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Blonde Ambitions: Desperately Seeking Susan

Who is Susan? As the new musical based on the MGM movie Desperately Seeking Susan receives its West End premiere, with the songs of pop-rock icon Debbie Harry and Blondie, Roger Foss goes in search of some Susan essentials.

By • West End


Susan on screen

The film of Desperately Seeking Susan (“a life so crazy it takes two women to live it” said the trailer) was a smash hit in 1985 and the movie that made Madonna a star one year after her first single, “Holiday”. With a screenplay by Leora Barish and directed by Susan Seidelman, it tells the story of Roberta Glass (Rosanna Arquette), a bored suburban housewife who is yearning to be somebody else. Married to a typical male chauvinist, she dreams of romance and becomes obsessed with the personal ads placed by Susan (Madonna) who is the total opposite – a gritty but glamorous New York neon-lit lifestyle material girl wearing a leather jacket with a silver pyramid on the back. Before long, an amnesia-inducing bump on Roberta’s head leads to identities, clothing, blonde hair and men all mingling with the Mob and magic.

“The film was very much about female identity, appearance and how a woman might look on the outside but feel on the inside,” Seidelman once explained. “But it was also fun. It’s a feminist tract disguised as a screwball comedy.”

The soundtrack included “The Shoop Shoop Song” performed by Betty Everett, “Lust for Life” (Iggy Pop), “Respect” (Aretha Franklin) and “Into the Groove” from Madonna’s Like a Virgin album. The music video was compiled from clips from Desperately Seeking Susan. Best Madonna moment? When Susan uses a dryer in the ladies’ room to dry under her arms.

Susan on stage

The stage adaptation of Desperately Seeking Susan was conceived and written by American writer, director and actor Peter Michael Marino. It’s directed by Angus Jackson (associate director of Chichester Festival Theatre), whose credits also include Kwame Kwei-Armah’s first two plays at the National Theatre, Elmina’s Kitchen (which transferred to the West End’s Garrick Theatre) and Fix Up. The cast is led by Emma Williams (who was slated to share the role of Maria Von Trapp with Connie Fisher in The Sound of Music but withdrew) and Kelly Price (last seen in the West End as Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls) in the roles created by Madonna and Rosanna Arquette.

The show weaves Blondie’s songs into the plot, including “Call Me”, “Heart of Glass”, “Atomic”, “One Way or Another”, “Dreaming”, “Hanging on the Telephone”, “Rapture” and “The Tide Is High” and “Moment of Truth”, a new song written for the production by the group’s leader, Debbie Harry.

Producer Susan Gallin has said the stage show sticks to the plot of the film. “The story is universal. It’s quirky, offbeat and about women who change their lives and end up with the lives that they were meant to have.”


Peter Michael Marino on turning Susan into a musical

For years I wondered why there had never been a Blondie musical. I’d known their songs ever since I was a kid growing up in New York and I’ve always played their CDs. Then four years ago I was at home watching Desperately Seeking Susan. The opening credits rolled – the scene with Roberta Glass in the beauty salon – then I switched on Blondie’s hits and it all fell into place. The first song on the CD was “Dreaming”, which fitted Roberta’s situation perfectly. I could see exactly where all the other numbers would fit too. I didn’t have to shoe-horn any of them into the story.

It took six months to get the first draft together. Then it went to MGM, who own the film, and they gave the go-ahead straight away. I sent it to Debbie Harry, wondering how she would respond, then a few days later, over lunch, she said yes. From then on, everyone just kept saying how mixing Susan and Blondie made sense. It’s one world meeting another – the suburbs of Roberta meeting the big city of Susan. It’s over-the-top New Jersey yuppies colliding with downtown can’t-give-a-damn characters. Musically, it’s about Seventies punk, reggae and disco all coming together in Blondie’s songs.

I set the stage version in 1979, because the majority of Blondie songs we are using were either written in or before then. Also, the mid-Eighties when the film was made, was my teenage years and I don’t think it was an aesthetically interesting time. The Eighties was shoulder pads and stiff high hair, but in 1979 they were ripping jeans and t-shirts. There was no point in updating the story either. Today, characters who can’t get in touch with each other would be texting. It’s much more interesting that they go to a public call box and have to dial. They really are “Hanging on the Telephone”.

It was Debbie who suggested writing a new song for the show. I emailed her, explaining that it should be sung by Susan, Roberta and the two men in their lives when they reach a turning point. She sent me “Moment of Truth”. Without realising it, she’d written a classic second act song where the characters realise things have to change.

The opening night will be my turning point. I’ll be sobbing I’m sure. When you embark on a journey to write a musical you are on that ship 24 hours a day seven days a week. So what else can you do but sob with joy when four years of work finally docks in front of an audience? I’m a very emotional American after all.


Desperately Seeking Susan opens on 15 November 2007 (following previews from 12 October) at the West End’s Novello Theatre. A longer version of this article – including interviews with Emma Williams and Kelly Price, and a run-down of Blondie highlights - appears in the November issue of What’s on Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), out now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online edition. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!


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