Walking into the sunset: When Andrew Lloyd Webber took Sunset Boulevard to Norma Desmond's backyard, things had to change. Paul Taylor reports from LA

Paul Taylor
Monday 12 October 2015 13:31

The geography of it is perfect. A Los Angeles launch for the new, improved Lloyd Webber Sunset Boulevard - well, to create as big a buzz from the local history perspective, you'd have to have premiered Jesus Christ Superstar in Nazareth. And have thrown the First Night party in the joint where they held the Last Supper.

The post-premiere bash for this revised version of Sunset, starring Glenn Close, was located, subtly enough, at Paramount Studios - the old stomping ground of the show's unhinged heroine, Norma Desmond, the faded silent-screen star who is deludedly planning a comeback. On Lot 18, someone had recreated a whole lot of features from the De Mille Samson and Delilah set which Norma visits in both the original Billy Wilder movie and the musical. Amid all this biblical kitsch, stars of yesteryear (Lana Turner, Cyd Charisse and Co) and a far sparser contemporary contingent (Patrick Swayze) sat at dinner, not knowing whether to pass the salt or turn into a pillar of it. ('I'm ready for my throw-up now, Mr De Mille.')

It's at the iconic gates of this studio that Norma is confronted with the transience of fame when her car is refused entry by a guard who is too young to recognise her. 'Tell him that without me there wouldn't be any Paramount Studio' is her wonderful, lofty retort. I wonder what she'd have thought of the young girl I overheard at a preview predicting that 'this show would make a great movie'.

The version of Sunset Boulevard that was unveiled at the vast Shubert Theatre on Thursday makes a significantly different impact from the one that opened in London last July. For a visitor to Los Angeles, this is partly because the audience's relationship to the material feels infinitely more incestuous and potentially uncomfortable. One of the changes is the insertion of a new song, with a catchy jazz swing, called 'Every Movie's a Circus': it contains the lines 'Writers with pride don't live in LA / Silence, exile and cunning / These are the only cards that will pay'. The allusion to Joyce's Portrait of the Artist was probably lost on most of the audience but their slightly defensive laughter suggested that the gist of the barb was not.

Then there's the whole ageist dimension. To show, in Norma Desmond, the unacceptable face of the clinging-to-youth face-lift mentality is a dicey business in a culture that makes a fetish of agelessness. So, the beauticians' comedy song 'Eternal Youth Is Worth a Little Suffering' couldn't help but strike a few fairly deafening chords with a gathering that included Nancy Reagan (and husband), Cesar Romero and Carol Channing.

Interestingly, Glenn Close, who is stunningly good, plays Norma as much older and mentally more unstable than even Gloria Swanson did, not to mention that young sprig Patti Lupone in London. Wafting about like a batty priestess in her spangled turbans and robes, Close's Norma would make Edith Sitwell look like the last word in suburban normalcy. She even sings with an assumed expressive elderliness in the voice. The age gap between Norma and Joe, the disenchanted young scriptwriter, which is negligible in the London couple, is here grotesque enough to cause a genuine shudder of disgust and pang of pathos when Close manages to suborn Alan Campbell into becoming her kept man and lover as well as her ghost-writer.

There are more exportable artistic reasons for the show's altered effect. Technical difficulties with hydraulic valves and sets that moved randomly in response to rogue radio frequencies bedevilled the preview period in London and prevented the kind of reworking the show's creators would have liked. 'Also I think we were all, if I may say so, a little bit complacent,' Andrew Lloyd Webber now acknowledges. So, though Trevor Nunn confesses that directing another production of Sunset so soon after the first has left him with 'a weird sense of living my life twice, you know, Groundhog Day', he has, like the composer and writers, welcomed this second chance to get things right.

One immediately noticeable difference is that the show has changed the colour of its complexion. 'We've tried to make the whole thing very much more of an opera noir,' says Lloyd Webber, revealing that, for him, the cranky Desmond mansion in the Adelphi production 'looks a bit too much like the Russian Tea Room'. Nunn points out that in London he and designer John Napier were very influenced by the ubiquitous poster whose 'pinkish peachy sort of colour is very evocative of Los Angeles and its adobe walls and soft light and hazy shadows'.

They then found that coming to the place - 'carrying coals to Newcastle' - had the ironic effect of liberating them from this dutiful literalism and helping them to appreciate that Wilder's Los Angeles never set out to be documentary, but was the bleak film noir vision of a man who 'for a lot of the time felt himself to be quite alien to the norm here'. Hence, the 'movement towards monochrome' and the black shadowiness that broods over the LA production.

Central to the story of Sunset Boulevard is a Faustian trade-off that gives it some of the disturbing resonance of myth. Joe, the scriptwriter, is so disillusioned by the Hollywood system that, when tempted, he thinks that he may as well throw a few more ideals overboard and gain a little material reward by bolstering the absurd illusions of a paymistress who believes the public longs for her return. He tries to resist this course, but the set-up panders to the self-disgust he feels from his Hollywood humiliation, an aspect brought out brilliantly in William Holden's screen performance.

The musical acknowledges all this, but a number of the changes that have been made for the Los Angeles version are designed to ensure you don't overlook that other perception of the central relationship: that Joe is John the Baptist to Norma's Salome in an eerie mirroring of the subject of her absurd filmscript. The external pressures that push Joe down the path of compromise are consequently stressed. At Nunn's insistence, a line from the screenplay about Norma's history of suicide attempts has been restored and Close, who can switch in a flash from self-entranced, eccentric imperiousness to a crumpled heap of manipulative abject pleading, keeps the threat of suicide dangling before you. It's pity, partly, that postpones Joe's escape.

But this new version wants to emphasise that, in the final crisis, Joe does display a truth-telling integrity that is proof to all the heroine's corrupting wiles. That this is the death of him invites the parallel with John the Baptist. A drastic reworking of Norma's famous staircase descent at the end now drives the point home. Bedecked as Salome and fiddling frantically with the blood-red ribbon that had once tied together her barmy screenplay, Close does not, like her London counterpart, veer into a piteous mad reprise of 'As If We Never Said Goodbye', the showstopper she had delivered to the crowd at Paramount.

That easy effect is eschewed here. Instead, her deranged mind dwells on the murdered Joe; the impact is calculatedly disorienting because she sings of his John the Baptist intransigence to a reprise of Lloyd Webber's lullaby-like 'Surrender' theme. This tune is associated in the show with the periodic tributes that are paid by Norma's admirers to the lovely girl she once was and to her refusal to surrender to reality.

That she applies the theme to Joe isn't quite the straightforward compliment it might seem, since you notice that she can only couch it in her own inescapably egotistic terms: 'He never had it in him to surrender / Just like me he never could surrender'. You think it's going to be a moment of tragic recognition, then you spot the blatant mismatch of the things compared: an ultimate rejection of lies and an incorrigible clinging to illusion. Of course, musicals have an almost built-in compulsion to admire dreamers, however much they'd like not to, but this revised version of Sunset makes a serious stab at promoting ambivalence.

The alterations now on view in this much more fluent and complex show will be incorporated into the London production in the spring, when it will come off for a couple of weeks to accommodate cast changes. The names of Meryl Streep and Shirley Maclaine have been mooted. Strikingly believable as a former silent star, not least because her singing voice does not create the contradictory impression of a youthful diva, Glenn Close and her example should teach the producers that when it comes to casting a new Norma, you need someone who is primarily a formidable actress.

(Photograph omitted)

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