Sunset Boulevard, the film, conjures up a closeup of Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, silent film star, eyes frightened and demonic – fingers semicurled like lobster claws. Norma was once the brightest supernova in Hollywood, circa 1920 – until the advent of talking pictures snuffed out her desirability and her career. It wasn’t just that she lost favour with Paramount Studio, it was Norma herself who wouldn’t make the transition to the pedestrian use of sound, believing that an actor’s face, not her voice, should tell the story on the silver screen. And so, like a starfish cast from the waters of fame, she was washed up on an indifferent shore while her fans trampled past her, clamouring now for the autograph of a Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo or Joan Crawford. But did Norma recognise that there was an actress alive who could surpass her? Of course not. She carried on as before, living her every waking moment in a world of grandeur and glory. She was still the greatest film star of them all.
If Norma held fast to a Hollywood era that was already lost, unwilling to reinvent herself or to move on, the same cannot be said of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s semistaged version of Sunset Boulevard, the musical, which played to a wildly appreciative audience at the Coliseum in London last night.
Although I did not see earlier productions of Sunset in London (1993) and New York (1994) I have read about the ‛take-your-breathaway’ set designs which complemented Norma Desmond’s near vampiric sensibilities, lending a sense of gothic horror to the piece. In the Coliseum’s staging, director Lonny Price has chosen to offer us, instead, a pared down Sunset that focuses on a human tale of loss, disillusionment and dashed dreams. It is, perhaps, the most seamless ensemble piece of theatre to behold, with a centre-stage, symphonysized English National Opera orchestra infusing the evening with a filmic score that brings to mind every movie melody still dancing ‛round in your head. Thank you, Michael Reed, conductor, and thank you to Sunset’s ensemble actor/dancers who embody the spirit of every Hollywood hopeful in the superbly choreographed This Time Next Year. James Noone’s set design is largely responsible for the fluidity in which the dancers make their way through each choreographed piece. It’s bridgelike openwork structures serve as both stairway to the stars and as an imagined support for movie cranes and cameras, an inventive space for choreographer Stephen Mear to work with. Below are illuminated, giltembellished palm trees, which hint at Norma’s baroque palozzo but also remind us of Cecil B. DeMille and every shlock biblical film ever made.
Because Andrew Lloyd Webber has reimagined Sunset as a seminal, ensemble piece, the lead characters are now more open to interpretation and, in some sense, less significant. Glenn Close’s Norma is sympathetic, more practical, less a fruitcake and, therefore, less likely to kill. Which begs the question: is there another way to interpret the final act?
Michael Xavier’s interpretation of Joe Gillis, the struggling screenwriter who allows himself to become Norma’s lover and script editor, appears more complex. He is less troubled at the thought of succeeding Fred Johanson’s Max von Meyerling as Norma’s nursemaid and carer. In the play, Max reveals to Joe that he was Norma’s first husband. ‛She was the greatest of them all. In one week she received 17,000 fan letters. There was a maharahaj who came all the way from India to beg one of her silk stockings. Later he strangled himself with it.’
In his book Timebends, Arthur Miller referred to the buzz he felt upon walking into a restaurant with Marilyn Monroe. It might be something that appeals to the character of Joe Gillis. But then there is always a price to pay for the Top Table.
Monroe would have made a great Norma Desmond. In her absence, Andrew Lloyd Webber might think to offer the part to Madonna next time ‛round.
Review by Loretta Monaco
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical Sunset Boulevard comes to the London Coliseum, with Glenn Close reprising her Tony Award-winning role as Norma Desmond.
In her mansion on Sunset Boulevard, faded, silent-screen goddess, Norma Desmond, lives in a fantasy world. Impoverished screen writer, Joe Gillis, on the run from debt collectors, stumbles into her reclusive world. Persuaded to work on Norma’s ‘masterpiece’, a film script that she believes will put her back in front of the cameras, he is seduced by her and her luxurious life-style. Joe becomes entrapped in a claustrophobic world until his love for another woman leads him to try and break free with dramatic consequences.
With the lush melodies of this much-loved score (including Sunset Boulevard, With One Look and The Perfect Year) performed by ENO’s acclaimed orchestra, this semi-staged production, with book & lyrics by Don Black & Christopher Hampton, promises to be a spectacular evening.
Glenn Close is joined by a company including Michael Xavier as Joe Gillis, Siobhan Dillon as Betty Shaefer and Fred Johanson as Max Von Mayerling. Lonny Price (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) returns to the London Coliseum to direct the strictly limited run of 43 performances.
Theatre: English National Opera, London Coliseum, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4ES
Telephone Bookings 020 7492 1602
English National Opera, London Coliseum, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4ES
Dates: 1st April – 7th May 2016
Performances: Monday – Saturday at 7.30pm, Tuesday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm