In 2007, London's West End was graced with a stage adaptation of the 1985 cult film Desperately Seeking Susan. Starring Kelly Price and Emma Williams in the roles created by Rosanna Arquette and Madonna, the musical featured a book by American writer/performer Peter Michael Marino and a score culled from the hits of Deborah Harry and the band Blondie. It was all set to become a surefire hit. Until it closed less than a month after it opened.
What happened? That's the question Marino has been asking ever since, and one that he explores in his acclaimed one-man show, Desperately Seeking the Exit, which will return to New York City's Triple Crown Underground March 22 and 23. TheaterMania quizzed Marino on the history of both projects and whether or not Desperately Seeking Susan will ever again see the light of day.
First off, tell me about the origin of your jukebox-musical version of Desperately Seeking Susan, which used the songs of the band Blondie.
In a nutshell, I was listening to Blondie music and wondering why there wasn't a jukebox musical that featured their stuff. This was in 2005; jukebox musicals weren't really as prevalent as they became. When I was just thinking about what would be an interesting story to hang their music on, Desperately Seeking Susan came to mind. Debbie Harry is from New Jersey and found herself on the Lower East Side — the character of Roberta also has this New Jersey/Lower East Side connection — [I thought] it would make perfect sense that these characters would sing this music. I took the 1985 setting of the movie and moved it to 1979 to add some more edge and support the fact that we were using Blondie music.
How did the West End production come about?
That's all the content [of Desperately Seeking the Exit], taking us from 2005-2009, four years, and condensing that story. I found a producer immediately. We had a director immediately. We got the rights from MGM and Debbie Harry and Blondie immediately. Everyone was certain this was a great idea. Very early on, our director, whose name I mention in the show, said, "I'm only going to do this show if it opens in the U.K." We had U.K. producers, including the Old Vic, on board. It just seemed to make sense. And as we know, the U.K. tends to have greater successes with [jukebox] musicals. From a producer's perspective, it's less expensive to mount a show in the U.K. Before you knew it, we had three workshops, we were in previews, we opened, and closed a month later. It was a very challenging experience for all involved, but that goes for every show. I have friends who are doing an off-off-Broadway show who are experiencing what I went through with a $6 million West End musical.
Where did it all go wrong?
I wish I knew. That's the interesting thing about Desperately Seeking the Exit. I made it my goal, in writing the show — which is completely based on these personal blogs I wrote assuming the show was gonna be a big hit — not to point a finger but to let the audience decide [whose fault it was]. I didn't give my opinion of anyone involved. I just relate stories about what those people did and the choices they made. It adds up to just a big mess.
At what point did you say, "I need to turn this experience into a show of its own?"
Most of the times, solo shows come from some experience people had that was life-changing in some way. Quite often, those experiences weren't the best. Here, we have the I-wrote-a-musical-that-bombed show. I just wanted to tell this story and, unknowingly, it wound up really touching people in ways I didn't expect, whether they were artists or not. It really is about collaboration and holding on to your convictions, and the mistakes you make by not doing that. I have a metaphor that the show is your baby, and no matter how ugly that baby is, you think it's beautiful. When you're in tech and previews, you're just so happy to have made it through, that it becomes very hard to see the forest for the trees.
You've made the best out of what seems to have been an absolutely miserable experience. What got you through it all these years?
I met some of the most incredibly talented people and remained friends with all of these people from the first workshop onward. I was a born Anglophile. I've always been obsessed with anything British. [To live and work in London] was a complete dream come true. Because of that show, I've managed to do a lot of work in the U.K. as a teacher and performer. When I first did Exit in New York, I did it in the basement of a bar and thought maybe twelve of my friends would come. I had no idea people I didn't know would come. When I went to Edinburgh the first year, I was shocked the show was getting five-star reviews. I cut time off the show so I could do a Q-and-A because people had so many questions.
Is the door completely closed on a return of Desperately Seeking Susan?
Sadly, the door is closed on that. My cowriter, Debbie Harry, has final say and she prefers that the show not be seen again. But, as we know in this wonderful world of theater, anything can happen. I haven't burned the show bible yet.