style and tone. In what ways does book writer Douglas Carter Beane make sure audiences know the authors and actors are in on the joke?
  3. The show’s book also includes multiple inside jokes for theatre people. Which of these were you able to identify in Xanadu?
  4. What does Xanadu say about the importance of art and creativity to human civilization?
  5. The set for Arab High School’s production of Xanadu makes use of scaffolding and projections to create the script’s numerous locations. How do these elements enhance the storytelling?

ACTIVITIES

  1. Many of Xanadu’s characters are inspired by Greek mythology, including nine muses and several gods and goddesses. Explore and summarize the backstories of each of the mythological characters referenced in the show.
  2. Xanadu takes place in 1980. What was happening in the U.S. at that time? Create a storyboard with the most important political, social, and cultural events of the year.
  3. Xanadu was the capital of an ancient Chinese dynasty, and the term was immortalized in the poem “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Read Coleridge’s poem and explain how it connects to the themes of the musical.

RESOURCES

Read
New York Times interview with Xanadu librettist Douglas Carter Beane
History Channel webpage on Greek mythology
Encyclopaedia Britannica article on Greek muses
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan”

Listen
Xanadu original Broadway cast recording

Watch
Arab High School’s Xanadu promotional trailer
Arab High School’s Xanadu behind-the-scenes video
Excerpts from the original Broadway production 
Xanadu film (rated PG)

Learn more about the 2019 International Thespian Festival online.

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