Peter Michael Marino On ... Desperately Seeking the ExitDate: 20 July 2012
Peter Michael Marino is the conceiver and librettist of the ill fated West End musical Desperately Seeking Susan, based on the film of the same name and featuring the songs of Blondie. The show played at London’s Novello Theatre in 2007, and was presented by Tokyo’s legendary Toho Company at the Theatre Creation in 2009. Peter has decided to tell all about why the show failed and to explore the whole process from screen to stage. He is performing the show Desperately Seeing the Exit in Manchester tlater this month, followed by Edinburgh.
The concept of the show is a brave one. Can you tell us a bit where the idea came from?
Thanks for thinking it's "brave." (laughs) Doing anything creative and putting it out there is brave! I went through this huge experience that completely upended my life in many ways. I had written a few small shows that played in NYC, and suddenly everyone was interested in my treatment for Desperately Seeking Susan. Producers on both continents got interested. The rights to the film and the Blondie song catalogue were granted almost overnight. It all happened so quickly ... and after many years of work, it ended quickly. I kept a detailed, daily blog about the whole experience from the first read through until closing night. When I went back and read it a year after the show closed, I thought it would be an interesting story to share. So, since I teach solo show and comedy classes, and direct mostly solo shows, it was only natural to turn the blog into a solo show. Also, I haven't acted in ten years since I left Stomp, and the timing felt right.
Now enough time has passed, you can obviously laugh at the experience. But how bad did things get when the show bombed?
Things were not great. I felt terribly guilty for all the lost jobs and lost money, and I knew it would be a while until I ever got the chance to write anything else that would be produced. I went into a year long depression and basically shut the world out. Then the show opened to raves in Tokyo and I started to feel better about the show and myself. Soon after, my depression lifted. But, that was a really crappy year. I've been saying that Desperately Seeking the Exit is an example of turning rotten tomatoes into Bloody Marys. I hope it has the same effect on the audience!
Why do you think the show did not do well?
There are a million reasons; many of which I talk about it DSE. Generally, I think it was a combination of bad timing, crossed with a talented creative and producing team that were on different artistic tracks. I include myself in that equation. The buzz wasn't great when the show was announced, and I think that many folks in the industry and the press were ready for it to fail. Who can say? I can blame myself or the team or the reviews or any number of other factors, but in the end, it just wasn't something that people wanted to see at that time.
Do you think musical theatre is healthy or do you think it's stuck?
Hmmmm ... well, one thing we can never forget is that theatre is a business. New shows come along and close after a month, while older shows are revived over and over - and thrive. The world of musical theater has changed drastically in the past few years and audiences go to musicals for different reasons now than in the past. Now, folks seem to want to experience music and stories that they already know, featuring celebrities that they like. In the States, it's very hard for new writers to have their work seen and shows take a very long time to get from development to production. The UK seems much more invested in creating new works ... though there aren't as many original musicals from the UK making their way to the US. I'm happy to see so many Broadway musicals making their way to London and doing well.
What was the last great musical you saw on stage?
The Book of Mormon was the last "great" musical I saw (about a year ago). Funny, fresh, ballsy, witty and engaging. It was very much a traditional musical, with really contemporary naughty language. Mostly, it made me feel something, which I think is a pretty important factor for any theatrical show.
Who came up with the idea for Susan and how did it end up on the West End stage?
It was just another NYC summer night in 2005 that sparked the events that changed my life. I recreate that night in my show when I was listening to Blondie while watching Desperately Seeking Susan. Six months later, I presented a detailed treatment of the musical that laid out how the Blondie songs would work with the film script and some Broadway and West End producers picked it up almost immediately. Then, after a series of readings and workshops in the UK, the decision was made to open the show cold at the Novello Theatre.
Why did it not feature Madonna songs as opposed to Blondie numbers?
I never wanted to write a Madonna musical, as much as I admire the Material Girl. Contrary to popular belief, Madonna only had one song in the film, "Into the Groove." We actually got permission from Madonna herself to use 16 bars of her song mashed up with Blondie's "Rapture" to close Act 1. We had to submit an audio file explaining how we would use the song. I actually play that recording in my show. "Hello, Madonna? It's me, Pete." Insane! I wanted to write a Blondie musical - using DSS for the story. Blondie only really writes "want songs" - which is kind of a necessity for any musical. Debbie Harry was also from New Jersey and "found herself" on the Lower East Side, just like the main character, Roberta Glass. There were many good reasons to use Blondie's hits with the DSS story. I decided to set the show in 1979 when Blondie was super big and punk was in. The movie is set in the mid-80s and I wanted to pull it away from Madonna and model it more on the world of the Lower East Side in the late 70s. Blondie songs also tell stories, while Madonna songs mostly have catchy choruses. I do have a treatment for the show using Madonna songs, but I don't think it's any good!
Given this experience, would you go near a jukebox musical again?
Yes! I'm working on a two at the moment. One is an 80s New Wave/Punk environmental musical in the vein of "The Donkey Show" and "Fuerza Bruta" and the other is an intimate chamber-type musical using the songs of .......
Really? (laughs) You thought I would tell you and jinx the whole thing?
What do you hope audiences will gain from coming to see Desperately Seeking the Exit?
I hope that the story is universal for anyone who has ever had a dream, and that it touches people's funny bones as well as their hearts. It not only tells the crazy story of how a big musical was made and unmade, but also how a novice American writer lost and then found his voice in a foreign country that speaks the same language.
Have you taken anything away from the experience?
Yes. I love Britain more than before and I visit at least twice a year. I've become close friends with almost everyone involved in DSS and I go over there every time one of them is producing or acting in a West End show. Also, thanks to the show, I teach comedy and improv classes at the Actor's Centre and I will be teaching there for the sixth time this July before heading to Edinburgh.
Why do you think so many musicals are now based on movies and do you think it's a good thing?
Like I said, I think audiences are more eager to invest their money and time on something they know. There's also a sense of nostalgia for the creators of these shows who want to see something that affected them in their youth live on in a new way. As long as these shows are employing artists, and keeping the economy afloat, I have no problem with movies being made into musicals. Same goes for old books and even plays that are adapted for the stage. We've all seen Romeo and Juliet a hundred times, but if a director or producer has a new way to present the story, audiences will flock to that old chestnut time and time again. It did pretty well as a little musical called West Side Story. And people are still seeing that time and time again!
You are taking the show to Edinburgh and Manchester. Why should people come and see the show?
It's short, funny, fascinating, and filled with bad British accents. And it's free! (in Edinburgh). Why not see it?
Peter Michael Marino was speaking to Glenn Meads
Desperately Seeing the Exit is at Taurus, Manchester from 30 - 31 July.