With the NYC Pride Parade going virtual for this year’s 50th-anniversary celebration, The Queerly Festival – Frigid New York’s annual Pride platform for LGBTQ+ indie theater artists since 2014 – is also going fully digital for 2020. As part of its lineup, curated by Kevin R. Free and Jimmy Lovett and running June 17-July 3, Peter Michael Marino is presenting two live performances (at 7 pm EDT, on Thursday, June 18, and Monday, June 22) of his 2012 autobiographical one-man comedy Desperately Seeking the Exit.
The high-energy 65-minute show traces the journey, from “train ride to train wreck,” of Marino’s concept to create a musical stage version of the 1985 Madonna cult movie Desperately Seeking Susan, set to the songs of Debbie Harry and Blondie. When the $6-million production made its debut on London’s West End, it received scathing reviews – including one entitled “Desperately Seeking the Exit” – and closed within a month. But the ever-resourceful Marino turned that lemon into lemonade, using the critic’s headline as the name of his own hilarious solo hit.
I had the opportunity to ask Pete some questions about the genesis of the work, before he goes live with it this week in The Queerly.
What was your reaction when you first read the reviews of the London production?
Pete: Well, it wasn’t pretty. I distinctly remember sitting at my tiny desk in my rented Bedford Square flat in London and Googling all of the reviews at 7 am. They got worse and worse. I didn’t cry, as much as I wanted to, but I did feel angry and helpless. I felt terrible for all the artists and the producers involved. But mostly, I felt ashamed. I mean, this is a musical with music by an incredibly popular band, based on an incredibly popular movie, which starred an incredibly popular pop star. I knew the whole world would be reading those reviews and there was nothing I could do about them. It was bizarre for sure.
What motivated you to write a new show based on the experience?
I kept a very detailed blog of the entire two-and-a-half-year experience that I didn’t really share with anybody. A few years after the show closed I was cleaning up my desktop and literally came across the blog. I read it from start to finish, and it kind of felt like it was somebody else’s story. Big highs. Low lows. Drama. Suspense. Gossip. Ridiculousness! I thought it was a story that people would like to hear, so I began condensing two and half years of journaling into a one-hour show. Believe me, it wasn’t a funny show in the first draft. So, I took some more time away from it and I was able to revisit the experience more objectively, as someone who was optimistic – because I truly was. And then I went back in and pumped up all of the comedy. I also took out all of the last names of the people involved. After a while, I realized the universality of the show, because we’ve all had dreams that haven’t come to fruition. My goal became using the show to give people laughs and hope.
Do you have any positive memories of the musical that you’ve incorporated into your solo piece, or that you can share with us?
I have so many positive memories. The day MGM said yes. The day Blondie said yes. All of the workshops. All of the casting sessions. The first day of rehearsal. The day I met Debbie Harry on Fifth Avenue to get a CD of the new song that she and Chris Stein had written for the show. Seeing the costume sketches. Seeing a model of the set. Hearing the cast sing with the orchestra for the first time. The first day we moved into the theater. The first preview. Me sitting up in the box seats during previews and watching the audience laugh and clap and sing along with the show. The most positive thing that came out of the experience was becoming good friends with the entire cast and crew. We were in the lifeboat together, so we became very close. I’m still friends with almost everyone from the UK cast, and I have the musical to thank for it. Wow. This question really opened up a can of worms. Now I can’t stop thinking of all the positive memories. There were many!
Are there moments in it that still make you cringe, or are you able to laugh at it all now?
I’m only able to laugh and to cringe at it now because I’m hearing the audience respond to the story with their laughs and their cringes. When I started doing the shows three months ago, it was imperative that it felt as close to a live theater experience as possible. After a bunch of experiments with Zoom, I found a way to make it feel theatrical, like we were all sharing this experience together. It’s my own story that I actually lived, so it’s already in my DNA. But the audience reminds me of how the tale is new to them, and that’s what makes it satisfying.
Is there a lesson you’d like viewers to learn from this?
Things. Get. Better.
Many thanks, Pete, for giving us the inside scoop on what is sure to be a virtual smash!