I cannot think of a single great stage musical derived from a film that equalled, let alone improved on, their original source. Sunset Boulevard is no exception. That said, what the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Christopher Hampton-Don Black adaptation, first seen in 1993, and now re-directed by Lonny Price in a semi-staged version, has going for it is a brilliant screenplay by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, whose cynicism and plot have been faithfully preserved.
It also, of course, has Glenn Close – no stranger to the role. It takes a star to play a star – even one who’s glory years as silent screen legend Norma Desmond are long gone. And while no one will ever better the definitive performance Gloria Swanson gave in the famous 1950 film, Close comes, well, close.
Making her London debut in this career-defining vehicle, she can, with just one look, convey the forgotten era of 1920s movie celebrity when stars like Valentino, Chaplin and Mary Pickford received 10,000 fan letters a week and were more famous than royalty. But, like the coming of sound, which confined Norma’s career to the proverbial scrap heap, reality was another of her enemies. She banished it by refusing to acknowledge its existence.
Fabulously wealthy (from property?), delusional and living in a hermetically sealed Gothic mansion, her only company is a pet monkey and Max (Fred Johanson), a faithful butler whose job is to keep her illusions alive. As played by Close, Norma is the steely embodiment of a woman determined, we are told, never to surrender and never to forget that she was, in Max’s words, the greatest star that ever lived, (“I’m still big,” she famously insists. “It’s the pictures that got small.”)
Norma’s fantasy world goes into free fall after an unemployed, impoverished screenwriter called Joe Gillis (Michael Xavier) inadvertently turns into her driveway to avoid some repossession men who are after his car. When Norma learns he’s a screenwriter, she produces an unwieldy manuscript of Salome she’s been working on for 20 years, and offers him money if he’ll move in with her and rewrite it.
With nothing to lose – except his self-esteem – Joe agrees. Xavier’s performance nails the writer’s desperation, his cynicism, his self-loathing at being a kept man, and makes no attempt to compromise the character’s basic unlikeability. That’s the way it was written and that’s the way he plays it.
On the other hand, Norma’s credo, oft repeated throughout the show, is that she “gave the world new ways to dream”. The irony of the situation, though, is that all four of the principle characters see their dreams turn into nightmares.
Norma’s love for Joe is not only unrequited (although he has sex with her), her Salome screenplay is unproducible. Max, given dignity by the excellent Johanson, is the keeper of the Desmond flame and suffers in silence. He was once both her director and her husband but is now her employee; while Joe, a virtual prisoner in Norma’s claustrophobic mansion, has an unfulfilled relationship with Betty (Siobhan Dillon making the most with the least), a script editor who has a fiancé she no longer wants to marry. Had this been an opera, what a quartet we might have had! But it’s not and that’s part of the problem.
What Sunset Boulevard the musical doesn’t have is a consistently inventive score of a quality that turns the conventional into a classic. There is no denying the two big numbers Lloyd Webber wrote for Norma are terrific. "Just One Look" has the kind of soaring melody that distinguishes "The Music of the Night" from Phantom, and "As if We Never Said Goodbye" climaxes the most moving moment in the show, when Norma returns to Paramount Studios mistakenly believing the great Cecil B DeMille wants to direct her in Salome.
On a sound stage surrounded by extras, many of whom – including a veteran lighting man who shines a spotlight on her face – recognise her, Norma sits in the director’s chair and imperiously swats away an overhead microphone as if it were a troublesome insect. It doesn’t matter that the middle register of her singing voice has lost some of its lustre. It’s a scene I will always cherish.
The rest of the score is serviceable, including the title song with its iffy lyrics and misplaced accent on the word Booo-levard. The opening number is a non-descript collection of phrases that pass for lyrics, and in a routine performed by a group of chorus boys in Schwab’s Drugstore, there are, I thought, echoes of the Bernstein-Comden and Green song "What a Waste" from Wonderful Town. The act-two love duet "Too Much in Love to Care" between Joe and Betty is beautifully sung, but the song itself is undistinguished.
Apart from a visually striking opening image, which I won’t spoil by describing it, what I missed most in this semi-staged concert version was John Napier’s original set in which Norma Desmond’s Gothic pile took one’s breath away. With its ornate, over-gilded furnishings, decorative eccentricities and sweeping staircase down which Desmond made her grand entrance, set designer James Noone offers instead a collection of all-purpose gantries plus a few essential props. There is a staircase of sorts, but it’s utilitarian rather than decorative – which cannot be said of the dazzling array of elaborate costumes Anthony Powell has designed for his star.
Credit, too, must go to the 48 musicians who, under the baton of the excellent Michael Reed, provide a richness of tone this score never had before. The semi-staging also gives lighting designer Mark Henderson a freer hand to compensate for the lack of scenery by creating a dark, noirish atmosphere more in keeping with the mood and atmosphere of the original film. However, with just a series of conjoined crystal chandeliers representing Norma’s mansion to divert the eye, there is nothing to camouflage – with a few notable exceptions – the ordinariness of the music and lyrics.