British musician and writer Andi Fraggs interviews American writer and performer Peter Michael Marino about his new hit show, Desperately Seeking The Exit.
Several times in 2007 I had the pleasure of seeing Desperately Seeking Susan, the West-End musical featuring the songs of Blondie and based on the story of the cult 1985 Madonna movie. Desperately Seeking Susan: The Musical lost over £3.5 million and announced its closing only 13 dates into its run at the Ivor Novello Theatre. I think I was one of the only people in the country who enjoyed the musical, even choosing to go to see it again with a group of friend’s for my birthday that year. I was also there at the closing performance. Sure, it had it’s bad moments – the choreography was terrible at times and didn’t fit in with the theme of the show. I especially remember dancers moving on the floor in a kind of weird triangular motion. Desperately Seeking Susan is actually my favourite film, so it’s quite surprising I enjoyed this version so much. I do also think most of the time people listen to what critics say and get a preconceived idea of what something will be like before they see it for themselves and, as Desperately Seeking Susan was panned, I guess people listened to what the critics said on that occasion. To be fair, I do always seem to like things that get bad reviews, things that are on the fringes of society.
Last Saturday, I went to the Leicester Square Theatre to see Desperately Seeking The Exit, not really knowing what to expect. From the tagline ‘Madonna, Blondie, Disaster’ and billed as ‘The hit show about a shit show’, I had visions of listening to someone slag off something which I really enjoyed, with a bit of Madonna and Blondie thrown in for good measure. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Peter Michael Morino, the librettist and creator of the 2007 musical, dissected his difficult and comedic experience during the making and release of Desperately Seeking Susan: The Musical with honesty, whit and a likability which shone through from the outset. His new show is hilarious and within 20 minutes you care about him enough to want everything to turn out good. As a musician, I can empathize with his situation: ‘giving birth’ to a project, only for it to be taken over by other people and then criticized. I honestly can’t recommend his new show highly enough, so if you’re thinking of going to anything else in the West-End over the next month, forget it!
I managed to catch up with Peter a few days after I saw the show.
So Peter, how are you enjoying your new run at Leicester Square Theatre? Can you tell us about the show?
The folks at Leicester Square Theatre are very supportive and I’m thrilled that they’re giving EXIT such a long run! And the audiences have been absolutely delightful. The intimacy of the space is perfect for the show. My director, John Clancy, and I decided from the start that the show would not feel like a typical “one-man show” but more like a guy at a pub talking to a new friend. The show is really more a combination of stand up, improv and storytelling, as I relay the tale of my experience writing the musical version of the Madonna film Desperately Seeking Susan – using Blondie’s hit songs. The journey of the process, from the its genesis to workshops, previews, opening night on the West End and its rapid closing took about 2 years. The trick with this show is to tell that story in as much detail as possible in the course of 70-minutes. I’m sure it could be a lot longer, but talking for that long is certainly enough for me!
What has the audience reaction been like so far?
Amazing and shocking. I started performing the show in NYC a little over a year ago and then tried it out in Hollywood and even New York’s secluded Adirondack Mountains. I wanted the show to work for people not familiar with the musical, the movie, Blondie songs or even musicals. Then the show went to the Edinburgh Fringe last summer, where it became sort of a hit. The audiences really seem to get “into the groove” of the story, which is also punctuated with my observations of the differences in American and British culture. Even though the story is somewhat of a roller-coaster ride, it’s also, first and foremost, a comedy. It’s been neat to see how the laughs are in different places than they were in Edinburgh and NY. The audience is a huge part of the show and there’s a bit of non-invasive audience participation. Look – a solo show is never just the person on stage, but the audience as well. They are the other character really and so far my scene partners have done a smashing job. It’s almost a different show every night, which is fun for me.
Did you find it difficult to get this show off the ground following Desperately Seeking Susan? Have you ever felt blacklisted by the critics because of Desperately Seeking Susan?
Not at all. If anything, I’ve found the critics and press very enthusiastic and eager to write about the show. I think it has something to do with the core of the story: We all have goals and sometimes those dreams don’t pan out the way we hoped. When the show closed after a month, I did feel like I would never work again, but show biz is forgiving and I feel like your country has been very forgiving and supportive. I’m obsessed with London, having lived in NYC my whole life, so it’s become like a second home. Will someone just marry me so I can live here?!
When you made Desperately Seeking Susan you said it was taken over by many other people within the production. Has it been a better experience for you doing this show?
Theatre is all about collaboration and luckily my director and I were on the same page from the first reading. The audience has been very valuable as well, as I figure out what they want more or less of; what works and doesn’t work; what’s funny or not. Granted, this show is a lot smaller than Desperately Seeking Susan, but that doesn’t mean less is at stake. I believe that every artistic venture takes a village. You’ve got to be open to suggestions and let your ego take a back seat every so often.
When did you first decided to make this show, was it hard for you to re-live your experiences on Desperately Seeking Susan?
I re-read my private blog that I kept during the Desperately Seeking Susan process about two years ago and just thought it was a good story. I was always interested in doing something at the Edinburgh Fringe, so that became the goal. I really thought it would be a small ‘under-the-radar’ show; but things didn’t turn out that way. Nice surprise actually. Believe me, when I was doing the show in Scotland, I never dreamed that only seven months later I would be doing it every night in London! The producer Kat Portman saw it at the festival and we hit it off and she asked if she could bring it to London. The hardest thing about re-living the Desperately Seeking Susan experience every night is making it all seem like it happened yesterday. But emotionally, I’m fine with it all. It changed me as a person and as an artist. Life is funny, isn’t it?
What was the worst thing that happened to you during the making of Desperately Seeking Susan and how do you feel about it now?
I think that question is best answered by these words: SEE THE SHOW. [laughs]
That’s a perfect answer! Do you have any idea what kind of effect being in the Desperately Seeking Susan musical had on the actor’s future careers?
All of the terrific actors in the show have gone on to having great careers. I’m sure they had some concerns and fears after it closed, but that’s the nature of this beast we call “show biz.” They’ve pretty much all played leading roles on the West End since it closed. Even Angus, the director, won an Olivier the other night and I am thrilled for him. The choreographer Andy has since directed shows on Broadway. We had a very talented team for Desperately Seeking Susan, which took a long time to assemble. At the time though, the combination was not a perfect one. I wish everyone involved nothing but the best and hold no ill feelings toward anyone.
It must have been amazing using Blondie’s tracks and dealing with Debbie Harry and Madonna. Do you think you will ever be in contact with Debbie Harry again?
I hope so. I hope that someday Desperately Seeking Susan will be licensed and performed all around the world. Or in high schools. Or summer camps. Whatevs! Debbie did great work on the show and I’m sure its closing was not easy for her.
You have previously said that the harsh criticism affected you so badly you didn’t leave your apartment for a year. Do you think that ‘reviewers’ are too quick to judge other people’s hard work and do you think there should be some accountability for the effect on people’s lives because of the words they write?
Absolutely not. It was the quick closing of the show that crushed me, not what the critics said about the show. Critics are doing their job. They often have the power to make a show a hit based on their opinions, just as much as they have the power to close a show. But then again, plenty of huge West End and Broadway hits did not get good reviews and are doing quite well for themselves. Wicked? Mamma Mia? Hello!
What else have you been up to since Desperately Seeking Susan finished here in the UK and are you planning any new musicals or theatrical ventures? What will be next for you?
I’ve started developing a couple of new musicals (none based on a movie), but I’m still drawn to jukebox musicals and so I’m writing another one that is a loud, fun, immersive ’80s show. Is there something wrong with me? Ha! I wrote a play called Hollywood Nurses, which is a comic homage to the lesbian pulp novels of the 1950s. Vertigo Theatre Productions in Manchester is mounting it next year and I cannot wait for that. Craig Hepworth at Vertigo also presented EXIT in Manchester before I took it to Edinburgh and we got along smashingly. I have a feeling most of my work will be seen in the UK. For some reason, your country is more open to my crazy ideas than America is.
Full Leicester Square Theatre Show details can be found at: www.SeekingTheExit.com
Desperately Seeking The Exit runs at the Leicester Square Theatre until May 24. Note, it also plays the Brighton Fringe on Tuesday May 7 & 14, at Komedia.
Fans of the original previously unreleased soundtrack of Desperately Seeking Susan the Musical can hear it on Soundcloud by clicking here.