BWW EXCLUSIVE: Olivia Newton-John Talks GREASE, GLEE, XANADU & Pink And Blue For Two
Starring in the most successful movie musical of all time is a surefire way to cement yourself in the pop culture and Hollywood pantheon, but Olivia Newton-John's participation in that generational touchstone, GREASE, was actually only the beginning of her rise to the top of the pop charts as one of the biggest entertainers in the world in the 1970s and 1980s, setting the charts afire with a string of smash hit singles such as "Physical", "I Honestly Love You", "Totally Hot", "Heart Attack" and many more. Discussing various aspects of her show business career and the entertainment legacy left by GREASE, XANADU and many of her film, television and concert appearances, Ms. Newton-John also opens up about her nearly completed construction of the $250 million Olivia Newton- John Cancer And Wellness Centre in Australia and why the cause is particularly close to her heart (literally), as well as all about co-hosting Sunday's cancer research fundraising benefit Pink And Blue For Two with football superstar Terrell Owens - an event created by her nephew Ethan promoting not only breast cancer awareness, but prostate cancer awareness, as well. As if all of that were not enough, we also shed some light on her appearances on Fox's hit musical comedy series GLEE and all about working with Jane Lynch, Ryan Murphy and company on the remake of "Physical", as well as the possibility of a return to the series in the future. Plus, all about the Broadway version of XANADU and her reaction to it on opening night, the new 2011 remix of "Magic" she has just released, her new film (complete with a newly-penned song she sings in it), A FEW BEST MEN, opinions on John Farrar's musical adaptation of HEATHCLIFFE written with Sir Tim Rice, and, her opinions on fellow divas such as Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Julie Andrews, Cher and Lady Gaga - as well as much, much more!
Olivia Newton-John will be co-hosting and performing at the Pink And Blue For Two Gala Auction on Saturday, September 3, at Ram's Head Live in downtown Baltimore. More information and tickets can be found at PB42.com and RamsHeadLive.com. For the LivAid cancer detection device visit Liv.com. To purchase her new album, PORTRAITS: A TRIBUTE TO GREAT WOMEN OF SONG, or, her duets album, A CELEBRATION IN SONG, or any of her many albums and singles and films, old and new, visit Olivia's official website here.
PC: Right off the bat, I have to tell you that GREASE is the most influential movie musical to most people of my generation and you are truly movie musical royalty. This is a true honor.
ONJ: Aww, thank you, Pat. (Laughs.)
PC: Since it is too bizarre for words I just have to ask: Are you aware they putting GREASE 2 onstage in Australia? Have you heard anything about it yet?
ONJ: No, really?! (Laughs.) Well, of course I wasn't involved in GREASE 2, but… what music are they using?
PC: All the songs from the second film only, apparently.
ONJ: Oh, really? Gosh, I will be very curious to see how that goes because the movie didn't do well, but, you know, who knows? Anything with GREASE on it seems to get an audience, so who really knows?
PC: We will see what happens. Have you read the new Alan Carr biography? It really gives quite a lot of insight into his productions - particularly the first GREASE film. What are your memories or recollections of working with him?
ONJ: Oh, is that was the one with John [Travolta] and I on the front?
ONJ: Yeah, I have it and I've read little bits of it, but I haven't read it all yet. Alan was amazing, actually. He was very generous to us in the cast and very - what's the word - encouraging. You know, he would really get us revved up and get our energy high - which I think comes across in the movie.
ONJ: Alan was a big part of that. He encouraged us to be enthusiastic and have high energy. You know, GREASE was his baby and his vision, and, I think by casting Randall Kleiser as the director and Pat Birch as the choreographer and all of the casting of everyone involved - he just did a terrific job.
PC: Do you have any comment on Jeff Conaway in his passing?
ONJ: Well, I am staying with my sister and, actually, right in front of me on the desk where I am speaking to you from is a picture of him in the Happy Days when we were both married and happy. So, as you said that, I just looked over there and there he is. You know, he was part of a family for a long time. He raised my nephew Emerson…
PC: Who is the creator of Pink And Blue For Two.
ONJ: Right. Jeff raised him when he was a little boy.
PC: Wow. I didn't know that. It all comes full-circle.
ONJ: I have a lot of fond memories of him. I really do.
PC: What about another of your GREASE co-stars: John Travolta? Have you seen him in the HAIRSPRAY film yet?
ONJ: Oh, yeah! I just loved him in it.
PC: Would you be up for another movie musical, too, especially since they are back in a big way?
ONJ: Well, I do have a movie coming out next year…
PC: A FEW BEST MEN.
ONJ: Yes, A FEW BEST MEN. It's not a musical, but I do a song that John Farrar wrote. That movie is coming out soon. It will be fun.
PC: Speaking of John Farrar, I had to fit in a mention of the concept album you did with Cliff Richard of his musical version of WUTHERING HEIGHTS, HEATHCLIFFE.
ONJ: Oh, HEATHCLIFFE! I actually think the music is fantastic.
PC: The marriage song is a real earworm, that's for sure!
ONJ: Oh, yeah! I think that music with a good book could be fantastic, actually.
PC: You'd need a charismatic leading man and leading lady.
ONJ: Well, it's not something I would do because it is for a younger crowd, but I would love to help John Farrar get that developed. Cliff Richard did it in England and it was his baby and he originally got John Farrar and Tim Rice to write it.
PC: Sir Tim has done this column but we didn't have a lot of time to devote to it. I gathered it was written very quickly from what he told me.
ONJ: Oh, yeah. I would be interested to see if it could be done again.
PC: Moving to Stephen Sondheim: on your new album you recorded "Send In The Clowns". I was so surprised to see you record that, of all things, but it is really quite moving and wonderful.
ONJ: Oh, yeah! I love that song.
PC: I've never heard you comment on Sondheim. Do you think he is one of the great Broadway composers?
ONJ: He is. He is. I just always loved that song, though. I was in London when I first heard it and I always, always wanted to record it - it just me took me a long time to get there.
PC: Do you feel that as you got older your experiences informed it more than if you recorded it in your pop days?
ONJ: Oh, absolutely. I think at the time I mentioned it to the powers-that-be that I wanted to record that and it was like, "Nah. You're not ready for it." And, it was true - I wouldn't have had enough life experience to bring much to it. Hopefully, I have a little bit now. (Laughs.)
PC: You do - and you also manage to make it your own.
ONJ: Oh, thanks.
PC: Speaking of your pop days, I have to ask: Do you have any memory of shooting the "Totally Hot" video? It's beyond words and available for all to see on YouTube, thank goodness. It's like a mini movie-musical!
ONJ: (Laughs.) I don't! I think it was in filmed in L.A., though - Century City.
PC: How did the just-released 2011 "Magic" remix come about? You sound so fantastic on it and it's a great reinvention!
ONJ: Oh, thank you. Dan Murphy, who is an Australian disc jockey, has been working with a group down there that does fundraising for my hospital and they have been really wonderful and raised money for my cancer and wellness center in Melbourne. So, they approached me about the idea.
PC: Oh, how fortuitous for everyone, then.
ONJ: Yeah. Originally, it was going to be a duet with somebody else but the other person couldn't do it. So, then, I said, "Oh, I'll just do it." So, we went in the studio and he did the mix. And, it's actually doing really well!
PC: That's great to hear. "Magic" is a really fun song to begin with and the remix only brings it more up to date.
ONJ: And, then, there's the video! Have you seen the video?
PC: Yes, of course! The visuals are so great - very cool and colorful. It's really just so perfect for summer, too.
ONJ: Isn't it?
PC: I love how you are re-visiting and re-making your classics in new ways for a new generation.
ONJ: Well, it's like: I've been around long enough to come 'round again! (Laughs.)
PC: For sure! Actually, you have made a mark on a whole new generation with your GLEE appearances, thanks in part to Ryan Murphy. We actually hosted a GLEE World Premiere in this very column for the finale of Season Two a few months ago.
ONJ: Isn't that so cool? I think Ryan first met my long-time friend and producer John Farrar - who wrote and produced "Magic" and "I Honestly Love You" and "You're The One That I Want".
PC: Oh, really? What happened in their encounter?
ONJ: I think they met at a restaurant - and, I think Jane [Lynch] was with them and they both said to him, "Do you think Olivia would come on the show?" And, so, John Called me and I said, "Sure!"
PC: So, it was an instant yes from you.
ONJ: Yeah, and, then, Ryan called me, actually - personally. So, we had lunch and discussed it and I just loved him. I was really impressed with all he was doing and with the show. So, that's how it turned out.
PC: He has always said that you and Barbra Streisand were the two people he always wanted on the show from the get-go.
ONJ: Oh, how lovely! Well, I was honored to do it. It was fun. I had a good time - and, I got to go back and do the finale show with Josh Groban!
PC: Of course.
ONJ: That was such a hoot.
PC: He's such a talented guy.
ONJ: Oh, yeah!
PC: Would you like to work with him someday?
ONJ: Oh, yeah.
PC: What do you think of the operatic pop voices such as his and those of Il Divo?
ONJ: I love those voices. My father had the most amazing operatic voice, so I have a soft spot for that.
PC: A lot of rock stars seem to have operatic roots in their family tree - Bonnie Tyler is a famous example.
ONJ: Mariah Carey, too, right?
PC: Oh, yeah, that's a perfect example. Actually, it was just confirmed she is doing the new X-FACTOR US with Simon Cowell.
ONJ: Oh, is she?
PC: He has also done this column so I would particularly like to know, coming from you: what do you think of Simon?
ONJ: Simon? I think he's great! He's very, very straightforward.
PC: And there's not enough of that in show business, right?
ONJ: Sometimes he seemed a little harsh, but he was always interesting - I think people tune in mostly to see what he will say, because he is very smart.
PC: What do you think of reality shows and TV competitions in general? Do you think it is a good thing?
ONJ: I think it is just what is right now, you know?
PC: Totally. The soup of the day.
ONJ: I tune in to some of them because I can't believe what they will do in front of a camera. It was such a different era I was born in, I guess, where we wouldn't dream of talking that way or doing those things, so they fascinate me.
PC: It's sort of like the "Sandra Dee" watching, horrified.
ONJ: (Laughs.) Yeah! It's like, (Sandra Dee Voice) "What did you say?! Oh, my goodness!"
PC: That's so funny.
ONJ: It's interesting to me, though - I think what is interesting to a lot of people is to see The Commonality between us all and that we all have feelings and thoughts similarly - even though we come from different backgrounds and different worlds; the basic feelings of hurt, love and joy in all of us are the same. So, there are good parts of it, as well.
PC: GLEE just did a ROCKY HORROR tribute episode last season, so would you be open to appearing on a GREASE tribute episode on the show in the future should it happen?
ONJ: On GLEE? Oh, yeah - probably! (Laughs.) I don't know! Of course, it depends, but I did the "Physical" one, so why not?
PC: The "Physical" video was such a viral hit, did you enjoy working with Jane on it? I've heard she's a huge fan of yours.
ONJ: Lovely. She is so, so lovely. She's just a lovely person.
PC: Can you confirm any appearance on Season 3 on GLEE yet?
ONJ: Oh, no, nothing at all. You'll have to talk to Ryan! (Laughs.)
PC: What did you think of the Broadway adaptation of XANADU when you saw it on opening night? What was your reaction?
ONJ: The live show? Oh, I just loved it. I think I laughed the loudest of everyone.
PC: To be a fly on the wall to watch you watch Kerry Butler!
ONJ: Right! Right. I was probably the loudest laugher in the whole place! (Big Laugh.)
PC: So, you thought the campy additions were enjoyable? You thought it was good to camp it up?
ONJ: Oh, absolutely! And, they should! (Laughs.)
PC: Well, if you'll go back to "Physical" on GLEE…
ONJ: Exactly! Absolutely. Right.
PC: So, it's clearly time for a remake of "Totally Hot" then!
ONJ: (Big Laugh.) Do you think? Really?!
PC: Tina Fey actually writes a hilarious anecdote about it in her new book, BOSSYPANTS.
ONJ: Does she?! I didn't know that! I love her.
PC: Are you a 30 ROCK fan?
ONJ: Yeah - and, I think she's a very talented lady. Very.
PC: You are a vocal advocate for women's rights and women's health - your new album PORTRAITS is all inspired by that. Could you tell me how you devised the song list?
ONJ: Yeah, actually, the songs were all based around the women who influenced me when I was first coming into the business - singing all their songs and admiring them. So, it was really a tribute to them. The title is PORTRAITS, but, also, TRIBUTES TO WOMEN IN SONG, because it is a tribute to those women - and, their music and their voices and how they all became a part of me and things I learned from listening to them and all that.
PC: Have you ever recorded any Laura Nyro material?
ONJ: No, I haven't, actually.
PC: I was always curious what you thought of her songs since your voice seems so well-suited to some of them.
ONJ: Oh, she was good. She was really good.
PC: Speaking of the best in the business: you've never performed onstage with Barbra Streisand, have you?
ONJ: No. Never.
PC: Would you like to? That seems like a duet that should happen someday. Are you a fan of hers?
ONJ: Oh, very much so. She is a very, very talented lady. She is wonderful.
PC: I'd like to ask you about two other musical theatre legends who have done this column: Liza Minnelli and Julie Andrews.
ONJ: Oh, goodness! Well, Liza - first, I've met her many times and I love her and, you know, in fact, one of the songs that I sang when I was fifteen in a talent contest that I actually won the talent contest with was "Everything's Coming Up Roses" - which was her song as far as I knew and it was her version that I learned it from.
PC: No way! From one of her early albums. Of course.
ONJ: Yeah, so Liza has definitely touched an important part of my career.
PC: Indeed. How fascinating. From the beginning, to boot! What about Dame Julie?
ONJ: Julie is a friend. I would spend time with her when my ex-husband was doing a movie with Blake Edwards - who, sadly, just passed away recently. So, I really feel for Julie because they were a very happy couple. They were very warm and lovely to me and they invited us to their house many times. And, she is a delight - she is really a delightful person.
PC: You can say that again.
ONJ: And, such a beautiful voice! SOUND OF MUSIC and all the things she did are just fantastic.
PC: What about Lady Gaga? What do you think of her music?
ONJ: Oh, yeah! I think she's really good and really fun.
PC: She is releasing a duet with Cher next month, you know.
ONJ: Oh, how perfect!
PC: Would you consider collaborating with her on a song in the future?
ONJ: Umm, I don't quite know how that mix would be! (Laughs.) It would be interesting!
PC: It might be a difficult match, but you never know!
ONJ: I very much look forward to seeing her with Cher. I think that's a very good mix.
PC: I have to say, your voice is even more resonant now than it was then. The most recent clips on YouTube are stunning. What do you do to keep your voice in such good shape?
ONJ: Well, I do exercises now. You know, when I was younger I didn't - but, now, I do. It's like anything - you need to work it out. You need to work out. So, I do vocal warm-ups. I might take a few weeks off if I am not working, but, then, I do warm-ups - which are really important and really helpful.
PC: So, will you be showing off your vocal chops at Pink And Blue For Two on Saturday?
ONJ: Yes, I am! I will be doing a couple of numbers. For those who don't know, it's on Saturday in downtown Baltimore at the Ram's Head Live.
PC: What can we expect?
ONJ: Oh, there will be music and food and a bar and a silent auction and the Kelly Bell Band is performing. And, Terrell Owens is going to be co-hosting the event.
PC: You and Terrell certainly will be targeting two distinctly different demographics, to say the least! What a pair!
ONJ: (Laughs.) Yeah, I guess we are! Everyone says that when I tell them. They say, "That's a very interesting mix! Have you worked with him?" And, I say, "No, no - I haven't met him yet!"
PC: That's so funny. So, can you give us any hints, then? Will you be doing the 2011 "Magic" remix there?
ONJ: I'm not sure what I am doing yet: I might do that; I might do a song off my GRACE & GRATITUDE album, because it is about being grateful for being healthy and all that. We are still working on what I am going to do, though.
PC: Speaking of which, you are also an inventor, so please tell me all about the LivAid cancer detection device.
ONJ: Yeah, the LivAid - women can read about it on Liv.com. Being a breast cancer survivor, as I like to call myself - it will be twenty years next year - I did it to make it possible for women to do regular self breast examinations. It's really important - and, it makes common sense: you know your body better than the doctor does who only sees you once a year, you know?
ONJ: And, not all cancers show up on mammograms - mine didn't; I found mine myself. That's why I am such a big advocate - because, if I had not found the lump and I had not gone to the doctor and I hadn't had an instinct about it after the mammogram came back negative - it didn't show on the mammogram - if my doctor hadn't said, "I think we should do another kind of test," - and, it didn't even show up on the needle biopsy - it wasn't until he did actual surgery that he found the cancer was there. So, you have to go with your instincts and do regular self-exams and be aware of your own body.
PC: What a harrowing story.
ONJ: Men need to be aware they should get checked out, as well, especially if they find anything that is unusual. The Liv is a very simple medical devIce That enhances your touch. You can read about it and you can also read about self-breast exams on the Liv.com site.
PC: What can you tell me about Pink And Blue For Two and what the ultimate goal is?
ONJ: The idea of Pink And Blue For Two is to encourage men to go with their wives and screen. So, if the wife is going to go and do her screening, then the man can go and do his baseline screening, too. Men need to be aware of the health of their bodies, as well - prostate cancer and breast cancer are almost on the same level. It's fascinating to me that the correlation between the two is almost the same - people don't talk about it so much, but they are almost equal in numbers.
PC: Andrew Lloyd Webber just quite famously survived prostate cancer and if it can happen to someone like him - a Lord, no less - it can certainly happen to anyone, no matter the care level.
ONJ: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Anyone can get it. You know, you just need to be aware and examine yourself and not be ashamed or shy about it - I mean, we all have parts! (Laughs.)
PC: Isn't that the truth!
ONJ: It's like - the best thing I can say - it's like when you have a cavity in your tooth and you let it get worse, eventually you have to get a root canal. If you have something that isn't right, the earlier you treat it the easier the treatment is going to be. That's kind of common sense, I think.
PC: It makes perfect sense. The LivAid is a great design, as well.
ONJ: Yeah, I'm proud of being a part of helping people with that.
PC: What can you tell me about your new cancer hospital and wellness center in Australia that is coming close to completion?
ONJ: Well, a portion of the proceeds from the Pink And Blue For Two event will be going to my center and the Baltimore Cool Kids Center - which is a wonderful organization to benefit children with cancer. My cancer hospital is actually only a year from finished.
ONJ: We're finishing the oncology area of the hospital and the wellness center - two of the things, especially the wellness center, that are very important to me in building the hospital. I know that people need support, both spiritually and emotionally, while going through cancer treatments.
PC: How true.
ONJ: That was incredibly important to me.
PC: And it doesn't seem to get enough focus in many hospitals since wellness centers are scarce to say the least. So, what is the planned roll-out?
ONJ: The wellness center will be open first - next year. And, the outpatient area will also be open next year, as well. Then, the following year, the wards will be open. So, in total, it has been an eight year project and will be ten by the time it's done. It's been very exciting.
PC: I've heard that it has taken many years to raise the funds. Is there a pinpointed total amount you've raised so far?
ONJ: We're at about 240 million and we are 8 million off from the goal that we had to raise for the wellness center. So, we have 8 million more to go - which we will raise this year, no doubt. I have no doubt that we will find some wonderful benefactors to come forward and help us finish this project. We also have two floors of the hospital that are for research with the Ludwig Institute - which is a world-wide cancer research institute. So, we will be able to share all that information with the world. It's a wonderful project.
PC: It's unprecedented. And, it will benefit the whole world. You are truly a hero and you've saved so many lives through your advocacy. This has been so wonderful, Olivia. Thank you.
ONJ: I'm so glad you're happy and thank you so much, Pat. This was great. Bye bye.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro