BWW:UK Interviews: Writer/Performer Peter Michael Marino Of DESPERATELY SEEKING THE EXIT
Peter Michael Marino is a writer/performer who has enjoyed success with many of his one man shows as well as appearing in hit shows like Stomp Off-Broadway.
However. it was the musical version of Desperately Seeking Susan that he conceived and for which he wrote the book that saw his name in all the papers around the world.
Sadly, for the wrong reasons.
You see, Susan was a major flop in the West End closing after four weeks and at a loss of £4 million. Now in a unique and exciting move, Marino has written and is starring in a new one-man show called Desperately Seeking the Exit (the headline for the review of his musical in one of the national papers) that talks about the whole ordeal and also his life as an American trying to fit in to a very British culture.
We caught up with the man himself to talk about Susan, Exit...and more jukebox musicals...
Hey Pete, how are you?
Great! Summer has hit NYC early and winter never came.
For the people who are not familiar with your work, can you let us know the kind of stuff you have done before? You have quite a varied CV.
Well, I was the funny guy in STOMP for five years and toured the world, and I do voice-overs for TV and radio commercials to support my theatre habit. I also teach classes in creating solo show material, as well as comedy and improv classes. Actually, I will be at the Actors Centre this July teaching my Instant Improv classes again. I really enjoy teaching on the other side of the pond.
Your new one man-show Desperately Seeking the Exit revolves around your experience of writing a major West End flop musical Desperately Seeking Susan. Can you tell us what motivated you to write this new one-man show?
Truthfully, the hundreds of students I’ve had the great fortune to work with over the years inspired me. I’m a huge fan of solo shows and I find them to be the most organic way to share personal stories in a theatrical way. A common fear that solo performers have is that their stories aren’t interesting to anyone else but themselves. The only person who’s lived that story is the person who can best tell it – and we all love stories. I’ve told many stories about the making and unmaking of DSS through the years and everyone always told me to do a show about it, so, after five years, the timing feels right. I can now understand how that whole crazy experience has changed me as a writer, performer and human being. Trust me, I didn’t think that day would ever come!
The piece is quite a brave piece as it’s not often we get to hear a writer talk about a show that did not run long so openly, did you have any worries or concerns about what people involved in the musical might think?
I care deeply about everyone involved with the musical. They all shared their talent, trust, hearts, and wallets to make it happen. We became a real family over the course of developing, previewing and running the show. Most have remained “family” after it closed. This is not a sour grapes show… that would not be fun or funny. I don’t point fingers or do character assassinations. I simply tell the story from my own point of view, based on the daily blog I kept about the whole experience from day one. In the end, I’m still a writer and a performer, so sharing this personal story is part of my DNA. It’s a little lesson on how a big show gets made and unmade, but also the story of a novice writer navigating the highs and lows of a high-profile, theatrical venture in a foreign country.
Personally speaking I rather enjoyed Desperately Seeking Susan, what are your thoughts on the show now it’s closed?
You clearly have exquisite taste. I still get emails and tweets from people all over the world who ask when the show is coming back. I’m quite sure it won’t be in London or New York, but I do hope it gets licensed someday. The UK production had some wonderfully fun and exciting moments, but there weren’t enough of them. It didn’t have a tremendous sense of urgency or wit. After seeing the Tokyo production (in Japanese), I realized that if done right, DSS had a ton of potential to really engage an audience. I would make some sweeping changes if it ever comes back. We fixed and fussed so much during previews that the cast and design team didn't get a fair chance to make it their own. This is where I wish we had an out-of-town tryout; but sometimes, the cards don't line up that way. Theatre can be a fickle beast! But that’s why we keep doing it.
Can you remember a particular moment in the rehearsal period or previews where you thought that something may be going wrong?
Reading the words “Oh, dear” at the top of the chat thread on this very site after the first preview certainly made me think something was wrong. Of course, reading positive comments changes everything! But the negative ones outweighed the positive. I think folks had their daggers prepped for DSS and I can see why. Strange that in an industry where everyone truly works their tails off to make something good, so many in the same challenging industry take so much glee in tearing things down. I pretty much address what I thought was “wrong” in Desperately Seeking the Exit… so come see the show for all the deets!
In the new play you talk about the cultural differences between the UK and US, what did you find the hardest to adjust to about UK life?
Communication. I’m from Queens, NY, so I have a big mouth and a ton of opinions. I found British culture to be much more reserved. So, since I was working in a foreign country with West End professionals, I kept quiet most of the time. And this was the hardest thing to do. I wish I had been more vocal. I’m sure my collaborators would disagree.
The UK did not embrace the musical so did you have any reservations about bringing the new play to the UK?
None at all. If you hated DSS or loved it, or if you didn’t see it, this solo comedy will hopefully provide laughs and insights no matter where it’s performed. It’s been a fun challenge writing the show for both an American and European audience. My director the Obie and multiple Fringe First-Award winner John Clancy and I have worked hard to insure that the show works for folks who’ve never seen the film or any musical – or even know Blondie. We’ve tried to create a tale that is universal. We’ll see what happens when it premieres in NYC in May. Now, that’s a tough crowd.
Susan actually went on to enjoy success in Tokyo where it played to sell out audiences and great reviews. How did that you make feel after what had happened in the West End?
After the show closed on the West End, I went into a year-long depression. I couldn’t even get out of bed on some days. It sucked and I took a lot of anti-depressants. When I got back to NY after seeing the show in Tokyo, I literally dumped all my “happy pills” and never touched them again. The musical worked there, and it gave me a new confidence in the show and myself.
Susan is such an American show, and Blondie, the music you used in the show, is American too. Did you ever discuss the musical opening in America first and do you think that would have been a better move?
London was on the radar from the beginning. This was the choice of the producers and the original Tony-winning New York director. The climate wasn’t right in NY at that time for a jukebox/movie mashup – but really, is it ever? London loves Blondie. That’s where they first hit it big in the late 70s. And, from what I can tell, London loves jukebox musicals. Haven’t Mamma Mia and We Will Rock you been playing for 200 years?
You are taking Desperately Seeking the Exit to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for four weeks, which must be exciting. Have you played there before and what are you most looking forward to?
I cannot wait for Edinburgh. Preparing for a show there takes at least eight months of planning. It feels like a full-time job getting everything ready! I directed a small cabaret at the festival in 2010 and enjoyed catching dozens of shows in five days. Such a wide variety of theatre, comedy and dance. I’m really looking forward to meeting other artists and being bombarded with entertainment. And sharing my story with complete strangers also excites me. Also, the weather looks incredible.
My company Vertigo Theatre Productions are producing the Manchester production of the show, are you looking forward to playing in our great city?
If I had my druthers, DSS would have tried out there! Your offer to present DSE was one of the highlights of this process. I did a simple reading of the show in Buffalo, New York last month and I’m so glad I did. You really learn a lot from an out-of-town-tryout. I’m sure the show will change during its run in New York, and then Los Angeles, and then the Adirondack Mountains. Manchester is another stop on the journey and I’ve always been impressed reading about your work at Vertigo. Small world – Vertigo premiers Charles Busch plays and Charles has been an inspiration since I first met him in 1985. We are still friends to this day. It’s the Circle of Liiiiiiife!
After what happened with Susan has it put you off writing a musical again or will we get to see a new one from you soon?
I’ve got a few more up my sleeve. They always say to have your next project ready while you’re working on your current project, and yes, I have 2.5 jukebox shows ready to rock. Any takers?
Please sum up in less than 10 words why audiences should come and see Desperately Seeking the Exit.
Who doesn’t love a good train wreck story?
Thanks for speaking with us today, and best of luck with the new show.
Desperately Seeking the Exit is playing in New York, LA, Manchester UK and Edinburgh. For the full tour details please visit the website
For tickets to the Manchester, UK performances please visit the official site for the Vertigo Produced Manchester Production. Or head to the ticket site Quaytickets to buy tickets direct
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