At the lunchtime event, held at West End nightclub Sketch, producers Mark Rubinstein and Susan Gallin, show creator Peter Michael Marino and director Angus Jackson made short speeches about the musical’s three-year development, and Debbie Harry introduced its two leading ladies, Emma Williams (who plays Susan) and Kelly Price (Roberta Glass). Supported by six backing singers, Williams and Price then performed scene excerpts from Desperately Seeking Susan and sang Blondie classics “Call Me” and “Dreaming”.
Speaking to Whatsonstage.com, Debbie Harry – who Gallin described as “strong, smart, beautiful … Half the world wanted to be her, the other half wanted to date her” – admitted she had been surprised when first approached about setting Blondie’s music to the film, in which the lives of suburban New Jersey housewife Roberta Glass and street-smart New Yorker Susan become intertwined. “It works so well – that was the biggest surprise.”
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For Marino, who was inspired to write the musical after seeing Abba-based blockbuster Mamma Mia!, the project became a convergence of two of his big loves: Blondie’s songs (“I can’t stop listening to Blondie music, it makes me feel so happy!”) and Desperately Seeking Susan. “I’d seen it about ten million times,” he said. “Growing up in the suburbs, I’d see films about New York City and I’d think, I want to be part of that world.”
His script tries to capture the spirit of the film and the music, something that he hopes will “invigorate” audiences. “I hope that everyone who comes to see the show leaves the theatre feeling younger, happier, hipper, and maybe a little blonder.”
While the creative team considered updating the story, they opted to stick with 1979, as per the film. Angus Jackson explained: “What we’ve got is a collision of the Seventies and the Eighties. Decades always spill over into each other. By setting the story on the cusp, we get to have our cake and eat it. The collision is where the fun is.” Of his two female stars, Emma Williams and Kelly Price, Jackson said: “It’s no exaggeration to say that, since their West End lead debuts (in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Guys and Dolls respectively), the audience has been hungry to see them create new roles in new projects.”
The roles of Roberta and Susan were played by Rosanna Arquette and Madonna in the film original, but the stage actresses have accepted their director’s challenge to create something new. “I hadn’t seen the movie (before I got involved with the show),” said Kelly Price. “Then I watched it one time and I’ll leave it at that. I’m going to create Roberta afresh.” For Emma Williams, “my version of Susan will have a nod to Madonna, but a lot of influence from Debbie Harry, Courtney Love and Shirley Manson (lead vocalist of Garbage) – these really strong women.”
Desperately Seeking Susan opens at the West End’s Novello Theatre on 15 November (previews from 12 October). In addition to hits such as “Hanging on the Telephone”, “The Tide Is High”, “Heart of Glass”, “Call Me”, “Rapture” and “One Way or Another”, Blondie have written a new ballad, “Moment of Truth”, especially for the musical.
- by Terri Paddock