It’s easy to see why Stephen Sondheim and the team of Kander and Ebb each took a stab at musicalizing Sunset Boulevard. The still-startling 1950 movie, directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, is deeply human and diamond-hard. In Norma Desmond, a has-been silent movie star whose wild self-regard has long outlived her fame, it features a central character of innate drama and enormous scale: She’s big enough to need to sing. It has a nifty plot, too, as the cynical young screenwriter Joe Gillis gets lured into Norma’s web of crazy by the fancy duds and gold cigarette cases she dangles before him. The way Wilder frames both characters — and the audience — as collateral damage of the mid-century dream factory gives the material sociological heft.
But Sunset Boulevard, which opened tonight in a train wreck of a revival starring a woeful Glenn Close, also comes with a poison pill for would-be adapters. Its daring mix of film noir and Hollywood satire requires the utmost finesse to carry off, lest it turn into camp, a mere coffin of curiosities. (We are in fact introduced to Norma as she kisses the corpse of her pet chimp.) That it doesn’t go rancid — that the film remains beautiful despite its overbite — is attributable to Wilder’s worldliness: No extreme of human behavior surprises or discomfits him. It may be impossible to achieve that kind of detachment in theatrical song, which pretty much defies a neutral point of view. Perhaps that’s why Kander and Ebb gave up. As for Sondheim, who was writing with Jeanette MacDonald in mind for the lead, he dropped the project after Wilder told him at a cocktail party that the material could only work as an opera.
You’ve got to hand it to Andrew Lloyd Webber, who rushed in where those men feared to tread. His musicalization of Sunset Boulevard — which opened in the West End in 1993 and on Broadway in 1994 — gave Wilder the opera he demanded, and not just because of the many let’s-call-them-homages to Puccini. Reams of what had been Joe Gillis’s narration are rendered in Lloyd Webber’s score as unrelieved arioso, and when the nervous jumble of poorly scanned lyrics gives way to big moments, in numbers such as “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” they do come off as arias. The use of the chorus is operatic, too, in the sense that it is supernumerary; Sunset Boulevard is really a chamber piece, with very little happening outside its central quartet of characters. (Besides Norma and Joe there are Norma’s creepy majordomo, Max, and Joe’s white-bread love interest, Betty.) So give some credit to Lloyd Webber, whose three other shows now on Broadway (School of Rock, a revival of Cats, and — still! — Phantom of the Opera) do not earn him much in my accounting. This English National Opera production is by provenance and scale unassailably operatic.
Yet in every other way, Lloyd Webber and his collaborators — the book and lyrics are by Christopher Hampton and Don Black — have made choices that seem deliberately designed to coarsen the tone and invert Wilder’s point. To begin with, they do not seem to have understood that Wilder conceived of Desmond as a warning, not a role model. (Really, he conceived of everyone that way.) By forcing her into the confines of a fairly standard musical form they have gutted her pathos, and by giving her big triumphal songs they have turned her into a winner. (Losers don’t belt.) So, too, 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; did no one notice?
In almost every scene — and there are lots of them, because the musical follows the film structure too closely — we see the same vulgarizing tendency in action. A typical example is the sequence in which Norma, in the film, buoyantly takes a reluctant Joe to the finest men’s haberdashery in Los Angeles for a new wardrobe. Does he want the camelhair overcoat or the vicuña? Either brands him a gigolo, a point driven home, in an aside, when the lead salesman insinuatingly whispers, “As long as the lady is paying, why not take the vicuña?” It’s funny and real and hair-raising. In the stage show, though, this scene is transformed into a ridiculous musical-comedy production number set at Norma’s palazzo, with the entire staff of the store having taken a field trip to purvey their wares in situ. In a vapid song called “The Lady’s Paying,” the same lead salesman, now dubbed “Manfred,” lisps and leers and tries to get a glimpse of Joe’s goods. Wilder was showing us how commercial culture abets our most degraded impulses; what the musical’s authors are showing us is that gay men are silly.
That’s a bit of biting the hand that feeds you; at every opportunity Hampton and Black take material that kept its balance at the edge of camp and shoves its way over the line. This was all true back in 1994, of course, but the current revival, in attempting to emphasize the show’s musical strengths, only exposes the nonmusical elements to further criticism. Among other things, the configuration literally flattens the drama by forcing it to share the stage with the 40-piece orchestra that is this production’s raison d’être; the original’s elaborate sets are here reduced to a system of stairs and catwalks that the cast must exhaustingly climb and traverse. (They sometimes seem like hamsters.) Little money was left over, it appears, for special effects; the car chase that deposits Joe in the garage of Norma’s decrepit Sunset Boulevard palazzo has been rendered by the director Lonny Price with actors dashing up and down stairs carrying headlights. Price, who is an expert in concert stagings but here faces bizarre and contradictory limitations, has also decorated the story with an ill-advised homage to Sondheim’s Follies: a bespangled ghost of Norma that hovers around the action, watching blankly and adding nothing.
I have put off saying much about Close’s performance. It is not her first time at bat in this role; she won the battle to play Norma in the previous Broadway production after no less a diva than Patti LuPone originated the role in London. (LuPone sued; an out-of-court settlement financed what she called the Andrew Lloyd Webber Memorial Pool at her home in Connecticut.) In any case, the 1994 production was something of a triumph for Close; she was well-reviewed and won the Tony award. It pains me to say that her 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. (It’s also madly overamplified to achieve the effects deemed necessary in the big numbers.) 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. As Joe, Michael Xavier comes off as a juvenile: lighthearted, squeaky clean, and impressively pneumatic, instead of the sweaty, desperate cynic the material calls for. The other principals, brought over like Xavier from the English production, make little impression — which may be a blessing, for them at least. But it will be difficult to forget or forgive the reverse alchemy the authors have achieved. It is not to wish ill on the stage show that I encourage anyone who’s interested in the material to stick with the movie. As long as the lady is paying, why not take the vicuña?
Sunset Boulevard is at the Palace Theatre through May 28.