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Desperate Theater With Blondie and Madonna: Q and A with Peter Michael Marino

PeterMichaelMarino

Peter Michael Marino once got hit in the face with a garbage can in Stomp — but that was nothing compared to the damage caused by his first musical.

The musical he wrote based on the film “Desperately Seeking Susan” featured the music of Blondie. It was a bomb on the West End — a six million dollar bomb. The review in the Guardian was headlined “Desperately Seeking Susan + Blondie = a painful performance.” It closed after a month.

That was in 2007. Out of that experience, Marino, a native New Yorker, fashioned a solo show that offers a comical autopsy of the flop, “Desperately Seeking The Exit.” That has gotten much better reviews (“Insight into the sheer, mind-boggling lunacy of the decisions powerful people will make when they’re desperate, or simply tickled.”) Marino has been touring the show on and off for two years, and will be performing it this weekend at The Triple Crown Underground in Chelsea.

Jonathan Mandell: You’re the second person I’ve talked to this week who’s turned what seems to be a  personal public humiliation into a one-man show. Is this following the Lenny Bruce dictum, “Pain + time = humor”?

Peter Michael Marino: Lenny had it right. Believe me, the first draft of the show was called “F*ck London.”  It was me placing blame, being sad and mad, and getting all uppity.

After I put that angry/sad/bitter script away for a few years, I approached it with the fresh point of view of someone who survived it. I took some of Anna Deavere Smith’s advice about solo shows by “making the past present.”  I wrote about what I was feeling during the experience, and not what I was feeling as a result of the experience. I wanted the audience to laugh at my naivete.

So how did you come to write a musical based on Desperately Seeking Susan? And where did you get ahold of six million dollars for it?

In 2005 I was listening to Blondie’s greatest hits, noted they wrote “want songs”, watched the movie Desperately Seeking Susan, and thought the two properties really complimented each other. Then I dove into analyzing both sources, wrote a detailed 30-page treatment, dropped it onto a Broadway producer’s desk, and she loved it. Within a month we had a Tony award winning director, producers from the West End, Blondie’s approval and the rights from MGM. Poof. Money.

Was this a shock? A fluke? Luck and timing? A just reward for a good idea?

It didn’t feel like a total shock. It felt like, “Well, this is supposed to be happening. This idea is good and so are the source materials. My time has come! Yay!”

What had been your career up to that point?

 I had written two cabaret spoof comedies that won some awards and co-written a play. And I had always written sketch comedy. As an actor I was in countless musical workshops. So I thought I knew how musicals worked. I wanted to write one, and I was passionate about Blondie’s music and the movie.
I started “Susan” not long after I finished a five-year stint in STOMP
Did you have a specialty in Stomp? 

Yeah. There are eight performers in the show, and one of them is the “funny guy” called Mozzie. That was me. That track has less drumming than the other roles, but still plenty of it, and a bunch of wordless solo comedy stuff that relied on the audience’s response. The whole show is based on specific counts and eights and stuff, so the challenge was to remember if you flicked your Zippo lighter on the “one-and” or the “six-and-a…” If you mess up your counts in a big number you can very well get hit in the face with a garbage can and split your lip open. Which I did. Luckily, I was playing the funny guy that night. And it was in Canada. So it was funny.

The reaction to Desperately Seeking Susan wasn’t so funny. What went wrong?
Almost everything. The storytelling, staging, choreography, marketing, blah, blah.
Listen, we all did the best we could. We all wanted the show to work.
 I think having a team of both English and American producers complicated the process. It really fell apart as soon as we started to get it on its feet. This baby had a hard time walking.
Did the experience teach you anything about the theater that you didn’t know before?
It didn’t really teach me anything about the theater that I didn’t already know. I did learn a lot more about writing and the role of the producer. But, it definitely enforced the important notion that everyone involved needs to be doing the SAME SHOW. Even though it was a really difficult experience, and closing after a month was embarrassing for me and tragic for everyone who lost their jobs and investments, I would do it all again in a heartbeat. Hopefully, it would be a better show.
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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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