Two decades since its splashy Broadway premiere, the plot and the production history of Sunset Boulevard, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s overblown and bold 1990s musical treatment of Billy Wilder’s classic film noir (rightfully recognized as one of the great films of all time), have become one and the same.
At the end of Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond, the former silent screen star who has spent two decades in lonely obscurity, determinedly thrusts herself back into the spotlight, ready for either a close-up or the madhouse. In sync with Norma’s intentions, the musical has returned to Broadway two decades later, bringing Glenn Close (who won a Tony as Norma in 1995) back to the stage after an extended absence.
This limited-run revival also gives Lloyd Webber (who scored no hits on Broadway between Sunset Boulevard and School of Rock) a taste of his glory days. No less than four Lloyd Webber musicals (Phantom of the Opera, Cats, School of Rock, Sunset Boulevard) are now running simultaneously on Broadway.
Whereas the original production featured a lavish set design including Norma’s mansion and Hollywood backlots, this revival (which originated at the English National Opera and is directed by Lonny Price) is a smooth concert-style staging (not unlike what you would find at City Center Encores!) dominated by a supersized 40-piece orchestra, plus zigzagging walkways, some video projections and a mannequin representing the corpse of Joe Gillis, which creepily and unnecessarily hovers from above.
Sunset Boulevard originally received mixed reviews (and was the subject of gossipy casting controversies and legal battles involving Patti LuPone and Faye Dunaway), but this revival makes a strong case for Lloyd Webber’s music (an uneven but often potent mix of sweeping romantic melodies, jazzy recitative and underscoring) and Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s book (which strictly follows the fast-paced and suspenseful original narrative), if not so much their prosaic lyrics. “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” Norma’s declaratory act-two anthem, is on par with the other epic Lloyd Webber solos like “Gethsemane,” “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,” “Memory” and “Music of the Night.”
Close eschews the exaggeration and all-out insanity of Gloria Swanson (who starred in the film) and portrays Norma in a soft light as a wounded, vulnerable creature. In spite of some obvious vocal difficulties, Close once again gives a fully invested, psychologically revealing performance. (Wouldn’t it be terrific if the revival extended and other divas took turns playing Norma?)
English actors fill the other key roles. As Joe Gillis, the down-on-his-luck screenwriter who serves as our narrator, Michael Xavier has a strapping presence and a pleasing rock tenor voice, but he gives a shallow performance that downplays Gillis’ self-loathing. Fred Johanson is appropriately stoic and serious as Norma’s dutiful and mysterious butler Max. Many fine Broadway performers pop up in small roles, including Paul Schoeffler, Jim Walton and Nancy Anderson (who also serves as Close’s understudy).
So what will be the next Lloyd Webber musical to come back? I vote for Evita, which has an obvious political relevance. And why not do that with a 40-piece orchestra too?