Last night I ventured down to the Novello Theatre in London’s glittering West End to watch Desperately Seeking Susan, which opened on Tuesday. Now, I know posting about musical theatre for the second time in a week and a half is going do little to help my claims that I’m no fan of the genre. I do have a friend who’s working on this particular production, though. And when he first told me that he was starting work on a musical version of Desperately Seeking Susan featuring the songs of Blondie a year or so ago, I did laugh loud and hard in his face.
If there’s one thing the world doesn’t need more of, it’s got to be musicals based on rock and pop songs. However, I would be lying if I said I hadn’t been getting increasingly excited about this one as I saw and heard more about it. First off, the songs already exist and aren’t specially written in an attempt to convey deeper meaning to an existing story (assuming we ignore the song that is). Also, Blondie’s music differs from the likes of Queen and Abba because I don’t hate it. And finally, Desperately Seeking Susan, which stars Rosanna Arquette and Madonna, is a film (like Bugsy Malone) that I watched obsessively as a child.
Bored housewife Roberta Glass is trapped in an unfulfilling marriage with her spa salesman husband, Gary. She entertains herself by following the love life of Susan and Jay, through personal ads they place for each other as they travel around the country – Jay with his band and Susan just because. As Roberta gets herself more mixed up with their lives, she also finds herself pursued by a murderous jewel thief against a backdrop of New York’s 1979 punk scene.
The danger with this is that it could so easily become “musical theatre does punk”. Thankfully, for the most part it manages not to. A scene where Jimmy’s band play in a punk club does step over the line with a very un-punk performance and some seriously bad guitar miming but I was never left squirming in my seat in the way I had feared I would.
This is perhaps because the production steers clear of wandering into areas where it doesn’t really belong and just takes a feeling and visual style from late 70’s punk, most notably the speed. The number of scenes in Desperately Seeking Susan is staggering and the speed of the changes is phenomenal. A very clever stage design means that there are few moments where there isn’t something moving and changing. On a relatively small stage, it’s a real visual treat.
Peter Michael Marino’s excellent script also helps in keeping up the pace fast and ironing out or removing the many dubious or simply unbelievable points that appeared in the original film – not least the length of time Roberta loses her memory after a fairly insubstantial bump to the head.
Then, of course, there’s the music. This isn’t some drunken idea taken too far; Blondie’s music really does fit the story perfectly. And if you don’t get just a little bit overexcited the first time you hear Call Me sung by a chorus, I don’t think you can have been listening properly. The songs all sound great, even Maria, which I usually try to blank from my memory, and Rapture, comical rap and all. The only low point is Moment Of Truth, a new song written by Debbie Harry and Chris Stein especially for the show. It stands out because it’s clearly written as a song for a musical (whereas all the other songs obviously aren’t) and is not even on speaking terms with lyrical subtlety. Most of all, it’s just an awful song and serves almost exactly the same purpose in the show as 11:59, which directly follows it.
This aside and ignoring a few kinks that I’m sure will be fixed during the preview stage, I thoroughly enjoyed Desperately Seeking Susan. It’s fun, exciting, not to over the top and has enough twists and turns to keep you amused. Everyone is well cast, particularly Emma Williams as Susan and Kelly Price as Roberta. As the show drew to its close, the audience became ever more enthralled and, as far as I could tell, all left satisfied.
That’s it – only posts about obscure indie bands from now on!
More on the show: www.seeking-susan.com
Get to know one of the minor characters: