Celebrity Portrait


Birds-Eye View

bird-1

Photograph by Robert John Kley

Flamingo songstress sings a sweet tune.

In her distinguished career, Olivia Newton-John has won four Grammy Awards, amassed ten No. 1 hits and sold more than 100 million albums. Yet, despite all her stage success, the Australian singer is perhaps best known for her portrayal of good-girl-gone-bad Sandy in the movie Grease—a role that almost never happened.

It was by chance that Olivia Newton-John met producer Allan Carr. She was attending a dinner party at the home of Helen Reddy when the two encountered each other. At the time, Carr was working on the film adaptation of Grease. “He thought I was funny and asked me to audition,” Newton-John recalls. “I was nervous about it because they were looking for someone with an American accent, and I didn’t think I could do one,” the Australian-raised singer admits. “I was also 29 and worried about playing a high-school teenager, so I asked to do a screen test and it worked out, thank goodness.” Newton-John was already a successful singer with several No. 1 singles and Grammy Awards prior to the release of Grease in 1978, but the film, which starred John Travolta as her love interest, Danny, became a box-office smash, propelling her to superstardom. “I had a number of highlights in my career prior to Grease. I felt good when I got on my first television show in Australia,” she says with a laugh. “I guess Grease was the one that pushed it over the top. I already had successful records and milestones in my life, but that really took it to a different level. “[Grease] was successful on Broadway and around the world even before the movie, so we knew we had a great story to tell,” she continues. “There was just magic in that movie that is hard to reproduce.”

Road to Stardom
For Newton-John, the magic began when her family moved from England to Melbourne, Australia, when she was six years old. It was there where she found her voice and discovered her knack for entertaining. “As a little girl, I would always sing along to the radio,” she says. “It was just fun. I never set out to become an entertainer. It just happened. I guess it was my destiny.” Newton-John’s first big hit, “If Not for You,” came at the urging of her manager and producer, who thought the song, written by Bob Dylan and previously recorded by George Harrison, suited her voice. She wasn’t so sure, yet it rose to the top of the charts. “At the time, I didn’t really like the song,” she admits, “but I’ve grown to really love it, and it’s actually my husband’s favorite song. But when I recorded it, I just wanted to sing big ballads. “My roots, from the very beginning, were in folk music,” she continues. “When I started singing, folk music was the big thing and I loved it. It was my manager who took me the country route. I was really just recording songs that fit my voice.” And once again, her manager was steering her career down a golden road. However, there were many who felt a blonde, green-eyed foreigner didn’t belong in the “country club” and greeted her early success in country music with disdain. Shrugging it off, Newton-John continued to sing what best fit her voice, and in 1974, was named Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year. Soon thereafter, she left London and moved to the United States.

Living Las Vegas
Now, Newton-John is in the midst of her “Summer Nights” residency at Flamingo Las Vegas. When she takes the stage these days, it’s a trip down memory lane. “The show is a journey through the life of my music,” she explains. “I don’t have dancers and it’s not a big production. It’s really about the music. It’s not all the songs that I’ve done, but it’s the ones most people know.” For a solid 90 minutes, Newton-John commands the stage as she performs some of her early country and pop hits. She later weaves in a trio of songs from Xanadu (the title track, “Magic” and “Suddenly”), plus four songs from Grease, as clips from the films play on a video screen behind her. Newton-John also displays a playful side during her rendition of “Physical,” showing her original Grammy Award-winning video from 1981, remixed with an updated version from a recent episode of Glee, featuring Newton-John and actress Jane Lynch. “I thought it would be fun to put the new version in,” Newton-John explains. “They copied the original exactly.” For Newton-John, returning to perform in Las Vegas has been exciting. “The best part of Las Vegas is being on a familiar stage every night,” she says. “You know what’s going to happen. You’re sleeping in the same bed. It’s really enjoyable. It’s like doing a theater run. “A lot of Vegas shows are more theater-orientated. Big rooms are a lot less personal,” she continues. “It’s hard to settle in a booth and have a drink like we used to do in the old days when I’d go see Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. I enjoy a cozy room, and the Flamingo is a much more intimate environment.” Offstage, Newton-John, is exploring the city. She’s taken a ride on the High Roller at The LINQ, is testing out the city’s surplus of restaurants, and her husband, John Easterling, has even made the leap off the Stratosphere. “You wouldn’t catch me doing that,” she says of the SkyJump thrill ride—a controlled bungee descent from the tower’s 108th floor. More likely, she admits, you’ll find her perusing the boutiques at The Forum Shops at Caesars. “The shopping is so convenient. They have just about everything I could want there,” she says with a bit of a laugh. “Vegas has so much more to offer now. When I first started coming here, there was just gambling, drinking and a couple of shows. There is so much to do now. In the old days, you’d just go to the pool.” It didn’t take her long to get back in the swing of being in Las Vegas. “I was flattered to be invited here,” she says. “I’m having a blast.”

For tickets: http://www.flamingolasvegas.com/shows/olivia_newton-john.html#.U8ayLXm0b1o