Edinburgh Fringe 2012
There’s an old musical theatre joke that if Hitler were alive today his punishment should be to send him out on the road with a musical in trouble. Perhaps Peter Michael Marino was goose-stepping in a former life. All was plain sailing on his idea of adapting the 1980s Madonna film Desperately Seeking Susan using Blondie songs for the West End stage. But then things started going wrong. The resulting show closed in less than a month. Now, five years later, he’s telling the story of the show as part of the Free Fringe. It’s a fascinating hour – funny to hear, sometimes shocking to imagine – and offers a brilliant insight into how bad life in the theatre can be and yet, also, what many of us find so attractive about it.
Funny how a good bong can lead to a bad place. So found Peter Michael Marino, who had the brainwave of adapting a Madonna film for the stage while getting high with a friend. It was all up from then on. The first producer he approached optioned it. A very major American director (responsible for one of the worst directed hits in history) was onboard to stage it. A prominent West End producer told him after a workshop: “You’ve got a hit on your hands, are you ready?” But then the director wanted too much money and dropped out, the leading lady pulled out, Blondie wouldn’t promote the show, the director was trying to recreate the movie, the team were changing the script without notice… and so it went on. The show opened, got bad reviews (one saying “Desperately Seeking the Exit”) and the show closed three weeks later, forgotten even before it could be remembered. (For what it’s worth, when I went to its penultimate night I had a thoroughly good time but there you go.)
For anyone interested in theatre generally or musicals in particular, there’s much to like about hearing someone sat in front of you in a room in a pub on Leith Walk telling you how it was. But what particularly appeals is Marino’s upbeat, wide-eyed, excitable, self-admittedly American delivery. You can hear the excitement that he felt at being on the cusp of achieving something special. You can see his frustration at solutions not being found (or even sought) for problems in the show which emerged early in the rehearsals (which he was told, outrageously, to stay away from) and you believe the breakdown that he suffered afterwards. Particularly, one feels his guilt at all the money the producers lost and all the people who ended up out of work because of it. The coda to the story – the show’s successful rebirth in Japan – is a relief.
This is not the one-hour bitch fest one might have expected. Not a word is said against any of the actors, indeed very little about the producers. Most of his opprobrium is pointed at the director and choreographer who, although I’ve seen good work from both, were unable or unwilling to deliver the show as written nor find a coherent alternative approach.
The impression the avalanche of anecdotes contained in this entertaining, open, well constructed show leaves you with is that the show’s failure was down to some or many of the creatives behind it not respecting their audience. They tried to pander to what they thought people would like and tried to create a hit, not to serve the materal as best they could and assume the audience was smart. In Edinburgh, amidst a lot of shows that deal with that basic theatrical challenge – art versus commerce – that is not a bad moral to take away from it.
Just as its subject eventually did, I hope Exit, too, gets reincarnated.