Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard – Musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton based on the Billy Wilder film [Originally staged at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury, Berkshire]

Heather – Elisa Boyd
Artie Green – Tomm Coles
Sheldrake – Alexander Evans
Norma Desmond – Kathryn Evans
Mary – Kate Feldschreiber
Joe Gillis – Ben Goddard
Manfred – Sam Kenyon
Frank – Nick Lashbrook
Hog-Eye / Shadow MD – Tarek Merchant
Cecil B. DeMille – Craig Pinder
Betty Schaefer – Laura Pitt-Pulford
Joanna – Helen Power
Max von Meyerling – Dave Willets

Craig Revel Horwood – Director
Sarah Travis – Arrangements & Musical Supervisor
Diego Pitarch – Designer
Richard G. Jones – Lighting Designer
Gary Dixon – Sound Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 16 December, 2008
Venue: Comedy Theatre, London

Billy Wilder’s 1950 film “Sunset Boulevard” became a classic from the moment it was released. It was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won three – for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay, Best Music Scoring and Best Art Direction. It was unfortunate that the year in which one of the best films about Hollywood was nominated, it was beaten by the best film ever made about the theatre, “All about Eve”, which gained Oscars for Best Film, Best Direction and Screenplay (both Joseph L. Mankiewicz), Best Supporting Actor (George Sanders), Best Sound and Best Black and White Costume Design. For Best Actress how could the Academy choose between Bette Davis (“Eve”) and Gloria Swanson (“Boulevard), with both giving the performances of their careers? In the event they chose Judy Holliday in “Born Yesterday”.

Yes, 1950 was a very good year for actresses and movies, but Gloria Swanson was not Billy Wilder’s first choice for the role of faded silent-movie star Norma Desmond. He had considered Mae West, Pola Negri and Mary Pickford until director George Cukor suggested Swanson. Wilder also saw Marlon Brando in the William Holden role of screenwriter Joe Gillis. In fact Montgomery Clift was signed but dropped out at the last minute. The choice of Holden proved ideal and it’s impossible to think of the film now without either Swanson or Holden.

The screenplay of “Sunset Boulevard” was based partly on Wilder’s experiences in the film industry and also his early work as a journalist. Always one to not glamorise or sentimentalise any situation (think of “Double indemnity”, “The lost weekend”, “Ninotchka” and later on “Ace in the hole”, “The apartment”, “Meet Whiplash Willie”, “The front page” and “One, two, three”) his script for “Sunset Boulevard”, co-written with Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshman Jr, is a very dark piece for Hollywood at that time, showing a particularly sinister side of the movie business. Perhaps that’s why the film itself didn’t win a Best Film Academy Award, but then most films about Hollywood, including George Cukor’s masterpiece, “A star is born”, don’t win Oscars.

“Sunset Boulevard” was controversial even before it officially opened. It was previewed in the sticks with an opening scene set in a morgue where all the bodies, including that of Joe Gillis, rise up and discuss how they got there. The audience reaction was one of hilarity so the opening was changed to just the shooting of Joe by Norma. The rest of the film is then told in flashback: how Joe came to be living with Norma who is desperate to appear in films again as Salome, and how their relationship ultimately ends in tragedy. Wilder brought more than a touch of authenticity to the film by including guest appearances by other silent-movie stars such as H. B. Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson and Buster Keaton and the celebrated director Cecil B. DeMille. He also cast Erich von Stroheim as Norma’s butler Max, a sinister figure who turns out to be rather more than just a manservant.

Andrew Lloyd Webber was not the first composer to consider making “Sunset Boulevard” into a musical. In the 1950s Swanson herself wrote a show with actor Richard Stapley and cabaret performer Dickson Hughes, first called “Starring Norma Desmond” and later “Boulevard”. It was subsequently reworked as “Swanson on Sunset”. In the 1960s Stephen Sondheim, a natural for the project, one would have thought, had Jeanette Macdonald in mind for Norma but, when the composer/lyricist met Wilder at a party, the great director said it can’t be a musical, it must be an opera. Lloyd Webber’s version is virtually an opera as it is mostly through-sung with minimal dialogue but with enough of Wilder and his colleagues’ witty lines to remind us of its origins.

The original 1993 London production by Trevor Nunn of Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard” had Patti LuPone as Norma. Later that same year Glenn Close starred in the US premiere in Los Angeles. Then Betty Buckley took over in London, followed by Elaine Paige and later Petula Clark and Rita Moreno. Clark holds the record for playing the role longer than has any other actress – over 2,500 performances. Although the show ran for years, it lost money because it was a mammoth staging with very high costs. Recently it has been proven that you can make chamber works out of such big shows as “Sweeney Todd”, “Follies”, “Mack and Mabel”, “La Cage aux Folles” and “A Little Night Music”.

Among that roster of titles the Watermill Theatre at Newbury has staged “Sweeney Todd” and “Mack and Mabel” in productions for which the actors also sing and dance and play the instruments. The Watermill has no space for an orchestra, so needs must. Its productions of “Sweeney Todd” and “Mack and Mabel” have toured successfully and now it is doing “Sunset Boulevard”. It does take some getting use to, to see the eleven actors brandishing trumpets, clarinets, flutes, violins, a guitar, cello and double bass, an accordion, keyboard and percussion while acting, singing and dancing their socks off. The musical arrangements have been scaled down by Sarah Travis while director Craig Revel Horwood (famous now for his “Strictly Come Dancing” appearances) keeps his company literally on its toes and mettle and does just about make it work. As a piece of ensemble staging it is impressive, although it would not be advisable to see every show performed in this way.

After Lloyd Webber’s incisive music, ultimately the show stands or falls on the strength of the leading actors. Ben Goddard as Joe impresses as he becomes even more of a heel by living off Norma’s generosity. She is desperate for love and becomes suicidal when she thinks she’s losing it. What she does not realise is that she has never really had Joe’s love; she was just his meal ticket to get him out of a jam with his creditors. He agrees to work on her ludicrous script for a film about Salome knowing full well that it will never be made. Joe has the title song that explains exactly what the Boulevard is all about. Max the butler (an eerie Dave Willetts) has a song, ‘Greatest star of all’ which tells us what once made Norma a much-loved silent-movie queen. She herself sums it up in one line: “We had faces then”. And when Joe recognises her with the line, “You’re Norma Desmond – you used to be big”, she retorts with “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

In Kathryn Evans, Lloyd Webber’s show has possibly found its definitive Norma. Whenever she is performing you are drawn to her, and she doesn’t even play an instrument. She has enough mannerism à la Swanson in the way she ‘acts’ all the time. Norma never stops acting – for the part of Norma Desmond is the one that Norma has played all her life. She (thinks she) knows she is still a star and that the studio wants her back. In fact it only wants to use her vintage car for a scene – but no matter, her madness has taken over and she remains a star until they lead her away with her parting line: “And now, Mr DeMille, I am ready for my close-up”. Evans makes this scene every bit as chilling as Wilder and Swanson.

Kathryn Evans has a clutch of great parts under her belt: Evita, Piaf, Lottie (“Mack and Mabel”), the Witch (“Into the woods”), Desirée (“A little night music”), Sally (“Follies”) and Maria (“The Sound of Music”). As Norma Desmond she has reached the pinnacle of her career in such numbers as ‘With one look’, ‘New ways to dream’ and ‘As if we never said goodbye’ which she performs with all the power and emotion she can muster, cutting through the imposing score to deliver something really moving. This is truly great musical-acting. If the show seems less than watertight and leaves you wanting to go back to the original film, it is still worth seeing for Kathryn Evans’s towering achievement as Norma.

  • Sunset Boulevard is at the Comedy Theatre, London
  • Tickets: 0870 060 6637

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