Thalia, Meet Thalia
©2021, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.
It's no secret to those who know me well, and some who don't know me that well also, that I am an unabashed, unapologetic fan of the 1980 film Xanadu. Well regarded for its world-wide hit soundtrack, and generally panned for just about everything else, Xanadu was a well-meaning attempt to bring back the Hollywood Movie Musical. It even had Gene Kelly, in his final song and dance motion picture appearance. And of course it had Olivia Newton-John, looking better than ever as Kira, the muse who had been sent to earth to inspire the creation of a roller disco by Kelly's character, former big band leader and now "comfortable" construction mogul Danny McGuire, and album cover painter Sonny Malone, played by Michael Beck. And what do you know, Kira just happened to have an Australian accent.
With music from Olivia, the Electric Light Orchestra and The Tubes, the lineup of songs included what was probably one of the first "mash-ups" ever (big band meets heavy duty rock and roll) as well as a traditional big band love song duet between Newton-John and Kelly—and neither of those were among the album's five charting hits. I loved it. I saw it twice in the movie theatre. I had the LP. I bought the CD of the soundtrack in Australia because it wasn't yet available in the United States (Olivia, ELO and The Tubes were all on different labels here which made a "new format" problematic). I got the CD signed by four of the members of ELO that are not Jeff Lynne (the founder) as well as by Michael Beck, even though he wasn't part of any of the music. And of course I had the film on video.
And did I mention that Olivia Newton-John was in it? Sigh..
The film was not exactly a box-office success, which was particularly disappointing because this was Olivia's follow-up to the mega-hit Grease which made her into a movie star. I guess you could say that for many, Xanadu made Olivia back into a singer, but she got the last laugh with the number one song of 1982, "Physical."
But for others, Xanadu was a cult classic, watched over and over again, and quoted, and an indelible part of 1980's pop culture. It certainly made an impression on me; in a long-form story that I wrote, I named the lead character Kira. The biggest hit from the soundtrack, Olivia's number one song "Magic," is still on airplay lists of many radio stations, and it's one of my All Time Top Ten pop songs.
I'm not the only one who felt this way about the film. Screenwriter Douglas Carter Beane saw potential and although even he wasn't completely confident it would work, developed the movie into a Broadway musical. Xanadu on Broadway was touted as a self-aware retelling of the story, with a mixture of old and new, for example two "evil muses" who plotted to make Kira fall in love with Sonny in violation of what muses were supposed to do: namy, inspire and then go home. (In the film, Kira fell in love with Sonny without any help.) This was only fitting as the film was somewhat based on the 1947 film Down to Earth, starring Rita Hayworth (hubba hubba), which itself was a sequel to the 1941 picture Here Comes Mr. Jordan. A few songs were dropped from the movie soundtrack and other Olivia and ELO songs were added. As soon as it was announced, I knew I wanted to see it. Our daughter Thalia had watched the movie with me and was interested in going. It would be her first real Broadway show.
My wife and son weren't hearing any of this, but there were seats available for Monty Python's Spamalot the same night, and it was playing right across the street. My cousin, a veteran of attending shows on the Great White Way, went along with the other half of the family.
Thalia was all dressed up for the occasion, and got noticed when we took our seats in the front third of the Helen Hayes Theatre. She had just turned seven and had plenty of room in her seat. Several other theatregoers greeted her and asked if she was excited. She was.
Xanadu on Broadway was technically still in previews, so I can't say that the final product changed before its official opening (which Olivia Newton-John and her long time songwriter John Farrar attended). What we saw was likely very close to what was presented on Opening Night a few weeks later. As with the movie, there was a lot of roller skating, and to make room, the stage was partially extended out over the orchestra pit.
I'm not going to go through a full recitation of the plot—who knows, there might a revival and you can see it for yourself! For this story, though, there is one important detail. Like many other productions, this show went with a limited cast, which meant that everyone except Kerry Butler as Kira and Cheyenne Jackson as Sonny played multiple roles. Even Broadway and film veteran Tony Roberts had two parts: that of Danny McGuire, who had previously been inspired by, and fallen in love with, Kira; and that of Zeus himself, who never actually appears on screen in the film version... but, you know, those "evil muses" needed to be dealt with using more than just a voice-over by Wilfred Hyde-White.
And that meant that some of the muses, who were most definitely female throughout mythology, and were also most definitely female in the movie (including one Sandhal Bergman who would go on to a successful film career)... were played by men.
That included the muse of comedy, who, if you don't know, is named Thalia. I checked the Playbill, the official title of the magazine-like program that every audience member is given upon entry, to find that the actor's name was Curtis Holbrook, who was also cast as "80s Dancer."
During the show, I looked several times at Thalia. I knew that I was thoroughly enjoying Xanadu on Broadway, which I expected to. But what did Thalia think?
Her smiles told me everything I needed to know.
The production ran a scant ninety minutes without intermission, and that hour and half went by very quickly. Everyone took their curtain calls, including the actor who played Thalia, the Muse. When the lights came up, the other theater-goers asked my Thalia what she thought. She was a little shy but enthusiastic about the show. I could tell that she'd had a good time, and that was not just fatherly wishful thinking.
This wasn't the end of the evening at the Helen Hayes Theatre. It is a long-standing tradition for the actors to leave the premises via the Stage Door, and it is perhaps an equally long-standing tradition that some portion of the audience waits outside to greet them, pose for photos or get their Playbill autographed. Some stars avoid this for several reasons, some more justifiable than others, but many more happily encounter their fans at the Stage Door than don't. This is not something that regularly takes place in any other form of entertainment of which I'm aware, "meet and greets" at some concerts notwithstanding. My cousin had reminded me of this and recommended that Thalia and I stay for it. "They love little kids," she advised.
I knew my cousin was right, but getting Thalia seen among the rather large group of people who had gathered at the Stage Door was going to be a little bit of a problem. Or so I thought: the other audience members made space for her and me. She waited, holding her copy of the Playbill tightly.
At this point, I don't recall the exact order in which the cast emerged from the theatre. But I do know that every single one of them stopped to autograph Thalia's Playbill. I told the two "evil muses" that they had a "gem part" and that they were great. Tony Roberts smiled broadly at Thalia and signed her program.
Kerry Butler, who played Kira, did that one better. She came down to Thalia's level and talked to her.
"Did you have a good time?"
"Yes," Thalia replied, again with a bit of shyness.
"What was your favorite part?"
She had to think a little. "The part with the Pegasus." Yes, in keeping with the additional bits of Greek mythology that the playwright snuck into the show, there was a Pegasus prop on which one of the cast rode, after the "confrontation" with Zeus in which Kira confesses that she is in love with Sonny. That wasn't going to go unnoticed by me either, Pegasus collector and admirer that I am—and I can't leave out that Pegasus is a symbol of poetic inspiration, which fits quite well with the Nine Muses.
Kerry said a few other things to Thalia, made sure that she signed her Playbill, and asked her if she would come back again.
"Yes, I will!" she said.
As Kerry got up I thanked her profusely. I couldn't be sure that Thalia would always remember her kindness, but I certainly would. She said that children were the future of Broadway and thanked me for bringing her.
And as Kerry Butler took her leave for home, there was one more person to meet, who wasn't getting as much attention as the major players.
I took Thalia over to him. "Hi," I greeted, "There's someone I'd like to introduce to you. I know that one of your parts tonight was Thalia... and this is my daughter, who is actually named Thalia."
Curtis, the actor, was genuinely surprised. "I don't think I've ever met anyone with that name before!"
"Yes, she is named for her Aunt Thalia." Thalia is a name that ran through my wife's family. When she very strongly insisted that if we had a daughter that would be her name, I don't think she expected the degree to which I enthusiastically agreed. In fact, I said that was a great name. That decision took just a few seconds.
"Well, nice to meet you, Thalia!" Curtis said and extended his hand, which Thalia reached up and took. "Did you like the show?"
"Yes, it was great!"
"I'm glad you enjoyed it. Can I sign your Playbill?" And he did so.
And that's how Thalia met... Thalia.
Curtis Holbrook went on to understudy the role of Sonny in Xanadu, and played much larger theatrical roles as well afterwards.
Xanadu ended well before Spamalot, so I took her on a little walk around including on Shubert Alley. We rejoined my wife, son and cousin as the Stage Door gathering for Spamalot was concluding; Kieran had a pretty full Playbill too, but didn't get the complete cast like Thalia did.
It's hard to comprehend that as I am writing this, it is nearly fourteen years later. Thalia was just a little over seven years old when she met "Thalia," "Kira" and the rest of the cast. Now, she's about to turn twenty-one. I wonder if she recalls the night the way I do. I like to think that she was at least a little inspired herself that night, by Kira and Sonny and the rest, and the singing and dancing, and skating. She already liked to sing, and did so all the way through high school. That culminated with her Senior Recital not long before her graduation, when she performed a duet with a friend of the show-stopping song "For Good" from the musical Wicked.
And as Olivia and Kerry sang in the part of Kira, you have to believe...