Desperately seeking an exit interview

The caustic words of a critic helped put paid to Peter Michael Marino’s West End flop Desperately Seeking Susan but his one-man show based on his experiences is attracting plenty of attention in Edinburgh, finds Matthew Hemley

If there’s such a thing as publicity envy, performers at this year’s Edinburgh festival may well be experiencing it in relation to Peter Michael Marino’s show Desperately Seeking the Exit.

This is because his 60-minute, one-man production seems to be generating a lot of publicity without much effort by Marino.

In fact, there has been no big push from the show’s star himself, who claims he wanted the show to “go under the radar”.

“Performers are asking me how I am getting press where they’re not,” he says. “But the press release saying ‘Blondie-Madonna musical dissected’ is proving something of a magnet. People just love to hear about a train wreck.”

He’s right, of course.

I can’t pretend that one of the main reasons I was so keen to meet Marino wasn’t to hear first hand his view of how a big budget West End show he wrote ended up being such a massive disaster.

The Blondie-Madonna train wreck he is referring to is the musical version of the film Desperately Seeking Susan, which ran in the West End in 2007.

Four weeks after opening it closed, following a mauling from critics, one of whom wrote the words that have become the title of Marino’s show, Desperately Seeking the Exit.

Now, in his one-man Edinburgh show, Marino is spilling all about the musical, from hatching the idea, to deals with producers, MGM, Debbie Harry and even Madonna, all the way, according to the show’s blurb, to the “thrilling workshops, dangerous previews, scathing reviews, and closing night”.

I meet Marino in a pub in Charlotte Street, London, where I explain there are clearly two areas of interest. There’s the one-man show, of course, and how he created it, but then there’s the story behind that show – what really happened during his time working on Desperately Seeking Susan.

The two are clearly entwined, but to kick things off, I begin by asking him how he sums up the show he is taking to Edinburgh.

“What’s my elevator speech?” he laughs. I obviously look perplexed, because he clarifies, by adding: “When I teach students I tell them they have to have an elevator speech – something that sums up your production in one sentence – and that you could tell to someone who’s asked you what you’re working on just as the elevator door begins to close.”

So what is his?

“I haven’t memorised mine,” he laughs, but adds very swiftly for someone who hasn’t: “It’s the story of the making and unmaking of a West End musical, and an American writer finding his voice in a country that speaks the same language.”

The idea for Desperately Seeking the Exit was born five years ago, when Marino was re-reading a blog he wrote about his experiences writing Desperately Seeking Susan.

He realised there was a “funny story” there and began mapping it out as an hour long show.

Initially, he did not want to appear in it, and began looking at performers, both male and female, who might be prepared to play him in the production.

But when these actors told Marino that he should be doing it, the writer called director John Clancy for help on how it could be done.

“I told him I didn’t want to do a one-man show,” he recalls. “So together we found ways that, for me, it does not feel like I am doing a one-man show.”

He adds: “I knew I wanted the show to be something that is universal in appeal. It happens to be about a little guy with a dream that turned into a horrible nightmare and he suffered greatly but managed to pull himself together and have something happy happen.”

That Marino suffered greatly is no exaggeration. After his musical was axed in the West End, he went into a depression that saw him shut himself away from friends and family for the best part of a year.

But before we get to that, we need to understand the events that got him there.

Let me take you back, therefore, to New York in 2005, when Marino was watching Desperately Seeking Susan, the 1985 film starring Madonna and Rosanna Arquette, and listening to Blondie.

It wasn’t long before he realised how well the songs could fit into the story told in Desperately Seeking Susan and began dreaming up a stage musical morphing the two.

By chance, Marino had met producer Susan Gallin at a party when he was appearing in Stomp as a performer, and so he was able to meet with her when the idea for the musical arose.

She liked the treatment Marino wrote for the musical, and following their meeting, events snowballed, and soon plans were afoot for the musical to open in the UK.

That the UK was chosen to launch the show came about because the production’s original director – who Marino refuses to name – demanded that it be produced here.

“That director pulled out the night before the first reading because of some agent/lawyer snafu, and that’s all I can say,” he says. “But he agreed to direct the show only if it opened in London, because he did not want to try out a new show on Broadway. He had had a few experiences that were not so great, one of which was the biggest show to play New York. Once he had said London, the American producer got in touch with some contacts there, and then Old Vic became co-producers immediately.”

He adds: “The climate for movie adaptations was sort of just hitting in 2005, and the juke box thing was in that weird ‘are we going to keep doing them’ stage, but here I was mashing both things together. So it felt like London was a safer place. It’s cheaper to do shows in London – massively cheaper.”

Things started well, with readings of the musical going smoothly. At one point he had a well-known producer telling him to “Get ready, because you have a hit on your hands.”

But he began to get an “inkling that things weren’t right” once the show started to be put up on its feet.

At this point, he says the combination of a director “who did not have a tremendous amount of musical theatre experience”, a “choreographer who had visions of being a director” and a “novice writer with a great sense of humour but a lack of experience writing a £4 million musical” started to take its toll.

Things, he says, started to feel a little strange when he was asked to cut certain references, which he says removed the musical’s American-ness – “I did not get why I had to make cultural reference changes when everybody in London knows as much about Friends as I know about Upstairs Downstairs,” he says.

He also says he was eventually barred from attending rehearsals, claiming that, before long, the things he had written started to be altered without his knowledge. The film, he says, is a “rainy Sunday afternoon movie”, but what he wanted to create was a “hot Saturday night show”. What we were left with, was “a wet thing in between”.

“I was told from the very beginning that the writer of a musical is the lowest man on the totem pole,” he says. “People weren’t dicks about it – they were polite in telling me to stay away. But in the US that would never happen. You would need to fire the writer first. It was shocking to see my stuff completely rewritten.

“I thought, it’s a brand new musical, why would the writer not be there?” he recalls. “But I would show up and notice that of what I wrote, nothing was happening. There were design things I thought were backwards, too, and choreography that was interesting but nothing to do with the plot. The only thing that kept me sane was the music. Martin Koch’s arrangements captured Blondie’s music perfectly and made it feel organically like a musical.”

The first signs that the public were not raring to see the musical came after a cast and creatives press conference to herald the launch of the show.

“There were 200 press outlets snapping photos of my cast, with me and Debbie Harry, and I was like, ‘Can this be happening?’,” he says. “We went out after and watched ourselves on television, only to find out the next day that just 100 tickets had been sold. I was like, I can’t take the blame for that as no one has seen the script yet. But the public did not seem to be interested.”

He adds: “I don’t know if it was because it was a Madonna movie that should have had Madonna songs in it – which would never have happened and I would never dream of doing a Madonna musical – or was it that it was a movie that people in the UK did not embrace as much as they did in the US? Or was it because it was a US writer and producer taking up space in the West End? I’ve no idea.”

Whatever it was, it was a taste of things to come.

A few weeks later, the show opened in the West End. Four weeks after that it closed.

But he does not think the musical was high-profile enough to be considered a “massive” failure.

“Chess was on Broadway for three weeks and we ran a week longer than that in the UK. In my Edinburgh show, I say Chess was a colossal failure, but ours was a moderate failure. We would not make it into the book of flop musicals, because no one cared enough in the beginning.”

When the show closed, however, Marino did suffer. He says he “totally shut off the world”, experienced “terrible depression” and had to see a therapist.

“I came off as being ungrateful,” he says. “I was surrounded by people who would have loved to have the opportunity to write a West End show, but here I was, not going to parties and not looking people in the eye. I did not know how to respond. I hated getting angry with people trying to make me feel better, so in the end I stopped responding. It was really shitty.”

His depression, he says, went away when the curtain went up on a new production of Desperately Seeking Susan in Tokyo. The producers there, he says, took his “baby”, resuscitated it and made it “look pretty again”.

“There was something about what the director did there that breathed a very exciting Saturday night energy into the show,” he says. “It just made sense.”

And although his West End experience was a bad one, Marino says he is confident that Desperately Seeking Susan will be staged again if not in London.

He also believes the musical to be a perfect one for school and university students to perform.

“I don’t know where or when or even what language it will be in but somehow we will see it again,” he says.

“If not, you will just be seeing my one-man show for a very long time.”

* Desperately Seeking the Exit runs until August 27 at Edinburgh City Football Club. Read The Stage’s review on our Edinburgh website

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