Sunset Boulevard: Reviewed and Revisited
Unlike most people, Sunset Boulevard existed first for me as a musical. Long before I watched the blackly comic classic film noir, I experienced what I felt was a raw human tragedy as a musical obsessed seventeen year old on her first big international adventure. Having taken the train from Detroit to Toronto for an ‘alternative spring break’ with my two friends, I sat three rows from the front watching Diahann Carroll’s interpretation of Norma Desmond, the tragically faded star grasping for the lost admiration she once commanded. Twenty years ago, the production was stunning– a full cast, an opulent set with a grand staircase and a surprise twist (it wasn’t clear from the staging that Joe Gillis was in fact the body in the pool which made it all the more exciting).
I’ve always thought the musical twisted the knife deeper, connected with the magic of Hollywood through the sweeping numbers more powerfully, made Joe’s and Betty’s doomed relationship more convincing and had you buy into Norma Desmond’s fantasy just that little bit extra.
My expectations were justifiably high at the opening night of Sunset Boulevard at the London Coliseum on 1 April 2016, with Glenn Close reprising her 1995 Tony-award- winning role. However, what I experienced was more akin to Charles Ryder revisiting the wreck of Brideshead after the war: the shell was there but the magic was almost entirely gone.
No doubt because of its short run and ENO’s financial difficulties, the set was stark and minimalist. Although they tried to compensate for this by casting pictures onto a screen of old Hollywood, the stage which tipped its hat toward the industrialist interior design trend did nothing to evoke Hollywood luxury. This is a story of materialism: Norma’s house, cars and things define her and draw Joe to her for his Faustian pact.
One important, and I thought well-deserved improvement, was putting the orchestra centre stage: the action happened around them and every sweep of emotion was stirred by them (this seemed to be taken almost too far at times with lines traditionally spoken put to song unnecessarily so that the audience felt no pause from the score.) Yet, the music’s sweeping, mesmerizing crescendos told the story more than any performer that evening.
The first act was shaky at best, Glenn Close cracked notes, Joe Gillis, played by Michael Xavier, seemed languid and the pacing all together dull. Only the butler Max’s (Fred Johanson’s) stunning vocals in ‘The Greatest Star of All’ and Siobhan Dillon’s pitch-perfect performance as Betty Schaefer were engaging. Overall, the core cast seemed to be singing in a ‘Musical selection of Sunset Boulevard‘, stepping on to sing their next part, rather than acting in a musical.
As it went on, it got decidedly better, with an excellent comical rendition of ‘The Lady’s Paying’, and a bid for BBC casting as the next shirtless male from Xavier, who not only came out of the pool with much smaller trunks than Holden in the film version, but also shamelessly shimmied out of them once Max covered him in a robe. A rousing ‘This Time Next Year’ and a very sobering Cecil B. Demille’s ‘New Ways to Dream‘ brought the musical back alive, culminating in a very moving ‘Too Much in Love to Care‘ the closest the musical comes to freeing Joe from his fate, through the ‘innocent’ future Betty can offer him (if you can ignore the fact she’s engaged to his friend). Joe’s death and Norma’s release into a mad nostalgia was by comparison slow and disappointing.
What this musical needs is new life, and although the embers are there as shown through the few rousing numbers, to quote Norma Desmond, ‘I am big, it’s the pictures that got small’. Sunset Boulevard deserves a real revival, not a half-hearted attempt, as this cannot communicate the passion of the musical or the darkness of the original picture. The tragedy of the production is Close’s Norma Desmond is eminently forgettable, which is almost a contradiction in terms for this iconic movie star raging against the light.
Here’s Close doing a much better job in 1996 at the Royal Albert Hall.
Sunset Boulevard is at the London Coliseum 4 April – 7 May.