Almost 23 years ago, Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber’s movical Sunset Boulevard opened at Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre. Based on the 1950 Billy Wilder film for Paramount Pictures, it took Tonys in 1995 for best musical, best actress in a musical, and best featured actor, among other awards and ran for 977 regular performances and 17 previews. It’s back now, with Glenn Close reprising her award-winning (she also got a Drama Desk Award) performance, so, having missed the first go-round, my theater companion Diana and I decided to see what all the buzz had been about, especially the highly-touted performance of Close as faded silent-movie luminary, Norma Desmond, the role made indelible in the movie by former silent star, Gloria Swanson. As Matt Windman of am New York wrote:
Two decades since its splashy Broadway premiere, the plot and the production history of “Sunset Boulevard” . . . have become one and the same.
At the end of “Sunset Boulevard,” Norma Desmond, . . . 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 . . . back to the stage . . . .
After a couple of workshop productions, with different lyric- and book-writers, at Lloyd Webber’s Sydmonton Festival in Hampshire, England, in 1991 and ’92, the world première of Sunset Boulevard, with music by Lloyd Webber and book and lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black, opened on 12 July 1993 at London’s Adelphi Theatre under the direction of Trevor Nunn, running for 1,530 performances. It starred Patti LuPone as Norma and Kevin Anderson as Joe Gillis, with Meredith Braun as Betty Schaeffer and Daniel Benzali as Max von Mayerling. The musical came to the U.S. in December ’93, having its American première at the Shubert Theatre in Los Angeles, directed by Nunn, now starring Glenn Close as Norma and Alan Campbell as Joe, with Judy Kuhn as Betty and George Hearn as Max. The Broadway première opened at the Minskoff Theatre on 17 November 1994 with the same company as the L.A. production. There have since been scores of productions around the Western world and across the U.S.
The show was revived in London for a five-week ‘semi-staged’ run from 1 April to 7 May 2016 (43 performances) by the English National Opera at the London Coliseum, directed this time by Lonny Price with Close as Norma again, Michael Xavier as Joe, Siobhan Dillon as Betty, and Fred Johanson as Max. The production moved to New York City for a limited run at the Palace Theatre, 47th Street and 7th Avenue, that opened for previews on 2 February 2017, had its official (press) opening on 9 February, and will close on 25 June (after a four-week extension from 28 May); Diana and I saw the 8 p.m. performance on Friday, 28 April (at which Britney Coleman stepped in for Dillon as Betty).
(The film was directed by Wilder from a script by Wilder, Charles Brackett, and D. M. Marshman, Jr. The cast included Swanson, William Holden as Joe, Nancy Olson as Betty, and Erich von Stroheim as Max. Photographed in black and white, it won Oscars for the screenplay, score, and art direction-set decoration. “Sunset Boulevard is a great motion picture,” wrote Thomas L. Pryor in the New York Times of 11 August 1950. It’s considered a classic of American film noir. A film version of the musical has been reported—though no cast or director is attached—since 2005; the studio for the project—can you guess?—is Paramount.)
The musical’s plot (and some of its lines) almost exactly parallels that of the movie, starting with a version of the opening scene of Joe Gillis (Xavier) looking down at his own body (represented by a mannequin that rises from the former orchestra pit to overhead, where it remains all evening) floating face down in a swimming pool as he explains, in song now, that this is the end of the story and he’s going to take us back to the beginning that led to this bleak scene. (In the film, of course, Joe speaks in voice-over—Holden’s not on screen staring at Joe’s body as Xavier is on stage.) It’s late-’40s Hollywood (from clues embedded in the script, I peg it as between October 1948, when Cecil B. DeMille was filming Samson and Delilah at Paramount, which figures in the play’s plot, and January 1949—there are New Year’s celebrations near the end of the play—or a little later) and Joe, a hack screenwriter, is not only out of work, but on the lam from collection agents who want to repossess his car. A man without a car in L.A. might as well have his legs cut off, so Joe races to the Paramount studios to beg for work—he’ll take anything, he tells anyone who’ll listen; he just needs a paycheck to get out of hock. No one’s buying, but in the offices of Sheldrake (Andy Taylor), a Paramount producer, Joe meets Betty Schaeffer (Coleman), Sheldrake’s script reader and an aspiring screenwriter. She read one of Joe’s published stories, “Blind Windows,” and thinks it’d make a good film script, a quality movie rather that the fluff he’s been shopping. He’s not interested in developing the story but when Betty presses the idea, he gives her the story to adapt herself. Just as Joe’s about to leave, he spots the two repo thugs (Graham Rowat and Drew Foster) and importunes Betty to run interference for him as he escapes.
Speeding through the Hollywood Hills trying to evade the collectors—there’s a very clever, low-tech staging of a car chase which I won’t spoil by describing here (though some reviewers found it “silly”)—Joe looks for a place to hide his car and himself. He happens on an old mansion at 10086 Sunset Boulevard whose entrance and garage is open, and he darts in and pulls the car out of sight in the garage. Wandering into the mansion, mesmerized by the bric-a-brac and tchotchkes with which the house is furnished, Joe runs into Max von Mayerling (Johanson), the butler, who mistakes Joe for someone from a funeral home who’s come to see to his employer’s recently-deceased . . . pet chimpanzee. (Yup! And that’s straight from the flick, too.) When the writer meets the mistress of the house, he quickly recognizes her as “someone,” and soon comes up with the name: Norma Desmond (Close). “You used to be big,” he almost asks in a line taken from the screenplay. “I am big,” she bristles. “It’s the pictures that got small.” She still thinks Joe’s the man for whom she’s been waiting, but when he explains that he’s a screenwriter, she decides he’s just the person she’s been looking for to revise the screenplay she’s been writing for her return—she hates the word ‘comeback’—to film. Her tale of Salome is, of course, a silent fllm . . . because she doesn’t need words to make people feel her emotions and understand her thoughts. She has her face. That’s all it takes. She persuades—well, cows Joe into reading the script, which, of course, is not only voluminous in length, but terrible. Norma’s so devoted to the project, though, that Joe (who has a backbone problem) can’t tell her what he really thinks.
Besides, he needs a place to hide out from the repo men, and when Norma tells him he’ll be well paid . . . well, why not? He needs the money, he has no other work, and he can hide the car in her garage while he works for her. The first sign that things aren’t quite normal in the Desmond manse is when Norma explains that he’ll be expected to live in the house—there’s a room over the garage that’s all ready for him. (Max has been busy while Joe’s been occupied reading the script! Later, the majordomo will go to Joe’s apartment and pack up his clothes and personal items without asking the writer.) Resistant at first, Joe convinces himself to go along with this idea since his apartment isn’t so great anyway and Norma’s mansion is weird, but sumptuous (and Joe’s something of a whore at bottom anyway). Besides, it’s not as if he’s being held prisoner . . . right?
Little by little, without Joe putting up much resistance, Norma entangles him in her delusional life in the mansion, controlling him with expensive gifts, luxury, neediness, and, finally, suicide threats. He starts off as her ghost writer, evolves into her pet, and ends up her kept lover—though he’s ashamed enough of all of this that he hides it from Betty and others on the outside. (Joe’s not the only ”ghost” in the decrepit old mausoleum: a specter of the young Norma, in the form of Stephanie Martignetti, makes occasional speechless appearances, all dressed in black and white—a bit that didn’t appear in the ’90s stagings.) On New Year’s Eve, he flees a party for two at the mansion to seek out people his own age, and comes upon Betty and her fiancée, Artie Green (Preston Truman Boyd), who’s Joe’s best friend, but he’s called back to the Desmond house when Max calls to tell him Norma’s attempted to shoot herself. Of course, he rushes back, more caught in Norma’s web than ever.
The Salome screenplay is finally finished and Max personally delivers it to DeMille (Paul Schoeffler) at Paramount. Norma waits to hear back from the great director (played in the movie by C. B. himself), but when Max tells her a studio assistant had called her, she refuses to call back. If C. B. wants to see her, he can call her himself! After weeks have passed without a call from DeMille, Norma has Max drive her and Joe to the studio to call on her old friend and director and her arrival on the lot causes a general stir as all the movie pros stand in awe of the legend; all her old friends at the studio from the gate guard (Drew Foster) to the lighting technician (Jim Walton) remember her with fondness. Norma’s briefly back in the spotlight—literally as the light man shines a spot on her face and she responds like an exotic flower in the sunlight. But we discover that it wasn’t DeMille who wanted to reach Norma, but Sheldrake when he tells Max that he’s not interested in her awful script, but in her old car, the Bugatti limo in which the liveried Max—complete with jodhpurs and riding boots—drove her to the studio.
When Max reveals this to Joe, the writer asks how he’ll tell Norma. He won’t, explains Max. It’s his job to keep reality away from Norma and protect her fantasy world. He tells Joe that it was he who discovered Norma when she was 16, beautiful, and immensely talented. He was her first director and the first of her three husbands and he still sees the young girl he loved all those years ago.
Joe becomes more and more involved with Betty as they collaborate on the screen adaptation of his story. She makes an obvious pass at him after one writing session, but he rebuffs her. Not only is she engaged to his friend, but he can’t extricate himself from Norma’s trap and he won’t reveal what it is he runs back to from their work sessions. He speeds back to the mansion to find Norma’s called Betty, whose name and phone number she’s found while snooping among Joe’s things. Joe takes the phone from Norma and invites Betty to come see how he lives, and she does, ending up confused and frightened. Betty leaves the house and Joe packs his things to leave, to go back to his own life, but Norma pleads with him and threatens him. He turns to leave the house and Norma shoots him in the back and he falls into the pool, setting up the scene that opened the play.
The police arrive and are ready to storm the house to arrest Norma, but Max intervenes and coaxes her out of her room and down the stairs by making her believe that the news cameras are movie cameras and that this is all a sound stage for her movie. Norma descends the stairs regally, decked out in her most elaborate outfit, to address the cameras and her fans. “And now, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” Norma famously says as the police lead her off, believing she’s reclaimed her stardom. .
Sunset Boulevard was a huge disappointment. It’s been so oversold and Close’s performance so over-praised (Ben Brantley declared, “Ms. Close is even better than when I first saw her,” in the New York Times) that it couldn’t possibly measure up. (I didn’t see the Broadway original, but if Brantley’s right that Close is better now than she was the first time, she never should have won a Tony in ’95!)
I copped before that I’m not a fan of Lloyd Webber’s (see my report on School of Rock, 22 September 2016). After I saw Evita in 1981, I said I’d never pay to see another Andrew Lloyd Webber play ever again. However, 30-some years later, I’ve bought tix for School of Rock and now Sunset Boulevard (at a pretty penny, too!), and I see nothing to make me change my mind about Lloyd Webber. Except that I broke my vow, damn me. (The producer-composer has four shows currently running on the Great White Way; the other two are The Phantom of the Opera, the longest-running musical on Broadway, and Cats.)
I had reservations when Diana suggested seeing Sunset Boulevard, but I read Brantley’s review and one or two others, and they all raved about Close’s performance so much, I decided that that made it worth seeing the show, even if everything else was pale in comparison—except that didn’t happen. The show is two hours and 40 minutes long and the tickets cost us over two C’s each. I don’t usually regret seeing any show (Perfect Crime is an exception; see 5 February 2011), but I have to say, this was not worth that kind of money. (What I may be most miffed at is Brantley’s review. He can’t have been paying attention—or he’s got a thing for Close.)
Among my complaints about Lloyd Webber’s work is that his plays have no core—they’re hollow. They don’t say anything. (The movie had a gut, but Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicalization eviscerated the story.) That means they fail one of my two tests for good theater: they don’t do more than tell a story. They may generate an emotion, but it’s momentary and empty. Occasionally, they may inadvertently say something, but it’s something I’d call inappropriate—like the sympathy, even admiration, Evita generates for Eva Perón, a right-wing tyrant (what, a woman can’t be a tyrant?) who carried on her husband’s authoritarian policies. School of Rock does the same sort of thing (as I wrote in my report), essentially promoting deceit and misbehavior—as long as it’s in service of rock ’n’ roll. That’s bullshit, of course—but since it’s talented little kids doing it, that makes it acceptable. Sunset Boulevard doesn’t have even that much point, but it does try to manipulate our emotions for no reason except to do it.
The problem is that no one in the play deserves our sympathies or concerns. Norma Desmond’s delusional and controlling; Betty Schaeffer is less deliberately manipulative, but she still is, emotionally blackmailing Joe into working with her and then making a play for him (even though she’s engaged to his friend); and Joe basically just lets these maneuvers happen with the least resistance. He’s a dishrag. Where are we supposed to put our sympathies? No one’s worthy. Max is the closest to deserving some sympathy, but he’s not a major character—and he’s an enabler.
I suspect Lloyd Webber expects us to think of the movie. He probably figured it can’t be helped, so he might as well let it happen. But what I don’t expect he wants us to think about is Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman’s “Nora Desmond” sketches—and that’s what I kept flashing on. The movie, like the musical’s supposed to be, is a melodrama, a film noir. But “Nora Desmond” was farce and travesty, which is not what the creators of the musical should hope we’re thinking of. Ooops!
Another complaint I have about Lloyd Webber’s musicals is that the scores are both derivative—they sound like something I’ve heard before, many times, like musical déjà vu—and repetitive—all the music sounds alike. School of Rock avoids the second fault a little, though not the first (except the songs Lloyd Webber took from the movie), but Sunset Boulevard has both deficiencies from opening number to finale. Even the show’s two biggest numbers, “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” weren’t melodically distinguishable to my ear.
None of the performances overcomes the problems. Michael Xavier (who’s work I don’t know—most of it’s been in the U.K.) is just like the character—gutless and uninteresting. (Brantley of the Times called him “a lightweight,” which I think is accurate.) I suppose it took a William Holden to make Joe Gillis a character worth following, but Xavier doesn’t come close; though Xavier is six years older than Holden was when he made the movie, Holden was a man, however tortured, but Xavier comes off as a callow boy. He’s got a nice enough voice, though it’s hard to be sure since the songs are so unengaging. Close is a near caricature—I wonder if her original performance was like that. Of course, she’s now 70, playing a 50-year-old, so maybe that’s part of the problem here. (Michael Xavier is 39, by the way.) Her singing isn’t all that good (Brantley noted that her voice is “reedy and at times off-key,” once again, true)—again, I wonder if it was weak in ‘93, too. She does a lot of voguing in those elaborate costumes. (That’s one of the things that called Carol Burnett to mind.)
Close, who was 47 when she first played Norma Desmond, also made me recall reports of Carol Channing, who performed Dolly Levi first at 42, returning to Hello, Dolly! at the age of 74, a kind of mummy made up to look like a middle-aged woman. (Bette Midler, just nominated for a Tony for the role, is 71, but has apparently carried it off with style; see Kirk Woodward’s article “Two Greats,” posted on 3 May.) I also remember reading in William Goldman’s The Season (his 1969 book about the Broadway season of 1967-68) a description by a fan of Marlene Dietrich who’d seen her special appearance at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in 1967 and 1968, when she was 65 or 66: Goldman reported his informant had said that “what she looked like was some female impersonator up there doing his Dietrich turn.” Now, Close didn’t give anywhere near that impression, but I kept remembering that description, along with Burnett’s parody, whenever she came on stage.
None of this was helped by the fact that a gaggle of people in the audience liked to shriek after each of Close’s numbers. (The house was full, too.) One was a (very) young woman right behind us and when Diana finally turned around and asked her to pull it back, she said, “No. That’s what happens.” She evidently thought she was at a rock concert—though she wasn’t a girl; she was in her early 20’s, I’d say.
I should say a few words about the physical production. This mounting of Sunset Boulevard was conceived as little more than a concert version, with minimal staging. Several reviewers compared this Sunset Boulevard to the Encores! presentations at New York City Center, which isn’t far wrong—with the significant distinction that these actors aren’t carrying scripts for the dialogue scenes. (By all accounts, the book also hasn’t been trimmed as they are for Encores!) Instead of what amNY’s Matt Windman called the “lavish set design including Norma’s mansion and Hollywood backlots” of the ’90s original, James Noone conceived an assemblage of steel catwalks, scaffolding, and metal staircases that forms a sort of claustrophobic world—Hollywood as a kind of ominous jungle-gym. The 40-piece orchestra (reportedly the largest on Broadway in eight decades), under the direction of Kristen Blodgette, plays beneath the rear part of the construction, the second level of which serves as Norma’s bedroom and the stairway down which she makes her frequent grand entrances comes down from the upper platform in a dogleg at stage right.
There are video projections and representative touches to suggest elegance (a distorted chandelier over La Desmond’s foyer—Samuel L. Leiter said on the Broadway Blog that it suggested “a series of drooping teardrops”—a scaled-down model of La Desmond’s Bugatti) or the exoticism and fantasy of the movie world (bits of set decoration left from past productions)—the detritus of a reality which was never very real to start with. The problem this scenic concept incurs, however, is that the large orchestra, placed on stage, plus the erector-set assemblage and the scattered set decorations leave precious little room for acting—especially when there are more than two characters on stage at one time. The stage feels cluttered and claustrophobic, and the closeness of the orchestra on an open stage (instead of in a pit) often means that the singers can’t be heard clearly over the music. (Even the miking didn’t help—and while we’re on that subject, let me say that I really dislike head mikes—they make everyone look like itinerant telephone receptionists.)
Mark Henderson’s noirish lighting, which generally keeps most of the set in shadow, illuminates each area as needed to isolate it and set the appropriate mood for the scene. Tracy Christensen’s costumes evoke the period (except the movie costumes in the Paramount scenes) but are otherwise mostly unremarkable. Close, however, had her own designer, Anthony Powell (who designed the costumes for the 1990s productions), who created outlandish outfits that look more like costumes from Norma’s movies than clothes anyone would actually wear. The way Close swans about in them, they almost become a character in themselves—or an element in Close’s. If the actress’s clothes and gestures seem drawn directly from the silent screen, so does her make-up, with a paste-white foundation and dark accents around the eyes and mouth that give Norma’s face the appearance of a death mask, is also clearly modeled by Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas on the techniques of the silent-movie set. It’s all part of creating the impression that Norma not only lives in the world of the past, back in the 1920s when she was a huge celebrity, but the unreal world of the silent-film soundstage where she was queen and everything existed just for her.
As of 4 May, Show-Score based its review tally on a sampling of 74 notices, but that included both out-of-town outlets and reviews of the London performance, neither of which I customarily cover. So I’ve used their scores and readjusted the averages for 35 notices, coming up with an overall score of 73. The highest score in Show-Score’s survey, limited to local reviews of the Broadway production, was a single 95 (Theatre in the Now) with six 90’s; the lowest score was one 20 (New York magazine) followed by a single 25. Positive reviews make up 71% of the total, 20% are mixed, and 9% are negative. I’ll be surveying 30 reviews in my round-up.
In am New York, Matt Windman noted that Sunset Boulevard’s première “received mixed reviews,” but went on to assert that “the revival makes a strong case for Lloyd Webber’s music (an uneven but bold mix of sweeping romantic melodies, jazz and underscoring) and Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s book . . ., if not their prosaic lyrics.” The star “eschews the exaggeration and all-out insanity of Gloria Swanson . . . and portrays Norma in a soft light as a wounded, vulnerable creature.” wrote the amNY reviewer, adding, “Despite some obvious vocal difficulties, Close once again gives a fully invested, psychologically revealing performance.” Xavier “has a strapping presence and a pleasing rock tenor voice, but he gives a shallow performance that downplays Gillis’ self-loathing.”
“Less grandiose revival, very touching Close” is Linda Winer’s “Bottom Line” in Long Island’s Newsday and the review-writer quipped, “She is big. It’s the production that got small.” (For those who don’t recognize it, that a paraphrase of a line from both the movie and the movical’s libretto.) Winer described the revival as “a far less grandiose version than the extravaganza” of 1995. “In fact,” said the ND reviewer, “there is something fitting, even satisfying about this less elaborate, modest incarnation” which, “surprisingly, feels less like a hokey entertainment straining for artistic importance than did the original.” Winer continues that the star “is just as daring but less campy and even more touching as” Norma. Though “more of an actress than a singer, Close has a voice that now lets us feel the hollow depth of a desperately, grotesquely, undeniably poignant woman.” Xavier, asserted Winer, is “the first Joe Gillis I’ve seen to capture William Holden’s attractive, increasingly corrupted nonchalance of Norma’s boy toy,” but he “flirts too much with the audience when he emerges dripping from the pool.” [In fact, he puts on a beefcake show than edges into soft porn!] Nevertheless, Winer found that “the actor has a leading man’s charm and a voice to match.” She concluded her assessment with the observation that the musical “still turns Wilder’s acidic movie classic about the Hollywood dream machine into a sort of theme park operetta noir.” She ends her review by reporting that “the souvenir table sells the Norma Desmond Limited Collection of jewelry,” and noting ironically, “Like the merchandise, the show is a limited edition selling paste and glitter as treasures. As long as we know what we’re getting, however, costume jewelry—especially packaged with the very real Glenn Close—can be fun.”
The Times’ Brantley wrote that the “pared-down revival” of Sunset Boulevard “exists almost entirely to let its star blaze to her heart’s content,” but the Timesman affirmed, “The light she casts is so dazzling, this seems an entirely sufficient reason to be.” Of Close’s portrayal of Norma Desmond, Brantley exulted that “what was one of the great stage performances of the 20th century has been reinvented, in terms both larger and more intimate, that may well guarantee its status as one the great stage performances of this century, too.” Indeed, he added, Close “is even better than when I first saw her—more fragile and more frightening, more seriously comic and tragic.” Though Brantley found that the “relative minimalism” of the revival “allows us to see Norma and ‘Sunset Boulevard’ plain,” “Norma has never looked bigger,” but otherwise, the show “seems and sounds thin.” Lloyd Webber’s score, said Brantley, “often inhabits a . . . zone of singsong insistence, with certain melody lines repeated so often you fear surgery may be necessary to have them removed from your memory” and Black and Hampton’s “lyrics have a way of turning Wilder-esque cynicism into taunting schoolyard jingles, with rhymes that land as emphatically as children on hopscotch squares.” The ensemble is merely “serviceable” but in reality, “we’re just marking time until Norma’s back. Whenever she makes an entrance,” Brantley declared, “the adrenaline that surges through the house is palpable.”
Remember I said it sounded like this reviewer has a crush on Close? These are the comments that turned my doubts about seeing this show into a decision to go:
Ms. Close deploys the declarative physical vocabulary of silent-movie acting to convey a genuine grandeur of spirit and an equally outsize force of will. . . .
The audacity of this performance is matched by its veracity. This is grand-gesture acting of a singularly sophisticated and disciplined order, one of those rare instances in which more is truly more.
. . . . [H]er delivery, her stance, her very presence are operatic in the richest sense of the word. I won’t even try to describe the brilliant spiderlike dance—superhuman and pathetically human—with which Ms. Close concludes the show. You have to (and I mean have to) see it in person.
Her interpretation of the show’s one great song, “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” in which Norma visits her old studio lot, is a heart-stopper. Watching it from its beginning (when a set worker trains a spotlight on Norma’s face) to its end (when she steps to the edge of the stage to absorb the applause like an unquenchable sponge) is to understand with all your senses the addictiveness of stardom.
“Feel the magic in the making,” sings Norma. You can only nod your head in awe-struck agreement.
In point of fact, I felt very little of what Brantley depicted here, and neither did my companion, Diana. When we left the theater, Diana wondered why the reviews, particularly of Glenn Close’s performance, were so strong. I asked if she’d ever read Goldman’s The Season; she hadn’t. (Kirk Woodward wrote an article on this book, which he called “the best book on Broadway ever written”; see “William Goldman’s The Season,” 30 April 2013.) One of the chapters is “Critics’ Darling,” about certain actresses (critics’ darlings, insists Goldman, “are all women”) whom
critics’ love . . . . All the time. Critics’ darlings are always praised, overpoweringly, regardless of the caliber of their work. . . . They are also freaks. All of them. All the time. Mr. Webster says a freak is “oddly different from what is usual or normal.” That is certainly true of the people under discussion, but I would like to push the definition a good deal further: these are people that never breathed on this or any other planet. . . . Critics’ darlings all share this in common: extravagance of gesture. They gesticulate; they overdo. They are, in all ways, enormous.
If that doesn’t sound like Glenn Close, particularly as Norma Desmond, I don’t know whom it fits.
Following in the same vein (if less hyperbolically), Joe Dziemianowicz in the New York Daily News declared, “Glenn Close is ready for her close-up in ‘Sunset Boulevard’—and then some.” Calling the play a “sumptuous, if uneven, musical,” Dziemianowicz affirmed that “Norma’s got the same turban, same neuroses and the same pipe dreams” as the movie, but that Close “goes heavy on the fragility, vulnerability and dark humor . . . . If a few vocals are strained,” he continued, “Close commands the stage ” Of the rendition of “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” Norma’s signature song, the Newsman asserted, “The song is beautiful. The visual is stirring. The 40-piece on-stage orchestra soars, as does Close. The moment is as good as musical-theater gets.” Director Price “has assembled a fine cast,” Dziemianowicz reports, even if “the musical is a mixed bag with choppy tonal shifts,” which Price “can’t fix.”
In the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout pronounced the Sunset Boulevard revival “unworthy of the classic picture on which it is based.” Close’s performance, on the other hand, “is as memorable in its own way as was that of Gloria Swanson in the movie,” and “her greater age makes Norma’s plight all the more pitiable, and Ms. Close’s performance, by turns adamantine and childishly needy.” The problem, as Teachout sees it, with musicalizing Sunset Boulevard “is that it is perfect”; “‘Sunset Boulevard’ doesn’t need songs, or anything else that it doesn’t already have in abundance. Saving Ms. Close’s presence, to change anything at all is necessarily to diminish the film’s overwhelming effect.” The Journalist complained that Black and Hampton’s “lyrics are sing-songy and ill-crafted,” and “that the singers are sometimes drowned out by the instrumentalists.” In addition, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score “softens and sentimentalizes Wilder’s brutal satire of golden-age Hollywood.” Teachout felt that “‘Sunset Boulevard’ needs to be mounted on an operatic scale in order to be effective. Shorn of the blank-check spectacle of Trevor Nunn’s original production, it has nothing to offer but its gooey score” which “is a tensionless mélange of recycled Rachmaninoff and ersatz jazz that never succeeds in heightening the impact of the words.” As for the rest of the ensemble, the Journal reviewer asserted, “They’re all just fine, but when you’re sharing a stage with Glenn Close, good enough isn’t good enough.”
For the Star-Ledger of Newark, New Jersey, Christopher Kelly, calling the production “ravishingly beautiful,” characterized Sunset Boulevard as “one of those shows that sends audiences into ecstatic fits of applause, more for the idea of what they’re watching than the actual experience of watching it.” The review-writer contended, “Director Lonny Price and his lead actress seem determined to force you out of the moment, overloading the production with so many ‘Major Theatrical Event’ moments and signposts that it all starts to sag beneath the weight of its own self-importance.” Kelly added, “Methinks this musical . . . would have been better served by a little more humility and a lot more humanity.” He complained that “none of the show's ideas—about the cruelty of aging, or the desperation that results from failure—have been allowed to breathe in this version.” Of the central performance, Kelly affirmed, “Instead of resisting the camp and Gothic elements of Gloria Swanson's Norma . . . Close fully embraces them.” (He dubbed Xavier “the best thing about this revival.”) Kelly’s final remarks are telling:
I’m just not sure why the producers went to such bother. Lloyd Webber’s score is less brash, more elegantly poignant than his other work—but it’s hardly at the level of, say, Bernstein’s “West Side Story” or Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” in terms of demanding this near-symphonic treatment. And—unlike most actors returning to iconic parts—Close seems less interested in discovering new nuances in her character than going full-blown, epic-scale diva on us and soaking up the adulation during her multiple curtain calls.
Robert Feldberg, writing for the Record of suburban Bergen County, New Jersey, quipping, “There hasn’t been such diva devotion at the Palace since the last time Liza Minnelli played the theater,” reported that “the roar of the audience at [Close’s] first entrance suggested that whatever else it might be, the evening would be a celebration of the 69-year-old actress.” Feldberg added that the actress “fully earns her acclaim with her first big number, a fiercely delivered ‘With One Look,’ Norma’s remembrance of her silent-screen days, made more emotional by the rough edges of Close’s singing voice.” He reported that “taken as a whole, it’s an assured, commanding performance,” even if occasionally she “skirts the edge of parody.” In general, the play’s “been given a dynamic, imaginatively rethought presentation” by director Price, and calling the large orchectra “the other star of the evening,” lavished praise on “Lloyd Webber’s sweeping, romantic score.” Feldberg does cavil, though, that the Black-Hampton book is “pedestrian,” but he concluded, “Close’s panache and Lloyd Webber’s music are more than enough to carry the evening.”
Jason Fitzgerald of the Village Voice declared, “I'm willing to bet there isn't a more heart-shattering five minutes on Broadway today than Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard playing faded film star Norma Desmond as she takes in what she believes to be her return to Hollywood.” Close is “a capable but not impressive singer . . ., but few actors can so commit to a character's monomania.” Fitzgerald, though, found, “It's a shame the production reaches this height only once.” The star is “overly mannered,” but she’s “captivating whenever and wherever she is onstage—to the detriment of co-star Xavier, who sings well but lacks any degree of Close's presence.” The Voice reviewer concluded that the production “is at times suffocating, but there are also moments that scorch like film caught in a projector.”
The New York Observer’s Rex Reed described Price’s revival of the Lloyd Webber movical as “trimmed, scaled down and economically revitalized” with “the old opulence stripped of its glamour.” It’s “clear . . . who owns the stage,” but the supporting cast, imported from London, never quite “achieves the power, irony or caustic vision of Old Hollywood make believe” of the Wilder film, affirmed Reed. “The applause for every song is polite, but when [Close] belts them out, she stops the show cold.” Observed the Observer, “Her experience, knowledge and craft prove that Sunset Boulevard is an old warhorse that can still finish the race in first place.”
In New York magazine (the review with Show-Score’s lowest rating, 20 out of 100), Jesse Green called the current production “a train wreck of a revival” in which “very little happen[s] outside its central quartet of characters.” What in the movie was Joe’s narrations, Green noted, “are rendered in Lloyd Webber’s score as unrelieved arioso” with “poorly scanned lyrics.” He contended, “Lloyd Webber and his collaborators . . . have made choices that seem deliberately designed to coarsen the tone and invert Wilder’s point.” He pointed out that “Wilder conceived of Desmond as a warning, not a role model”: in Lloyd Webber’s vision, “her ‘philosophy,’ if you can call it that. ‘We gave the world new ways to dream,’ she sings over and over, turning a delusional watchcry into a message. ‘Everyone needs new ways to dream.’ Wilder was being ironic,” avowed Green; “did no one notice?” (Not only that, but Norma actually wants to return audiences to an old way to dream. It’s a mendacious philosophy: she, herself has been dreaming the same dream for 20 years!) The man from New York reported that Close’s “second outing as Norma is no triumph.”
Leave aside that she cannot sing the role, if she ever could. Her head voice is now pitchy and hooty; her chest voice raw and unregulated. . . . Great acting was meant to compensate, but her new interpretation of Norma—a mite more playful and less otherworldly—actually makes things worse. The climactic final scenes in which she goes completely bonkers seem underprepared, and her insanity thus laughable instead of pitiable. To say that it’s a real Norma Desmond of a performance is not to say it’s good. It’s just big.
“Nothing else (save that luxury orchestra) is,” Green added. Xavier “comes off as a juvenile: lighthearted, squeaky clean, and impressively pneumatic”; the other featured actors “make little impression.” In the end, Green declared that “it will be difficult to forget or forgive the reverse alchemy the authors have achieved.” As a parting shot, he advised, “I encourage anyone who’s interested in the material to stick with the movie.” (So do I.)
After a disquisition on drag performances in today’s culture and theater, Hilton Als specified in the New Yorker, “Glenn Close is an actual woman, but Norma Desmond . . . is a construct composed, sometimes deliberately, sometimes not, from drag, or drag impulses.” Admitting that he never “warmed to the musical,” Als went on, “Webber doesn’t write music that one can sing without ‘soaring,’ and Close does what’s required to put the song over, while the orchestra does the rest”—and the rest of the main cast belts “handily” as well,” though you have to keep reminding yourself what they’re singing about with such urgency,” the New Yorker review-writer reminded us, quipping, “In any case, the audience is more interested in the musical’s camp factor than in the seriousness of the score, if it has any.” (This notice received a negative Show-Score rating of 40, by the way. It’s interesting—at least to me—to note that Als also thought about “Carol Burnett’s classic spoof” of La Desmond.) Als gave this overall assessment of the play:
its atmosphere is at once messy and banal; its relentless pop façade and the constant drama of its music preclude intimacy and distance us from feeling, while encouraging a kind of aggressive contempt. None of the characters are truly big, let alone human, even as they play big.
He asserted that “the only instance of heart in the show” is the scene in which Norma phones Betty out of jealousy and anger, “and Close plays it to the hilt, but not hysterically, because she has something to hold on to as an actress, a reprieve from the endless mugging and grandstanding.”
Leah Greenblatt of Entertainment Weekly reported that director Price “does indulge in a few witty visual flourishes” in the Sunset Boulevard revival; however, “there’s only one true star allowed on these boards, and her name is Norma.“ Greenblatt wrote that “even as [Close] plays [Norma] for laughs, she digs for the pathos too.” The EW reviewer declared that Close’s “masterful portrayal also delivers the one thing poor nutty Norma most craves: An adoring, utterly captivated audience, and applause that echoes long after the curtain falls.” In the Hollywood Reporter, Frank Scheck found that in the revival, “Close delivers a more subtle, nuanced performance well suited to a production dramatically scaled down from the original.” The HR review-writer reported, “The lush orchestrations do ample justice to the beauty of Lloyd Webber’s score” and found that the Hampton-Black libretto “is largely faithful to the film, although its lack of nuance sometimes gives the musical an excessively campy feel that thankfully is now lessened.” Close “reveals some vocal strain in the soaring numbers,” he felt. “But she nonetheless puts them over in stirring fashion, using her impeccable dramatic skill”; “her Norma seems more fragile, more vulnerable.” With praise for the three other principal actors, Scheck affirmed that the director “does an effective job” depite “some touches” such as the low-tech car chase and the floating body mannequin, which the reviewer found “slightly cheesy.” In the end, though, Scheck asserted that it’s the return of Close that’s “this revival’s reason for being.”
In Variety, Marilyn Stasio pronounced Close’s return as Norma “triumphant”; “she’s positively regal,” claiming “diva status this time around,” added the reviewer. Stasio labeled the music “luscious” and “romantically melodic,” but the lyrics “clunky” and the choreography’s “feeble.” Of the other main characters, Johanson’s Max is “genuinely moving—if deeply creepy,” but Stasio dubs Xavier “pallid.” She sums up by stating that “if you want to see grown men weeping in the aisles, this is your moment.” Time Out New York’s Adam Feldman declared, “Those who go to see Close reprise her celebrated turn . . . will not be disappointed,” though he saw “a risk of Norma-like pathos in the prospect of the actress, now nearly 70, returning to a role she played more than 20 years ago.” The reviewer assured us, “Close holds the stage with a feverish intensity that transcends camp.” He reported, however, that “the rest of Sunset Boulevard . . . is mostly a languorous slog.” Calling the show “second-rate Lloyd Webber,” he complained of “filler songs that loop and repeat exhaustingly, set to lyrics that often clunk.”
The broadcast media were mostly in the same vein. On WFUV, Fordham University’s public radio station, John Platt confessed that, like me, he’s “not a huge fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber.” Aside from a couple of songs in Sunset Boulevard (“As If We Said Goodbye” and “With One Look”), “I’m afraid . . . there’s nothing very memorable.” Close milks [“As If”] for all it’s worth, and the audience responds, as expected, with an ovation,” reported Platt, explaining, “She’s fills it with grand gestures, appropriate for a delusional diva, but her voice is surprisingly thin.” The Fordham reviewer affirmed, “She commits herself completely to the role, unafraid to appear grotesque, but it all seems stylized, like Japanese Noh theater. In the end, I admired her craft yet left unmoved.” As for Price’s stripped-down production, “What you get is something streamlined, in contrast to Close’s over-the-top performance.” On NY1, the all-news channel for Spectrum cable subscribers, Roma Torre dubbed Close’s Norma Desmond “a bonafide, pull-out-the-stops star performance” and declared that the production is “guaranteed to make you surrender!” (the exclamation point is Torre’s). The NY1 reviewer reported that Close’s “voice is huskier now, but every bit as powerful as the first time she sang those glorious notes” and that the orchestra “sounds so gorgeously lush, your ears will bow down in gratitude.” Torre continued, “The minimalist staging allows for a sharper focus. And what always struck me as a grotesque characterization of a woman on the verge of madness is now more nuanced and emotionally engaging.” She acknowledged that “so much of the show’s success is owed to Close’s performance, which has truly deepened since her first outing,” but added that the other principals “are equally winning.” Torre concluded by proclaiming, “Glenn Close is delivering one of those "must see" performances that come around every decade or so.”
On WNYC radio, Jennifer Vanasco lamented that Price’s minimalist production “only emphasizes the repetitive music and the leaden book and lyrics.” The “bright spot,” Venasco asserted, is Close’s performance, even though she’s “certainly not a vocal powerhouse”—“but she’s a precise actor, and . . . emphasizes” Norma’s fear and desperation. “[A]side from the enormous orchestra,” Robert Kahn said on WNBC, the network’s television outlet in New York City, “there’s little here to distract from Close’s mesmerizing Norma, or Lloyd Webber’s pop friendly score.” Asserted Kahn, “Close’s Desmond, alive in her own alternate reality, is both candescent and incisive.” For the actress, Kahn insisted that “this can only be deemed a triumphant return.” He praised the rest of the cast as well, and observed that “Price . . . . keeps the camp factor set to ‘stun.’”
Elyse Sommer on CurtainUp unabashedly declared of Close’s performance, “If they gave out Tonys for reprising a previously played part, she’d be a front runner.” Sommer asserted that the “orchestra never drowns out the singers” (which both Diana and I found not to be the case, and most other reviewers reported this as well), and explained, “This is especially important vis-a-vis Close who’s always relied on her acting virtuosity to deliver the songs. Her nuanced acting more than a big belting voice serves her well to this day.” She also wrote that this is Lloyd Webber’s “best and richest score,” with “several show-stoppers.” Nonetheless, “All this is not to say that [Sunset Boulevard] doesn’t make for a story that’s overly melodramatic, incredible and old-fashioned.” On Stage Buddy, Jose Solis reported that the cut-down production “restores the essence of the story” of the film while Close “easily morphs into whatever the situation calls for”; “she is able to communicate a myriad of emotions without the aid of closeups, her singing . . .[,] her body language, and the larger than life expressions force us to zoom into her, as if we almost didn’t have a choice.”
Michael Bracken of Theater Pizzazz quipped, “There are two reasons to see the current Broadway revival of Sunset Boulevard: Glenn Close and Glenn Close’s costumes.” (The TP reviewer demurred briefly: “While there’s more to Sunset Boulevard than Glenn Close and her costumes, there’s not, nor does there need to be, a whole lot more.”) Bracken declared, “Close is iconic,” contending, “Norma is a caricature of herself, and Close plays her to the rafters, but at the same time makes her frighteningly real.” The review-writer acknowledged, “The score is not Lloyd Webber’s best,” and Close’s “singing voice may flatten occasionally, very occasionally, on a high note, but her presence, and oh what a presence, never fails to mesmerize.” On New York Theater, Jonathan Mandell had a very serious issue with Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of the Wilder movie, “what I consider a fatal flaw”:
In the movie, Norma Desmond is delusional. But the Lloyd Webber musical shares much of her delusion. Rather than the film’s grim and ironic satire of Hollywood, the stage “Sunset Boulevard” is really an homage to (and embodiment of) big, empty commercial entertainment.
In contrast to many of his critical colleagues, Mandell disparaged the musical ensemble to some degree: “The large orchestra certainly makes Lloyd Webber’s score sound better than it would have if played by 40 kazoos, but, as tuneful as some of it is, all the violins in the world can’t turn it into Puccini.” His conclusion? “‘Sunset Boulevard’ is ersatz opera of the outsized and mostly overwrought kind that Broadway audiences have been eating up, on and off, since the 1980s.”
On the Broadway Blog, Samuel L. Leiter (who usually reviews for his own Theatre’s Leiter Side) reported that Close gives “a fine, if overripe, performance” in a show that “is, while generally entertaining, simply not that great.” Though “well-performed,” the Lloyd Webber score “is not particularly memorable”; the “huge” orchestra “makes even the more mediocre numbers sound their best.” The physical production is “visually sumptuous,” but while the film was “darkly cynical,” Price’s stage revival, “in a fatal mistake, fails to capture the darkness, being surprisingly upbeat, paced at machine-gun speed, and with only scattered moments of the needed gothic anxiety demanded by the story.” Close’s “pitchy singing voice is not Broadway’s best, but her acting is strong enough, even within the deliberately broad, almost grotesque, theatricality she adopts . . . to jerk tears when she launches into ‘With One Look,’” Leiter felt. “But the emphasis on her exaggerations takes the show too far from its deeper implications.” The reviewer concluded, “This revival of Sunset Boulevard is smart to have pared down its visual excesses. The darkness it evokes, though, is more in its lighting than in the world it creates. Which is not so smart.”
Matthew Murray reported on Talkin’ Broadway that through Close’s performance of Norma Desmond, “a union of theatrical inevitability” that happens “so arrestingly and so frequently, . . . you’ll be transported to a world and psychology that are once terrifying, rapturous, and seemingly impossible.” Murray found, “Before long, the ‘real world’ . . . comes to be as incorporeal to you as it is to her. There's only one way to see things. Norma’s way.” He explained, “Instinctively, you know that Norma is descending more into madness with each passing scene, but when it’s this reasonable, you don’t notice until it’s too late.” (Actually, no, I didn’t fall for that parallel delusion. Maybe I couldn’t suspend my disbelief willingly enough.) “It doesn’t matter for a millisecond that Close, who was never a spectacular singer, has a more ragged edge to her vocals than she used to,” argued the TB review-writer, “or that there’s a wider gap between her head and chest voices than once was the case.” (Yes, it does.) “This is everything a Broadway musical performance is supposed to be, and then some.” (No, it isn’t. And I’ve seen Mary Martin, Julie Andrews, Virginia Capers, Chita Rivera, Gwen Verdon, Pat Suzuki, and Bernadette Peters on stage—so I know musical theater the way it’s supposed to be.) Then Murray wondered, “Whether Sunset Boulevard is everything a musical is supposed to be is another matter.” He admitted that Sunset Boulevard “plays very well,” but “it doesn’t add much to its source,” Wilder’s “edgier and brighter, and more incisive” movie. The TB reviewer felt that Price’s “attempts at taming this beast are valiant and largely successful.” He finished by admonishing, “Not that you’ll worry about that—or anything else—when Close is around.” (It ain’t necessarily so!)
On Theater Scene, Darryl Reilly declared, “Glenn Close triumphs again in this inventively scaled down and hugely entertaining revival of” Sunset Boulevard in which “Close is still sleek, fearless and riveting.” Reilly found, “Her singing of the modern standard show tunes . . . is sensational. There is occasional wavering in her top register that is understandable with the passage of time, but that never deters from her stunning characterization” as she “fuses her own stardom with that of the character.” He labeled the star’s portrayal “one of those monumental performances of musical theater history.” The TS reviewer had high praise for Xavier, calling him “youthful but mature and charismatic” and :”just as hard-edged as William Holden” (not a chance!). Reilly also judged, “Most crucially, Xavier is an equal to Close and their chemistry is prevalent” (nope). He lauded the other principal players as well, and said Price “has strikingly reclaimed the material from memories of its initial, overblown incarnation.”
Stan Friedman’s review on New York Theatre Guide applauded Price’s “clever direction” of the revival, but proclaimed Close “is smaller than life.” Among the harshest criticism of the actress among the Sunset Boulevard notices, Friedman’s said:
She might think of herself as huge, but her many costumes (beautiful and crazy, as designed by Tracy Christensen [actually, Close’s costumes were by Anthony Powell]) overwhelm her, as does the towering proscenium of the ornate Palace Theater. With her petite, 5’5” frame, Ms. Close waddles more than she struts. Her Norma is not a crazed monster, she’s a wilted Blanche DuBois bereft of the kindness of strangers.
Friedman had praise for Johanson’s Max and the actress who usually plays Betty, but called Xavier “the show’s weakest link . . ., lacking the necessary stage presence.”
On NY Theatre Guide (not to be confused with New York Theatre Guide, above), Marc Miller deemed that the current Sunset Boulevard revival “isn’t as grand as the venue or as lavish as the 1994 original,” finding that it “rises and falls more than ever on the strengths of the material.” Miller found, “The material, it turns out, is pretty sturdy,” especially “with a more seasoned Glenn Close bringing new nuance to her interpretation of Norma.” Lloyd Webber “really did himself proud with this one. Whatever you think of the rest of his oeuvre, this score pours out the melody,” wrote Miller, and Close “plays these big moments, and all of Norma’s many others, with an intelligence and imagination rare among divas.” Xavier, however, is a “cipher, though a handsome one, with solid high notes.” He also doesn’t have much complimentary to say about the other supporting actors, perhaps because, the NY Theatre Guide writer felt, Price “is so focused on Norma, he doesn’t seem to be paying much attention to anyone else up there.” Miller concluded, “In an era where so many new musicals seem to want to tell stories of life-size people . . .[,] it’s a treat to have such an outsize personality, backed by that outsize orchestra, dominating the Palace.”
“Anyone lucky enough to see Glenn Close as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard . . . will have bragging rights for the rest of their lives,” proclaimed TheaterMania’s David Gordon. Gordon had quibbles, though, including Stephen Mear’s choreography “with little pizzazz” and actors who “use highly expressive, broad gestures that never really mesh with the witty cynicism of” the lyrics. He also complained of Price’s “discombobulating staging, which often features his actors running up and down the [M. C.] Escher stairs to nowhere.” Still, the TM reviewer affirmed, “All bets are off when Close hits the stage.” In Gordon’s view, “Close simply plays Norma as a person, albeit a larger-than-life one.” Though “her singing voice occasionally falters,. . . Close provides a master class in song delivery.” In all, Gordon believes, “We’re privileged to witness theater history in the making.” On Broadway World, Michael Dale asserted that “watching Glenn Close completely enthrall and mesmerize an audience . . . is a reminder that musical theatre is at its most thrilling when musical moments are enhanced by incisive acting.” Dale was complimentary about Lloyd Webber’s music, but he complained that Black and Hampton’s lyrics “rarely rise above perfunctory images and rhyming, getting downright clunky during some of the dialogue-driven recitative.” The BWW reviewer had good things to say about the supporting cast, but in the end, Close “is the reason to rush to the Palace these days.” He concluded that “her intelligent and skillful performance is luminous.”
[In addition to her query about Close’s reviews, Diana also asked on whom Norma Desmond was modeled, so I looked it up to see what the common wisdom is. The character’s believed to be a composite of silent-film stars Mary Pickford (1893-1979), who lived as a recluse after her retirement from movies, and Mae Murray (1885-1965) and Clara Bow (1905-1965), both of whom struggled with mental illness. The name of the character is presumed to be a pastiche of actresses Norma Talmadge (1894-1957) and Mabel Normand (1892-1930), and director William Desmond Taylor (1872-1922). (Taylor was the victim of a famous and mysterious Hollywood murder. He was found shot in the back in his bungalow but no suspect was ever identified and the crime is still unsolved.)]