ED2012 INTERVIEW: Peter Michael Marino is in Edinburgh to tell the painfully true tale of his musical ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’, which combined the plot of the Madonna-starring movie with the music of Blondie.
As jukebox musicals go, it looked like it had all the potential, yet managed to flop spectacularly in London’s West End. Fortunately, Marino’s Fringe show is far from a flop, garnering 5/5 from a ThreeWeeks reviewer, and acclaim from other Festival critics too. Peter tells us more…
TW: Where did the idea for a ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ musical featuring Blondie songs first come from?
PMM: It literally came from a boring NYC summer night in 2005, when I was smoking pot with a mate and discussing how Blondie’s songs are all ‘want’ songs and how they would be great for a musical. And then the idea of the classic 80s film ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ came up, and while watching it with the sound off and simultaneously blasting Blondie’s greatest hits, the idea was hatched. It all seemed too easy and perfect. I recreate that evening in the first seven minutes of my new show so that non-Blondie fans, or folks not familiar with the film, will understand why it seemed like such a perfect idea. At least, at the time!
TW: How did you get the show to stage – given you presumably needed the approval of both movie studio MGM and Debbie Harry – not to mention the cost and challenge of getting any production to the West End?
PMM: MGM and Blondie granted the rights to their properties after reading my 30-page treatment that detailed how the songs would be integrated into the story. We had lunch, and BOOM… the papers were signed. As for the cost, that was not my area, since I was the conceiver and book writer. Producers on both sides of the pond jumped on board almost immediately, and before I knew it we were workshopping the show in London in preparation for an opening on the West End. It then took over fifteen months to workshop and stage the show. I still wish we’d had another fifteen months to try the show out of town, which is the traditional way that most big-budget musicals get mounted. But the workshops we did went so well and a theatre opened up, so that was that.
TW: As ‘jukebox musicals’ go, yours seemed particularly inspired. So what went wrong?
PMM: The creative team was not on the same page, and there was no real leader. Many opinions and many differing opinions. The general public didn’t seem too interested in the show from the start, as we only sold a handful of tickets after the press launch which members of Blondie appeared at. Ironically, Blondie had a sold-out concert that night and didn’t mention their big musical that they had just promoted a few hours earlier! I thought that was odd. It was a perfect storm of clashing cultures and stylistic concepts that became a tornado. Or maybe a blizzard.
TW: At what point did you sense things were collapsing?
PMM: The first sign was when I wasn’t allowed at rehearsals for the first three weeks, at the directors’ request. The producers were also not allowed at rehearsals. I suspected that this was an unfortunate choice. Then when I finally saw a run-through of the show and no one on stage moved, I knew we were in some trouble. Then the choreographer and the director stopped talking, so I knew that would become problematic. Theatre is a collaborative effort and if the team is not communicating … well, that’s not so hot. The theatre chat board people were all over the show, saying very negative things about it from the first preview on. I don’t quite understand why people who work in and are inspired by the theatre arts take such glee in tearing other artists apart. Some previews were great, and others fell flat. We made so many changes every day that it was very challenging for the top-notch cast to really feel confident in their choices. They worked very hard though, and I admire the heck out of each of them. Truthfully, I admire everyone involved in the show. Theatre is hard. We don’t all do this for the money… especially at the Free Festival! Everyone was very passionate about the production, but somehow our ‘family’ fell apart.
TW: I heard Debbie Harry liked the show – how did she respond to the rapid closure?
PMM: You heard that? Yippee! Debbie Harry was very gracious and actually came to see the show on the final weekend. That was the first time she had seen it since the very first reading of it in NYC. After the performance, she signed the guest book at the Novello: “I will never sing these songs the same way again. Thank you. xo Deb”. She posed for pics with the cast and was a real hero. I’m sure she was not pleased that the musical closed so quickly, but we are all moving forward to get the show licensed and published so it can be remounted and performed as a tour, in schools, regional theatres, etc. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Debbie Harry and I admire her for letting me take her music to a new artistic level.
TW: Why have you decided to turn this whole experience into a new show?
PMM: I told the story, or parts of the story, to so many people over the years and everyone was very intrigued by the smallest details. I also kept a very private blog about the whole experience from the first reading onward. I hadn’t really looked at it since the show closed, because it was such a painful, soul-crushing experience. But one rainy day, a year ago, I took a look and got drawn into my own story… the optimistic start, the thrill of moving to the West End, casting, rehearsals, previews, changes, closing, afterlife (which I won’t give away so your lovely readers will come and see my FREE show!). It seemed like the story would be intriguing, not only to ‘theatre people’, but to anyone who has ever had a dream. So far, the show has reached all sorts of people and the feedback has been incredible. We all have a story to tell. Sometimes we tell them at a pub, on the phone, in our journal. I wanted to get back on stage after a ten-year self-imposed hiatus and this was the way to do it. My only big choice was to NOT make it a typical “I was born… blah, blah, blah…” one-man show; but rather a hybrid of storytelling, stand up, and improv. The show has played in bar basements, hotel lobbies, and theatres – and each venue gives the style and delivery of the show a different flavour. I am really glad that I decided to tell the tale. It has inspired people, and also given the musical itself some attention. Oddly, I’ve done more press for this tiny show than I ever did for that mega-budget show! Plus, I’m a native New Yorker and I like to talk.
TW: Was writing the new show cathartic?
PMM: Yes and no. I would say that actually performing the show has been cathartic because of the incredible audience response. Huge amounts of laughter, folks on the edge of their seats, tears… what you hope to experience in the theatre. This is not a therapy session or a ‘woe is me’ story, but it has given me confidence in my writing, humour and storytelling skills that I naturally doubted after the critical drubbing that ‘Susan’ got.
TW: It’s getting great reviews, can you see yourself returning to the Novello Theatre to perform it?
PMM: Wouldn’t that be poetic justice?! No way. That venue is way too SMALL for me! (laughing out loud, literally!)
TW: What advice would you have for anyone with a great idea of a jukebox musical?
PMM: Be prepared for the ride of your life. Surround yourself with supportive people. Make sure the band you are representing is also representing you and supporting the show. Work with people who are on the same page. And most of all, stand up for yourself. If it weren’t for your idea, none of it would be happening. The journey of a writer is long and slow and often lonely and painful. As I was told by our original Tony Award-winning director, “The writer of a musical is the lowest man on the totem pole”. But, that also means that you are the BASE of that pole. Be strong.
TW: Any ambitions to have another go yourself? Maybe a musical version of ‘Videodrome’ with Madonna songs?
PMM: Do you really think, after all I have said previously, that Madonna would be an ideal person to collaborate with… on a MUSICAL? I don’t think so! I’ve been approached by several artists about working on their jukebox musicals and I have an awesome 80’s punk/new wave environmental musical extravaganza ready to go. Any takers? See what this Fringe has done to me? I cannot help but sell, sell, sell 24/7! With 2700 other shows playing here, all we do is sell our shows. And more often than not, the shows we like.
Peter Michael Marino’s ‘Desperately Seeking The Exit ‘ was performed at Laughing Horse @ Edinburgh City Football Club at Fringe 2012.
Photo: Kat Gollock