By Robert Heide
Sunset Boulevard—the musical revival—originally and recently staged in London by the English National Opera Production Company to rave reviews, had a mega-New York opening night on February 9th at the Palace Theatre. It starred the incomparable Glenn Close in the role of the faded silent-screen goddess Norma Desmond. Repeating the role she first created on Broadway in 1993, this current staging and star performance is a wonder to behold. Beginning with the overture by a stupendous 40-piece orchestra, the music by composer Andrew Lloyd Weber and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton soar with an impact not felt in the theater since Weber’s Evita with Patti Lupone. The musical is based on the 1950 Billy Wilder film noir Sunset Boulevard starring Gloria Swanson as the reclusive star and William Holden as the doomed Hollywood screenwriter.
A frantic on-the-lam writer named Joe Gillis accidentally finds himself drawn into a spider web by an over-the-hill silent-screen star living in a crumbling mansion on Sunset Boulevard. She dreams of a comeback to the silver screen and of being directed by Cecil B. DeMille. In this production, the screenwriter she ensnares to rewrite her comeback script is enacted by Michael Xavier who sings the song Let Me Take You Back, where he reconstructs his entanglements with the desperate Norma.
Today, with the classic film and the success of the Broadway musical, the story of the crazed actress and the impoverished writer has taken on the proportions of Hollywood legend and myth. At the conclusion, Gillis, attempting to break away from his trap, is tracked down by Norma who screams out, “Nobody leaves a STAR!” and then pumps lead into his back as he trips and falls into the swimming pool—dead.
During the affair with Norma, Joe is also involved with an attractive young blonde Paramount Studio writer named Betty Schaefer, beautifully portrayed by Siobhan Dillon, whom he met at the writer-actor-agent hangout—Schwab’s Drugstore. There, legend has it, Lana Turner was first discovered sitting at the soda fountain. As the first act proceeds and Glenn Close makes her stellar entrance to thunderous applause, she mesmerizes the audience with the plaintive, haunting song With One Look. The song brings into focus Norma’s early silent screen career as an enchanting 16-year-old movie star. At the opening of the second act, emerging dripping wet from the very swimming pool where he will meet his demise, looking buff and trim in brief swimming trunks, Xavier as Joe is fully in command and on target when he brilliantly sings the fast staccato title song Sunset Boulevard.
Soon into the course of this second and final act, Glenn Close arrives onstage in an actual 1920s limousine driven by her chauffeur. Dressed to the nines in white ermine and a crazy feathered hat, she pauses at the gilded gates of Paramount Studios and claims that she put them on the map. Once inside the soundstage with DeMille by her side and stagehands all around, she sings looking directly into the camera, the song that literally stopped the show on opening night—As If We Never Said Goodbye. Applause, coupled with endless ‘bravos,’ kept the star on stage for 10 minutes. There is a full chorus and superb supporting players, notably Fred Johanson as the butler Max Von Mayerling (who was Norma’s first husband and director during her early Hollywood period), and Paul Schoeffler as DeMille, who in the 1950s timeline is directing Hedy Lamarr in a Technicolor biblical epic.
For anyone interested in great theater this is a must-see event. Celebrities who attended opening night included Hillary Clinton, Bernadette Peters, Andrew Lloyd Weber (who took a bow onstage), Charles Busch, and John Waters. New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote that Glenn Close’s original interpretation as Desmond in the mid-1990s may have been the Broadway performance of the 20th century—adding that her performance here may well also be true of the 21st century. Glenn Close, I should add for WestView readers, has been a resident of Greenwich Village for many years, and having an actress of her caliber in our midst is certainly a plus.