Writer/performer: Peter Michael Marino
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
There is nothing theatre fans love more than a huge flop. And they don’t come much bigger, or more loveable, than Desperately Seeking Susan, the musical that took the 1985 film starring Roseanna Arquette and Madonna and set it to the music of Blondie. Debuting in the West End’s Novello Theatre in November 2007, it closed just a month later.
The musical’s book writer, Peter Michael Marino, has been performing his comedic one-man show about his experience for five years now – making it, he notes drily, more successful than the production it memorialises. After learning the script and performing the hour solo – an effort he claims conflicts with his love of smoking pot – he now presents it in the form of a reading, with Marino and a variety of friends taking turns to perform as Peter and the bewildering array of theatrical characters who contributed to the show’s demise.
New York-based Marino is an Anglophile (to the extent that he confesses to being “an Angloholic”) but there is an undercurrent of cultural clash present throughout, Brits’ use of “how are you?” and “cheers” as catch-all verbal tics becoming a running theme throughout. The cultural clashes continue in the retelling of the meddling by producers: the American backers found producing partners in the UK, including the Old Vic, and it was decided to workshop and produce the premiere in London.
The decision then meant that interfering producers would ask for rewrite after rewrite to remove American terminology and colloquialisms that they felt would confuse British audiences (the same audiences that lap up Hollywood films, who had been mourning the departure of Friends some three years earlier, and who never seem to be quite so dumb as the people making decisions on their behalf).
Marino delights in his own inexperience: as an actor, writer and director, his experience had been limited to off-off-off-off-Broadway, and his idea for the musical, conceived while stoned, progressed rapidly to production without anyone questioning his bona fides. But as rehearsals for the West End production started, he found himself frozen out by director Angus Jackson, whose Shakespearean solemnity worked against the vibrancy of the film, Marino’s adaptation and the music.
Events, as Marino describes them, are not helped by Jackson and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (fresh off his work on In the Heights, and who would later choreograph Hamilton) falling out so spectacularly with one another that they began rehearsing in different rooms, from which the other was barred from entering. In previews, the production team attempted to bring in Patrick Marber as a script doctor – although, wisely, they neglected to take him on when his first suggestion was to “lose the guy at the front waving his arms” (otherwise known as the conductor).
If the resultant musical had not been such a spectacular car crash, though, we would have no interest in Marino’s tale. Named after the headline to the Daily Telegraph review, Desperately Seeking the Exit is a cautionary tale about how a great idea – and let’s face it, a jukebox musical featuring Blondie hits is just such an idea – can be completely massacred by a thousand cuts, all made by people with the best of intentions.
In the sweltering heat of the Above the Arts space – never cool in even an ordinary summer, and suffocating in the hottest day of the year so far – Marino and his friends nevertheless manage to take one’s mind off the weather. Assisted by original cast member Steven Serlin, show auditionee Neil McDermott, and friends from the fringe circuit Tim McArthur, Amy Cooke-Hodgson and Walter Michael DeForest, Marino makes one believe that Desperately Seeking Susan ought to be a great, populist musical.
A coda involving a successful revival in Japan brings hope that, with a production team that is aware of the show’s potential, an English language version could redeem itself on stage one day. But when it does, as it surely must, we will still remember the flop that started it all.
Reviewed on July 26 2018 | Image: Contributed