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Olivia Newton-John’s still the one that we want!

Photo by Denise Truscello
Olivia Newton-John's 2017 World Tour begins this week.
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RDR's Keaton Bell conducts a Q&A with internationally-beloved pop singer and actress Olivia Newton-John

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Whether you know her as the leather-clad Sandy Olsson from Grease or the chart-topping superstar of the ‘80s, chances are you’re hopelessly devoted to Olivia Newton-John. Few entertainers have had a career as impactful as the 68-year old performer, with over 100 million sold records and four Grammy Awards to her name. 

With more than fifty years in show business, Newton-John’s built her career on the sort of unabashed romanticism and wide-eyed charm sorely missing from modern music. Most performers are lucky to get one hit single to their name, nonetheless an entire resume filled with them: the pop pleasures of “Physical,” “Summer Nights,” and “Magic” only begin to crack the surface of Newton-John’s catalogue. 

Thursday night fans can hear them all when she takes the stage of the Verizon Theatre in Grand Prairie, Texas as a part of her 2017 World Tour. Billed “An Evening with Olivia Newton-John,” the performance showcases everything from her country music beginnings to her vibrant present. 

But before she hits the road, Newton-John talked to Red Dirt Report about the legacy of Grease, cult following of Xanadu, and relationship with her gay fan-base. 

You started in the industry at such a young age, spanning everything from music to film and television. What was it as a child that made you first want to pursue a career in entertainment?

I don’t think it was something I decided as a child, it just kind of evolved. I went into a talent contest when I was sixteen and when I won I got offered to sing on TV and it kind of grew from that. But it wasn’t like I said “Oh, I’m gonna be a singer or actor,” it was just kind of an evolution.

Looking back at such a fabulous career, is there any specific moment to you that stands out as a personal favorite?

I think they’ve all had their wonderful things for me. I couldn’t say I have a favorite because it’s all been a part of my life experience and they’ve all been a lot of fun. Of course Grease and Xanadu were wonderful because they combined music and film and were so successful. Singing at the Summer Olympics for Australia was a huge moment for me, and I’ve had some incredible experiences in my life that I’m very grateful for… and will continue to have!

Speaking of Xanadu, that film has grown into this huge cult classic over the years, especially in regards to crowd favorites like “Magic” and “Xanadu.” What do you think it is about Xanadu that’s given it such an intense following?

I think the music was fantastic and the dancing was really ahead of its time. If you look at the dancing in that, Kenny Ortega was the choreographer and he was only like 30 years old at the time. The dancing they do in Xanadu, like street-dancing, he was way ahead with it all! Plus it was just such great fun, and Gene Kelly was in it! How can you lose there? The script kind of fell down, but overall it was just an enjoyable film that I think a lot of people grew up with.

You’ve always seemed to possessed this sort of “good girl” quality throughout your career, from your character in Grease to your charity work. Did you ever feel the need to shake things up and work against this image? I know “Physical” caused quite a stir when it first came out.

Well what about Sandy 2? (Laughs) I don't think I deliberately went out of my way to do those things, I think it was just what kind of happened with the evolution of my career and the interesting offers I got. But you know I got the chance to be both and that was great fun. It wasn’t like I thought ‘Oh I need to go against what people think I am,” it just kind of evolved into that.

Photo by Denise Truscello

Few artists have had the sort of longevity and popularity that you’ve established. After such a colorful and varied career, what’s the biggest joy you get out of working today? 

Well I love to sing and that’s all I know, that’s my career and my life has been singing and performing. You know I love to be with my animals and I love to work with my hospital and doing all of those important things, but singing is my joy and I just love doing that.

You’ve been touring non-stop and doing press for the past few years now, and audiences are clamoring for your next project, so I was curious if you had any upcoming films in the works? We haven’t seen you onscreen since your role in “A Few Best Men” back in 2011!

I can’t say what it is but I’m actually doing a little something with my daughter later this week and I’m sure I’ll be able to talk about it soon. I can’t give the details because I’m not allowed to talk about it yet! 

What I find interesting is that most of the audiences are composed of so many different types of people: the adults that grew up with your music and the younger generation that discovered you through Grease. What do you think it is about Grease that people find so timeless and has given it such staying power?

I should ask you that question! People always ask me the question and I honestly don’t know. I just think it boils down to how fantastic the music is. John Farrar and Barry Gibb wrote some amazing new songs and there were already fantastic songs in the original musical. And people kind of relate to these characters and knew someone like that at school! It’s just a typical boy-meets-girl story that’s fun, light, and not heavy. But even for kids it’s not about nostalgia because it’s not like they know the ‘50s, but there’s something very romantic about that time. I think the costumes and the whole aesthetic of that period have such an appeal to so many different people.

Speaking of Grease, next year will be the 40th Anniversary of its release. Are there plans for any sort of reunion or celebration? 

I’m sure we’ll do something, but I don’t know what just yet.

I’ve seen you twice now and while I obviously adore every moment of it, the biggest standout was the environmental medley you perform that highlights your charitable endeavors and issues important to you. Why was it important to you to include that segment of the show amongst your pop music and Grease numbers?

The planet and the world that we live in, that’s all we have, and I’ve always been very in touch with nature. After going through breast cancer I wrote an album called Gaia about how I was experiencing the world after going through a health challenge, realizing how fragile everything is, and how it’s all connected. The planet is not separate from us: we’re a part of her and she’s a part of us. “The Dolphin Song” and “Don’t Cut Me Down” are pinpoints and incredibly important parts of my life. When I do my shows I want the audience to know that I have more to my spectrum than pop music. I care so deeply about the planet and the people that inhabit it.

Along with being a musical icon, you’re just as revered for all of your charitable work. You’re a Goodwill Ambassador as well as the founder of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer & Wellness Center.

Yes, it’s in Melbourne, Australia and it’s a huge part of my life. Fundraising is what keeps the wellness program going at the hospital so patients have access to healing when they’re going through cancer treatment to help their mind, body, and spirit, so I feel very fortunate to have played a role in developing something so important.

One thing I love about your shows is that they don’t have a lot of spectacle and theatrics. It’s truly just you and your music onstage, which really creates a sense of connection between you and the audience. Was that an intentional creative choice? 

Oh absolutely. People always come up to me saying “You should have some dancers up there,” but that’s really not who I am so I wouldn’t feel comfortable in that environment. That doesn’t feel like me, I’m more small I guess. I like it to be about my music. I’ve had some beautiful music that I’m very grateful for and I want that to be the focus of attention.

A lot of people always seem to forget that you initially started out as a country singer with hits like “If Not For You.” As an Australian born in England, what was your relationship with country music going into your career? There’s an interview where you said Dolly Parton actually stood up for you when you got some backlash from the country music community.

Loretta Lynn and Dolly did and were very supportive of me during that time and I love them for it. I didn’t go after country music, my producer thought that style suited me and so that’s how that evolved. In England country music was just another part of the whole spectrum, it wasn’t a separate thing. The radio there played everything and there wasn’t this divide between pop or country, so I was shocked when there was such a backlash.

Your latest album, Liv On, is a collaborative effort between you and your friends Beth Chapman and Amy Sky. It’s such a heartfelt record about themes of grief and healing, and from what I understand it was born out of some unfortunate events in your life.

The project came out of sorrow. But as life goes, it brought a lot of joy as well. I lost my sister four years ago to brain cancer and it was very quick and shocking of course, as she was incredibly close to me. And I’ve always found music is my way of healing in life, like when I wrote Gaia after getting breast cancer. Music is my way. So I was talking to my friend Amy Sky about how there isn’t really music for people going through loss and grief. She’d lost her mother about a year after I lost my sister and Beth Chapman, who’s this incredible singer-songwriter, wrote a song called “Sand and Water” after her husband died of cancer. We asked her to join us and make this album and it’s been a very healing project for us. We’ve found that many people go through grief and don’t have anybody to talk to about it. People will come to shows and realize they’re not alone, because you can’t brush grief under the carpet. We all go through struggles, so we need to be open with one another and talk about these issues. Its been healing for me and obviously for the audience too.

You have a long-standing relationship with the LGBTQ community, and they’ve really embraced you as a gay icon. How would you describe your relationship with your gay fans, and what do you think it is about you that has such a strong appeal to them? 

You know I see fans as fans and don’t go “Oh they’re my gay fans and they’re my not gay fans,” I just see them as one wholly supportive group of people. But I obviously love my gay fans! They have been very loyal and supportive to me over my career. Some of them I’ve known for forever and still come to my shows after forty years, it’s really wonderful. But I also have non-gay fans who’ve done that too! My gay fans are just lovely, loving people and I feel so grateful that they’ve embraced me.

As someone with such an unparalleled impact on entertainment, what do you want your legacy to be as a performer?

Oh gosh, that’s a difficult question. I think I’ve been very lucky that I’ve had such wonderful songs and opportunities my entire career. I’ve worked hard and I’ve worked many years, but I also feel very lucky with the choice of songs I’ve had and the movies that have come my way. I just feel very blessed. I think I would just tell another artist to be who they were and not try and copy anybody else. Be yourself above anything else.

For more information about Newton-John’s concert on Thursday, visit verizontheatre.com.

 

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About the Author

Keaton Bell

Born in Minnesota but raised in Oklahoma, Keaton is a senior at the University of Oklahoma...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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