mon 27/05/2024

Desperate: How a disaster was born | reviews, news & interviews

Desperate: How a disaster was born

Desperate: How a disaster was born

From the archive, this piece from 2007 recalls how a flop musical was conceived in hope

Emma Williams and Kelly Price point to the exit

In recent years theatre has sought assistance from a pair of popular art forms. Shows based either on movies, or on pop groups’ back catalogues, have become mainstays of the theatrical economy. So the latest musical to open in the West End has the whiff of  boardroom cynicism. What happens when you randomly select a famous film and an iconic songbook, yoke them together and shove them out in front of the footlights?

You get Desperately Seeking Susan, a 1985 film which starred a chubby-cheeked Madonna (pictured below), but featuring the greatest hits of Blondie.

In fact the idea has the most humble of origins. Four years ago [in 2003] two men sat in a Manhattan bar lamenting the lack of Broadway shows they still wished to see. They idly wondered which acts might benefit from the jukebox treatment. “Blondie was the first band we thought of,” says Peter Michael Marino, a dancer who had risen no higher up the theatrical ladder than banging dustbin lids for four and a half years in Stomp. “Batting around some of their songs, we realised that in a lot of them the characters have a strong want, which is really important in musicals. And so much of their music is open to interpretation.”

They duly turned to the putative musical. Would it tell the story of Blondie, in the style of the long-running Buddy and Broadway’s ill-fated Lennon? “No, their story is interesting but thankfully not tragic enough. No one dies. So then we started talking about basing it on a popular film. I honestly can say at the same time we thought of Desperately Seeking Susan.”

For New Yorkers who came of age in the 1980s the film is a snapshot of the era’s bohemian dance-club chic, more so than similarly themed yuppies-go-underground movies from the period like Something Wild and After Hours. “It was the movie that made me want to move from Long Island to New York,” says Marino. Still, that ought to be have been that. Securing the stage rights to one major property is hard enough, but two? They reconvened a few days later with the film and a compilation and began looking for coalescence. The opening sequence establishes the disparity of the lives of the two heroines – Roberta, a romantically unfulfilled suburban New Jersey housewife, and Susan, a sassy city girl who communicates with her long-distance boyfriend via the personals while sleeping with (and stealing from) anyone who’ll put her up. When Roberta assumes Susan’s identity, she is unwittingly entangled in the chase for some priceless ancient Egyptian earrings.

“The first song on the CD was “Dreaming” and the opening shot is Roberta getting her hair done, hoping she’s going to find this ad for Susan. I was like, ‘OK, that’s a good sign.’ The next scene is Susan in the hotel room just getting done with her trick, so we thought, “Call Me'.” My friend is not a writer, he’s got a regular job and said, ‘Go ahead, have fun with it.’ So I did.”

Marino spent the next nine months absorbing Blondie’s music, tracking down the first draft of the script and constructing a treatment. His major surgical intervention was to wrench the setting back from the mid-Eighties to 1979. “I just didn’t think that Blondie’s music really supported the glossy world of 1985. The show is about the collision of the suburbs and the Lower East Side. Kids that were dressing up and teasing their hair and wearing mascara in ‘85 were from the suburbs. But in ‘79 punks lived in the city. In order to have a collision from two worlds they had to be very different.”

He presented the resulting document to the producer of Stomp, whom he’d met once and who happened to be called Susan Gallen (the film was directed by Susan Seidelman). They were soon pitching to Debbie Harry. “Debbie said, ‘I read the treatment and I’m all for it.’ That was it.” Doors also miraculously swung open at MGM, who owned the stage rights and were behind a Broadway version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. “Both parties told us that they had been approached at least five times to either turn the movie or the music into a musical, but neither of them liked what was being proposed.”

The decision was taken to create the show in the UK, which embraced Blondie earlier than the band’s native New York, and where there is a higher tolerance threshold for jukebox musicals. For like-minded aficionados, Marino has ensured that the musical will alight on iconic moments from the film. “We want to see Susan blow-drying her armpits in a bathroom in Port Authority. Roberta circling the ad with lipstick. Susan sitting in a bathtub pulling a joint out of her boot.”

But it’ll be the songs which sell the show. For contractual reason some haven’t made the cut. “Denis” wasn’t written by Harry and Chris Stein; “X-Offender” and “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear” were, but with ex-band member Gary Valentine, whose permission has not been forthcoming. They can’t currently find room for “Union City Blues”. But Harry has written a tailor-made song called “Moment of Truth”. The remaining songs from Blondie’s remarkably eclectic catalogue - “Sunday Girl”, “Atomic”, “Hanging on the Telephone”, “Rapture”, “Picture This”, “One Way or Another” - have buried their way into the collective consciousness. Marino has been helped by one tidy little coincidence. Roberta’s surname just happens to be Glass, so when she discovers her husband’s infidelity, she can sing about her broken “Heart of Glass” with impunity.

When Debbie Harry attends the West End premiere, it will complete an improbable four-year journey for an idea floated by two bored theatre-goers in a bar. Should success take it all the way back to Broadway, does Marino’s drinking companion have any form of stake?  “I did name one of the characters after him. He’s very happy with that.”

Jasper Rees on Twitter

Debbie Harry said, ‘I read the treatment and I’m all for it.’ That was it

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