KPBS AIRDATE: JULY 28, 1999
Well, what goes around comes around. Norma was too big for the pictures, and her show was too big to tour. By Norma, I’m referring, of course, to Norma Desmond, that washed-up silent-era, fictional film star who’s the deathless centerpiece of the classic 1950 movie, “Sunset Boulevard.” The one who insisted, narcissistically, “I AM big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
In the original 1993 musical stage version, the set was so spectacular, so drop-dead incredible, that it could neither travel nor make money on tour. Not to mention that people walked out humming the scenery, not the songs. So, instead of John Napier’s jaw-dropping opener, with a man’s corpse floating at the top of Norma’s pool – as if it were seen from the bottom, and instead of Norma’s mansion levitating at the end of the first act, now, the whole show takes place on a movie soundstage, one that may or may not exist solely in Norma’s mind.
Norma, you may recall, the aging gorgon played onscreen so terrifyingly by Gloria Swanson, was more than a little batty long before she hooked up with Joe, the hard-up, cynical young screenwriter who’s narrating the tale… after his little um, accident in Norma’s palatial pool. Equally scary was Erich von Stroheim as her Germanic caretaker/butler/slave. And then, there was the youthful, slightly jaded William Holden. Not to mention Cecil B. DeMille playing himself, and appearances by Jack Webb, Hedda Hopper and Buster Keaton. Hard to forget. Harder to repeat, much less improve upon – without or without songs. But if Andrew Lloyd Webber could take on T.S. Eliot, as he did with the allergy-inducing “Cats,” he can certainly try to be wilder than Wilder.
There may be as much history to the stage incarnation as the screen version. Wilder reportedly conceived the film with Mae West in mind. She found the role insulting, and turned it down. So did Mary Pickford and Pola Negri. But Gloria Swanson, who’d been out of Hollywood circulation for years, was, like Norma, revivified
by another chance in the spotlight.
Years later, there were all those well-publicized disputes between the composer and the many actress/divas who have played – or tried to play – the legendary role onstage. The show opened in London with Patti LuPone, but Lloyd Webber indiscreetly scrubbed her New York contract and replaced her with Glenn Close. Then he fired Faye Dunaway before she even opened in L.A. And poor unknown Linda Balgord couldn’t get the first national tour off the ground, even with a levitating mansion. So, in a dramatic move, the whole creative team was scrapped… with rather dramatic effect.
Susan Schulman has done some wonderfully imaginative direction, Anthony Powell’s costumes are gorgeously glamorous, and Derek McLane’s inventive set, an empty soundstage, gives the piece an even more black-and-white noir look than the original. But oddly, instead of playing this as the Grand Guignol melodrama it is, this cast is going for the comedy. There are more laughs than have ever been heard from the book by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. And that’s jarring.
Center-stage is popstar Petula Clark, and though she’s in excellent voice, she’s just not big enough for the role. Her Norma is desperate, but not monstrous, and not really deteriorating in a dreadful, gut-wrenching way. She plays her final scene like Ophelia, mad yes, but sweetly delusional, not garishly shattered. It diminishes the role and our response to it. Lewis Cleale also goes for the comic as Joe, and so he emotionally disconnects from us early on. All the performers are good, competent, musically adept. But no one is outstanding, and that leaves the score exposed for the droning, repetitive bore it is. In sum, an attractive but far less than satisfying experience. I can’t believe I’d ever say this but, if you want to be thrilled by character and Hollywood-bashing brilliance… stay home and rent the movie.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.