KNOWN TO SOME as Sandy Olsen in the smash 1978 film adaptation of the stage musical Grease, and to others as the exceptionally fit ‘80s pop star who enticed her listeners to “get physical,” Australian superstar Olivia Newton-John is a singer, songwriter, actress and philanthropist.
This upcoming Monday night, the four-time Grammy Award-winner —who has enjoyed fifteen Top 10 singles and five No. 1 hits in the USA alone— makes a rare live appearance in Savannah as part of a brief Southeastern theater tour. She spoke to me by phone during preparations for taking her latest show on the road.
How are you doing this morning?
Olivia Newton-John: I’m great, thank you.
Where are you calling em from?
Olivia Newton-John: I’m calling you from Florida where I now live with my new husband. We’ve been married seven months, and I’ve moved down here lock, stock and barrel! (laughs)
Had you ever lived or spent much time in Florida before this?
Olivia Newton-John: I had not. I’ve been here over the years, of course. I was thinking that I spent time here on one of the first trips I ever made to America . I’d made a movie called Toomorrow and Florida was one of the first places I’d ever seen in the States. I just realized that right now, actually.
Where did you move to Florida from?
Olivia Newton-John: I was in Los Angeles. I’d been a Californian for a great while.
How long has it been since you were last in Australia?
Olivia Newton-John: Oh, I go back twice or three times a year. The Gaia Retreat is a wonderful treatment spa that I’m a part owner in. That’s where my heart is, and that’s where I want to end up. But I’ve lived in America since the 1970s and it’s been wonderful to me. Have you ever been there?
Olivia Newton-John: Yes.
No, but I’ve always been curious to go. I’ve spoken with people who’ve spent time there and they say it’s a really magnificent place.
Olivia Newton-John: It is.
Is it my imagination, or has it been an awfully long time since you have toured the Southeastern U.S.?
Olivia Newton-John: You know, truthfully, I don’t have a great memory. I think I’ve been to Savannah before, but not in a great while. I did a short tour a few years ago. They just point the bus in a certain direction and I go there! (laughs) I really do have a terrible memory for things like that.
What precipitated this tour - was there any one thing that got you excited about hitting the stage again?
Olivia Newton-John: I don’t do that many live dates a year these days. But my manager called me and asked if I’d like to do a short tour in Florida. Keep it close to home, you know? I said okay, because I love to sing and to see my band. Now I’m hitting Savannah, Atlanta and Biloxi as well.
Are you playing one of the casinos in Biloxi?
Olivia Newton-John: I believe so. They do have some really nice theaters in the casinos there. I was there right before the big storm and then about a year after, and the damage was simply unbelievable.
With such a long musical career, how do you go about choosing what material you’ll perform on a given tour?
Olivia Newton-John: That’s a really interesting question, because I’m in the process of doing that with my musical director right now. He’s been with me about eight to ten years, and my band members have been with me for a while, too. I try to keep things current, but I believe when you come to see an artist you like that you want to hear the hit songs. So, I try to mix the old with the new and then throw a couple of favorites in there.
Are there any songs which fans absolutely love to hear you sing, but which you personally grew tired of ages ago, and which, truth be told, you’d rather not play?
Olivia Newton-John: No, not really. I don’t have that feeling about any of my music. I think I’m really lucky that I have great songs and have always had great performers playing on the records with me. A lot of them have been kind of timeless, like “Hopelessly Devoted,” or “Magic.” This is interesting: “If Not For You,” which was my very first record, was originally by Bob Dylan. I never really liked the song, as I wasn’t much into him at the time. Now I appreciate him a lot more! (laughs) I just wanted to do a big ballad, and now it turns out that it’s one of my husband’s favorite songs. (laughs)
Here's Olivia lip-synching her massive #1 hit from 1980, "Magic," on The Midnight Special TV program:
Tell me a bit about the lineup and instrumentation you’ll have with you at this Savannah date.
Olivia Newton-John: It’s not too large. I have a Nashville keyboard player. My lead guitarist is a virtuoso. He actually goes out and gives training sessions and concerts on his own and has a lot of CDs out under his own name. I have a singer named Warren who plays everything: wind instruments, and flutes and sax — and he also sings backup with me. He fills out all the different sounds. Then I have two more singers who are wonderful, and a bass player —usually I have a female bassist— and a drummer who’s been with me a long time. And that’s it. Bass, guitar, keyboard, three singers and a “swing person.”
Some performers are rather restless and in concert often tinker with the feel and orchestration of even their biggest hits. When playing your more well-known hits, does this backing band adhere strictly to the original arrangements, or do you take liberties with the songs and apply different treatments and approaches to them to keep things fresh for yourself?
Olivia Newton-John: Generally I don’t mess with them too much or structure them in a totally new way. I think the arrangements were part of their beauty. People hear the records and they stick with them. I try to keep it fresh by mixing things up. This time I’ll be using more video on stage and talking about what I’ve been doing lately. Sharing things like that with the audience makes it a more personal show. I have a video screen at the back of the stage, and although I’ve used that before in my shows, this time it’s more integral to the concert.
I’m sure you know all about The Beaver Trilogy.
Olivia Newton-John: What is that?
Well, back in the mid-1980s, there was an aspiring filmmaker who worked at a TV station and agreed to shoot a local talent show in a small town called Beaver, Utah. One of the people in the show was a young man who dressed up in drag as you, and sang one of your songs. It was a fairly bizarre display, and although it was never officially released, it leaked out on video and has become something of a cult sensation.
Olivia Newton-John: No, I’ve never seen it.
Well, I’m kind of surprised to hear that, because later, when the cameraman went to film school in Los Angeles, his first real attempt at a short film was a dramatized remake of that original documentary. It was called The Beaver Kid, and although a lot of young, hungry actors auditioned for the part, he wound up casting Sean Penn, who was pretty unknown at the time. So Sean Penn actually plays the part of a sexually conflicted female impersonator who dresses up like you. Supposedly you refused to give permission for the song to be used in the film, and so it could never be officially released. The director remade it a third time, under the title The Orkly Kid, with the same song, but a bigger budget, and Crispin Glover playing the role of “Olivia Neutron Bomb.”
Olivia Newton-John: Wow. That kinda rings a bell... I don’t know why they weren’t allowed to use the song back then. But it’s been so long now, I think they’d probably be able to get permission if they tried.
So you don’t personally have a problem with your recording being used in these films?
Olivia Newton-John: No. What song was it?
I believe it’s called “Please Don’t Keep Me Waiting.”
Olivia Newton-John: Oh, sure, I always liked that one.
Do you currently sing it in your show?
Olivia Newton-John: No, I don’t. Maybe I’ll have to start again. Then I could bring Sean up on stage to sing a duet of it with me! (laughs)
That would be hilarious, because it’s one of the few films of his that he virtually refuses to talk about. I guess the next time you’re in L.A., your manager could call up his agent and invite him to reprise his role. (laughs)
Olivia Newton-John: Exactly. Wouldn’t that be interesting?
Here's Olivia live in Jacksonville, Florida just a couple years back singing the fan favorite "With a Little More Love":
What else would you like folks in Savannah to know about this show?
Olivia Newton-John: Well, it’s not a big prioduction. It’s an intimate show — just me and the band. We’ll include some songs from my new CD, Grace & Gratitude. I’d also like to make people aware that my husband has a wonderful business called the Amazon Herb Company. It markets organic products from the rainforests, and he helps the people of the Amazon get the rights and titles to their own land. We’re providing education for the children of the Amazon to the incredible beauty they’re living in. They grow up thinking every child has a rainforest in their back yard! I’m really, really proud of him and have immense respect for what he’s doing.
When: 7:30 pm, March 9
Where: Johnny Mercer Theater
Cost: $45 - $55