Back in the good old days, audiences at shows hurled rotten fruit and vegetables at the stage when they didn’t like what they were seeing. Fun! In 2007, I wrote a musical version of the film Desperately Seeking Susan featuring the songs of Blondie, which became a sizeable target - only the produce was being thrown from the comfort of the critics’ desktops. Not fun.
Like most people trying their best to make a new musical, our goal was to create a fresh, exciting new work. But from the first preview on we knew that the knives were out. The Madonna fans were incensed that it wasn’t a Madonna musical. The Blondie fans were outraged that there even was a Blondie musical. And the West End theatre fans were enraged that yet another jukebox-movie-adaptation was taking up valuable theatre real estate.
“Oh dear.” That was the first post I read on the Whatsonstage.com Discussion Forum following the first preview. We knew we had work to do. We rehearsed all day before every preview. Scenes were written and rewritten; sets were altered, music was mixed, and staging was clarified. It was a maddening marathon to fix what audiences didn’t like and to provide more of what they enjoyed. By the time press night arrived, we collectively thought that we’d created the show of our dreams - but once the reviews came out, we were living a nightmare. The show closed a month later.
I returned to New York City humiliated and slathered in rotten tomato juice. It was horrifying and depressing. I couldn't face the world because of my incredibly public (and expensive) London mishap. I was a modern-day Hester Prynne - only my letter was an “F” for Failure. I gave up on the theatre, and my friends and family, certain that I’d never create anything ever again. I was drowning in a mess that I couldn’t clean up.
Then, about a year ago, I read the detailed journal that I kept during the process and knew that I had to tell my story. Time had healed the wounds of war and it was time to exorcize the “failure demon.” I adapted the two years of blogs into a one-hour show called Desperately Seeking the Exit – the title taken from a critic’s scathing review. And this tragic experience suddenly became... funny.
My solo show turned out to be more than just a comedy that healed my own wounds; it was, apparently, a healing experience for others. In the past year, smiling audience members from NYC to Hollywood, Edinburgh, and Australia, have approached me to tell me about their own failures. And not just musical theatre writers but novelists, screenwriters, actors, and even a butcher! I was engaging people because they saw their own struggles in the story. And like me, they survived their failures.
I’ve certainly grown as an artist and as a human being from the experience. This little show about the big show has miraculously touched scores of people around the world. It’s even created a new interest in the musical. What?! And best of all, I’ve connected with fantastic artists who all strive to create great, exciting works of art, while battling (and listening to) the naysayers.
Who knows what would have happened if the musical was a hit? The “what ifs” don’t really matter. The “what’s next” is what works. And if that means turning your tomatoes into Bloody Marys, then pour yourself a strong, spicy one - drink up, and get to work!
Desperately Seeking the Exit continues at the Leicester Square Theatre until 20 May 2013
Which flops would you like to see again? Have your say on the Whatsonstage.com Forum