A guy picks up the phone and Olivia Newton-John says “Hello.” For any gay man whose never been mellow, honestly loved someone, or felt hopelessly devoted, this isn’t just the antithesis of the straight-man’s “A guy walks into a bar…” set-up; it’s Xanadu.
I should say that I first approached Newton-John about an interview last June, when she performed at Gay Pride’s Bondi Beach festival, but, truth be told, I’ve been wanting an audience with the Australian songbird since she first entered my childhood consciousness from the a.m. radio.
Who hasn’t? Newton-John’s appeal, along with a voice that sounds like a sunset picnic on a cloud bank as presented by animated bluebirds, is a personality so gracious and unassuming it’s hard to imagine an unkind word leaving her lips, or being directed her way.
“I’m good!” chimed Newton-John, when I asked how she was doing, in a sad attempt to sound “business-like.” Yeah, right; and if Santa Claus came down my chimney I’d calmly ask him if he had a nice flight. I moved on and tried to get to the point of the interview.
At 63, Newton-John is in the midst of a cross-cultural and cross-Continent media feat. Her album, Portraits: A Tribute to Great Women of Song, has just been released in the United States, and pays homage to, among others, Doris Day, Judy Collins, and, with “Rainy Days and Mondays,” Karen Carpenter. “Karen was a good friend of mine,” says Newton-John. “I loved her. You don’t usually tackle a Carpenter song.”
You don’t usually tackle an ONJ song either, and when I asked her why, she said she’d never really thought about it. Um…we have. “‘Magic’ is in a commercial,” she laughed, adding, “I turn on my TV and I hear that song.” (The song is in a Macy’s ad.) Once you listen to the new record, or hear Newton-John perform live, you’ll notice that her voice is as intact as the day “I Honestly Love You” went number one on the Billboard Top 100 almost 40 years ago; her first of five singles to take the top spot.
“It’s really important for me to warm up now,” says Newton-John. “I never used to. I had some problems with my voice.” Newton-John says that she rehearses her instrument “an hour a day; like any other muscle.” Portraits, produced by Phil Ramone, was recorded in Malibu over an almost-unthinkable five-day period. “I did my vocals pretty straightforward. They were live recordings.”
To that end, Newton-John is touring the East Coast, first hitting New York and New Jersey on December 2—she’ll be back in Australia after the New Year. While you’ll hear tracks from the new album, expect to get a little more love from her entire career.
“When I was very young I went to see a singer that I loved, and she didn’t sing the songs I wanted to hear,” says Newton-John. “I decided that, if I ever have the privilege of being that famous, I’m not going to disappoint my fans.”
In addition to the new CD, Newton-John is working on a dance album, featuring remixes of older tunes mixed with some new surprises. Oh, yeah, and the breast cancer “thriver” (Newton-John was diagnosed in 1992) is opening the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in Melbourne, also in 2012.
“I Honestly Love You” hit the airwaves in 1974 (“I think I was driving on a tour bus the first time I heard it”), and officially launched Newton-John’s stratospheric career, which includes over 100 million albums sold, four Grammy’s, an Emmy for songwriting, and awards from People’s Choice, American Music, Country Music, and a Golden Globe nomination for a little film called Grease.
“Singing is more familiar; I’ve done more of it,” says Newton-John on acting versus voice. “But every song is kind of like a little movie. It has a beginning and middle and end. With movies it’s not just you. It’s the writing, directing; it’s a team thing.” Newton-John and John Travolta created the kind of chemistry usually reserved for nuclear power plants, and a mutual admiration that still exists.
“He was amazing to me during the filming,” says Newton-John on Travolta, and Grease. “There was one scene, during the drive-in; it was my turn for a close-up. I did one take and he kind of coughed in the middle of it. He messed up his take because he knew I could do better.”
Next up, Newton-John stars in the 2012 flick A Few Best Men, which hits Australia in January before a worldwide release. The comedy, described as a cross between Bridesmaids and The Hangover, allows Newton-John to continue a variation on a role she’s been playing since, well, Sandy donned black Spandex and taunted the world with, “Tell me about it, Stud.”
“She’s the antithesis of Sandy,” says Newton-John of the character, a not-so Sandra Dee-like mother of the bride. For that matter, so was 1981’s “Physical,” which stayed at number one for 10 weeks, and revealed an aspect of Newton-John the world had not been exposed to—sex. “I think we all have different parts of ourselves,” says Newton-John. “I started out mellow, Grease allowed me to be braver. No song defines you.”
No movie does either. In 1980, Newton-John made Xanadu, which didn’t thrill critics but did thrill radio stations. “I loved doing the movie,” says Newton-John, adding that “the actual acting part was painful because the director [Robert Greenwald] told us he didn’t like music.” Xanadu donned a slew of hits for Newton-John and has since become a cult favorite and, in 2007, a Broadway musical. Says Newton-John: “Kenny Ortega did the choreography. It was twenty years ahead of its time.” There was one more perk she throws out like the girl who just woke up and found out she’s the luckiest person alive. “I got to dance with Gene Kelly!”
The Broadway version of Xanadu is about as gay as, well, the original movie, and even the “Physical” video, in which a couple of gym jocks ignore Olivia’s aerobic moves and headbands in favor of…each other. Like the film itself, Newton-John has taken on aspects of a Greek Muse, coming down to earth to help hot mortal guys in tight clothing realize their own Greek God dreams.
“I’m thrilled about it!” says Newton-John on her gay fans. “[Sordid Lives director] Del Shores told me I kept him straight for many years.” When asked what her particular appeal is to the Community, she says she isn’t certain. “Maybe I’m not threatening.”
Not only did I approach Olivia Newton-John for an interview during Gay Pride, it was scheduled to happen. After her publicist hooked me up with the concert promoters I got hooked up with the event promoters who told me I could speak with the singer after the show. After her last song, which begins with those immortal lines, “Come take my hand, you should know me, I’ve always been in your mind,” Newton-John was mobbed backstage by so many big men with little clothing determined to meet their idol that the star almost got lost in the crowd.
In between crowd chants of “WE LOVE YOU!” and “OLIVIA!” the only “business-like” question I could muster up was “What song was B-17?” (In her 1975 hit “Please Mr Please,” the singer begs a bar patron not to play that jukebox tune.) Olivia Newton-John laughed heartedly, said “I wish I knew,” and vanished amid a throng of reporters. All that remained was magic.