Loyally, perhaps too loyally, based on Billy Wilder's great movie, Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1993 Sunset Boulevard, with outstanding book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, was the last of the 20th-century musical blockbusters. Despite great performances by Patti LuPone, Glenn Close and Elaine Paige as Norma Desmond, and a lush, baroque design of a Hollywood palazzo by John Napier for Trevor Nunn's production, the bubble burst over the big global franchise phenomenon.
It did in the Lloyd Webber world, at least, but Disney is still in there larging it up. Sunset ran for three and a half years in London originally, but has retained the affection of the Sondheim end of the musical-theatre market. Why is now clearly revealed in Craig Revel Horwood's small-scale revival, seen earlier this summer at Newbury's Watermill Theatre.
With a dozen actor-musicians playing instruments on stage, filling in the choruses and individual characters, it's a wonderful, organic response to a score that is as dynamic and complex as any that Lloyd Webber has written, creating a harmonic equivalent of tropical decay and splendour in lush melodies full of open fifths, augmented fourths and sevenths, and one of the best of all comeback anthems, "With One Look".
That item is delivered by Kathryn Evans descending a modest spiral staircase with a face that could freeze a charity commission at 10 paces. Evans is one of the great unsung divas of the British musical; it sounds cruel to say she's got everything except star quality, but it's a fact. Her dramatic style and consummate musicianship are some compensation, but the grotesquery of her clinging to faded dreams and the hapless screenwriter Joe Gillis (very well done by Ben Goddard), is affecting, not terrifying.
In the film, Gloria Swanson appears as "herself" and so does Eric von Stroheim as the manservant Max. The rich irony of the musical is that a sidelined silent-movie star makes her case by singing, and the bustle of the film world moving on elsewhere sounds less compelling than the old melodramatic gestures. A similar theatrical irony was employed by Lloyd Webber in his hi-tech lament for steam railway, Starlight Express, the show Kate Winslet now says she saw five times in her youth; Sunset will mean just as much to an older generation.
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