DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Andrea Marcovicci Plus A Chat with Olivia Newton-John

By Andrew Gans
18 Nov 2011

Olivia Newton-John
photo by Michelle Day

It's an especially busy time for Olivia Newton-John, who famously played Sandy opposite John Travolta's Danny in the blockbuster film of the Broadway musical Grease. In fact, 2011-12 marks the singing actress' 40th year in the music business, having sold over a staggering 100 million albums with four Grammy Awards to her credit. "Portraits: A Tribute to the Great Women of Song," a re-release of an earlier recording titled "Indigo," recently hit stores and features songs/artists that inspired Newton-John, from Doris Day to Karen Carpenter to Julie London and Dionne Warwick. She will also offer a brief concert tour in the New Jersey-New York area next month: Tour dates include Dec. 2 in Verona, NY, at Turning Stone Resort & Casino Showroom; Dec. 4 in Tarrytown, NY, at Tarrytown Music Hall; Dec. 7 in Englewood, NJ, at Bergen Performing Arts Center; Dec. 8 in Westbury, NY, at NYCB Theatre at Westbury; Dec. 9 in Atlantic City, NJ, at Caesars Atlantic City; and Dec. 10 in Albany, NY, at Palace Theatre. Beginning Jan. 26, 2012, Newton-John will be seen in the motion picture "A Few Best Men" from the director of "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" and the writer and producers of "Death at a Funeral." And, on a more personal note, Newton-John, a breast cancer "thriver" (diagnosed in 1992 and cancer-free for almost 20 years), will see the opening of The Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in Melbourne, Australia, in 2012. Last week, I had the chance to have a very brief chat with the internationally-known singer; that conversation follows.

Question: Since you had such a big success with "Grease," I was wondering if you were ever asked to be part of a Broadway musical.
Olivia Newton-John: I have been asked to be a part of a few Broadway musicals, but it's such an intense job that I have never taken it on. [Laughs.]… It's really hard work, and I think I'm—I don't like to say lazy because I'm not a lazy person—but it just sounds very, very difficult to do that. But if something came up that was really phenomenal and I had to do it, of course I would.

Question: Was musical theatre something you were involved in when you were growing up or were you more pop-oriented in terms of what you listened to?
Newton-John: I think I was more pop-oriented. I did things at school, but never seriously did a musical.

Question: I was wondering whether you got to see Xanadu when it was on Broadway?
Newton-John: Yes, I did. I went to the opening night, actually, and also the opening in Australia. It was on in Australia for a while, too.

Question: What was that like for you?
Newton-John: Hysterical. Loved it. I probably laughed more than anyone.

Question: Tell me about your experience filming "Glee."
Newton-John: Well, it was just a hoot, really. You've got Jane Lynch and they've redesigned the set of "Physical" exactly like it was 25 or more years ago, and it was very fun. She's lovely and everyone was. I had a blast.

Question: Any chance you might get to return to the show?
Newton-John: I don't know, you'd have to talk to Ryan [Murphy]. [Laughs.] I think with so many people wanting to be on, I had my moment and that was fun.

Cover art for "Portraits: A Tribute to the Great Women of Song"

Question: Tell me a little bit about the movie that's coming out—"A Few Best Men."
Newton-John: I play mother of the bride—a crazy mother of the bride—who loses it at the wedding because everything goes wrong, and she's had it with her controlling husband, so it's a very different kind of role [for me]… I get to really go from being a very controlled person to someone who loses control. [Laughs.] I had good fun.

Question: How does acting in a movie or TV compare for you with singing in concert? Do you have a preference?
Newton-John: I was talking to someone about this earlier. In a movie you have other people. You have a director, you have co-actors, you have lighting, you have set, you have a lot of other things going on. It's not just your thing. But when you're doing a show, it's your music and your band, and a very, very different atmosphere. I love both of them, but they're totally different. It's like comparing apples and oranges, you know, but I enjoy both of them for different reasons.

Question: Since you got your start in a singing competition, I wonder what your take is on today's competitions like "American Idol," "The Voice," "X Factor."
Newton-John: I think it's an amazing opportunity for these kids. The only thing that I object to is that they start out often being individuals, and then they try to homogenize them, and the whole point is to keep your individuality... They become very slick by the end of it, but I think it's a wonderful opportunity for these kids—a great learning curve—but it's an awful lot to ask of someone to become a professional in like three months. It takes years of practice and learning, and they're getting a crash course.

Question: You're also working on a pop CD of dance remixes. What's going to be on that recording?
Newton-John: Well, it kind of started out because we did a remix of "Magic" and we used it as a fundraiser in Australia for my hospital, The Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Center, and over the years, quite a few remixes have been done of "Xanadu" and "Magic" and a few of my other songs, so we thought we'd put them on a CD. Also, I worked on some songs with my nephew, Brett Goldsmith, in Australia over the years. I would just go to his house for fun and we'd make music, and I did demos for him, and I think we are going to mix that up and put those tracks out.

Question: I know the Wellness Center is going to open in Melbourne. What does that mean to you to have that finally come to fruition?
Newton-John: It's really exciting. It's been eight years of raising money for this Cancer and Wellness Center in Melbourne. It's been an incredible experience, and it's hard to imagine that we are actually going to open the doors in June, but we are. And, I feel extremely proud of it and that it's going to help so many people, which is the reason I got involved. We have this amazing state-of-the-art cancer center and two floors of research with the Ludwig Institute, which is an internationally renowned cancer research center, but the Wellness Center on top of that, which will support the whole person is what I'm really excited about.

Question: I wonder how being a breast cancer survivor has changed how you approach your work.
Newton-John: I think it just affects the way you approach life. I'm so lucky to be here. It's such a gift—enjoy it, just go for it, have fun, do what you want to do, don't be afraid of change, step out of your box, do something different. So, I think it takes away the fear of that stuff of always remaining in the same place. It kind of opened up the possibilities because you let go of a lot of fear if you get through that experience, which I'm very lucky. I call it my curious gift because without that, I wouldn't have done so many things or had the opportunity to be exposed to so many things without it.

Question: Since this year is your 40th year in the business, when you look back on your career, what are you proudest of?
Newton-John: Yeah! Wow! Oh, gosh—a lot of moments, you know… Of course, singing at the Olympics for my country in Sydney with John Farnham. Of course, "Grease" and "Xanadu." Those movies have made so many people happy since… There's always new ones. I keep having new moments that are amazing. In my private life, it would be my daughter and her birth and watching her grow up, and she's my greatest achievement. All the other stuff pales [in comparison]. And, now, I'm in my happiest place. I have a wonderful husband and a great life, and all the stuff I'm doing now is like icing on the cake. I've had an incredible career and life, and I'm just really lucky.

For more information visit http://OliviaNewton-John.com.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.