*Sunset Blvd,* 5/18/17
Richard and I saw *Sunset Blvd* on 5/18/17. He saw it a few weeks before with his niece, but was happy to see it again. I'd never seen it before - - my familiarity with the show is through the movie, which I've seen somewhere around 10 or 15 times. A few years ago I found a youtube video, a handheld recording of a Broadway performance from the original production with Betty Buckley. I made it about 20 minutes into the show before I turned it off. The handheld aspect was bad, but the show itself is worse. I don't often use blue words in my writings, but that afternoon, shutting my laptop, I said, "This is total SHIT."
So why would I spend $119 on a ticket? Because Glenn Close was coming back to Broadway in the role of Norma. She did this same production in London last summer, and I saw a little interview she did at the time, in which she said when she first did the show she was too young (she was in her 40s) and now she's too old (she's now 70). Bless her heart!
Let me start by discussing the movie. It was released in 1950, directed by Billy Wilder, about a down-on-his-luck screenwriter (Joe Gillis) who stumbles into the home of a silent movie star (Norma Desmond) and ends up becoming her kept man. It doesn't end well for either of them. Two other major characters: Miss Desmond's butler (Max) and Joe's young gal pal (Betty).
*Sunset Blvd* is like *The Heiress* (made the year before): both get better every time I see them. *All About Eve* is just as great, but its genius is overt - - the other two movies have hidden jewels, which reveal themselves with repeated viewings. In my 20s I saw the movie as deliciously overripe, lots of fun, high camp. But then, in my 30s and 40s, I saw how rich and cynical the movie is, and what a sad and wounded creature Norma is.
Andrew Lloyd Webber started work on the musical in 1991, with Don Black and Christopher Hampton writing the book and lyrics, sometimes setting the screenplay word for word. It opened in London in 1993, then Los Angeles, then on Broadway in 1994. Patti Lupone created the role in London and Glenn Close did it in LA and Broadway. Faye Dunaway was in there, too, at one point, but I won't go into that. The show had a long run and many tours and other productions, starring Diahann Carroll, Betty Buckley, Rita Moreno, Petula Clark, Elaine Paige. I feel like Eartha Kitt did it at one point, but can't find anything to back that up (it must have been a dream, but what a heavenly dream it was).
Here's what the show has going for it: the story is brilliant, it's constructed in such a great way, it has a wonderful sense of momentum, and the characters are all multi-faceted. Billy Wilder went to the London premiere and said that the best thing they did was leave the script alone.
The role of Norma Desmond is one for the ages, and a joy for actresses to play and audiences to adore. By the time a woman is playing this role, her audience has a long history with her and is ready to adore her, full tilt boogie. And she's ready to be adored!
Here's what the show has against it: it's lazy. Let's not address the whole "turn a movie into a musical" issue, I don't think that's such a bad thing, as long as you bring something new to the enterprise, and Lloyd Webber, Black, and Hampton surely did that. The laziness is with the lyrics, and with the music. The larger issue is that the lyrics have the most ham-handed rhymes I've ever heard - - over and over again, I heard a word at the end of a line and did an eyeroll knowing what the rhyme would be at the end of the next time. "Hallways" of course rhymed with "always," that kind of thing all night long.
And the music! The music is what made me stop watching the show after 20 minutes on youtube. The same tunes swirling around non-stop. That first scene has one tune, and that poor cast has to hammer at it until the next scene. Lazy.
But things got off to a great start with the overture, which has a broad, haunting melody, gorgeous and poisoned, perfectly setting the scene. This revival has a 40-piece orchestra, the largest in Broadway history, and they played gloriously. I just wish they had more great music to play! It was touching, later in the first act, hearing that the opening theme was the tune of Max's song about Norma being a big star.
The high point of the show is Norma's song when she visits Cecil B. DeMille at the studio, "As if we never said goodbye." It's a great song and is placed at the perfect time in the show, when the audience is ready to really focus. It's a complex moment: Norma, we know, is coo coo for Cocoa Puffs, she's seriously delusional and has a breezy grasp of reality. But in this moment we see that she DOES still have it, she IS a real star. But she hasn't moved on with the times, and that's heart-breaking.
Close made an announcement over the PA before the show started, saying that she had lost her voice earlier in the week, but she was doing the performance anyway. We hear this kind of thing at the opera now and then, but not so much at a Broadway show. And whadya know, she sounded great! Maybe the voice itself wasn't as beautiful as when she's in good voice, but she never gave the impression of working at anything less than her absolute full capacity. And she completely embodied the role. Maybe this is her performance, or maybe it's a change from the movie to the musical, but the Norma onstage is more fragile than the Norma in the movie. That was a nice surprise.
A brief diversion, on the subject of being indisposed - - Richard and I were sitting next to this sweet guy from Alabama, and Richard struck up a conversation with him. We got on the subject of Close making the announcement, and he told us about seeing Beverly Sills in recital in Birmingham in the 1970s. She sang beautifully, but used a microphone when she spoke to the audience, apologizing, because she had laryngitis!
I'll mention the other three leads, all brought over from the London production,all making their Broadway debuts: Michael Xavier played Joe, he was good, did a good job of playing a somewhat unlikable character. Fred Johanson played Max, he did a gorgeous job with his song in the first act, and sang very well throughout the show. Siobhan Dillon played Betty. She has so little to do, it's hardly worth bringing her up. She did a good job with the endless duet she has with Joe near the end of the show. I'd like to see all three of them in a better show.
This production is sort of a staged concert. There's no real set, apart from the stairways and landings that go over the orchestra. Richard hates this, he thinks it's cheap, he sees it as a cop-out. But I don't see how you can get a 40-piece orchestra in a Broadway theater orchestra pit. This seems like a good solution - - I'd rather have a big orchestra and a scaled-back set. In this case.
Norma's song at the movie studio was the highlight of the show, but a close second was was Close's curtain call. The audience was nutty in the extreme, nuttissimo! They were approaching the mania of Bette Midler in *Hello, Dolly!* but not quite there. I was reminded of Joan Sutherland. She made her first big splash as Lucia di Lammermoor, who ends the opera with a mad scene, just like Norma Desmond. The audience went cray cray for her, and some journalist said (I'm paraphrasing), "Who is mad? Sutherland's Lucia, or her public?"