Glenn Close first played Norma Desmond in the U.S. debut of Sunset Boulevard when it opened in December 1993 at the Shubert Theatre in Century City before bringing the show to Broadway a year later. She’s returned in a version that’s both stripped down – the scenery is closer in style to an Encores! concert at City Center than John Napier’s over-the-top sets back then – and beefed-up, with a 40-piece onstage orchestra at the Palace Theatre that allows Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music to take its place as Close’s true co-star.
Of that L.A. opening, I wrote in Variety that “with Glenn Close, Lloyd Webber has a persuasive Norma Desmond, perfectly conveying the shattered hauteur of a star whom time and technology have long since passed by. Close is the draw, and audiences won’t be disappointed.”
I can say with confidence that the same is true, perhaps even truer, these 23 years later. For in addition to Norma’s shattered hauteur (and willful, manipulative ferocity), Close brings an added vulnerability that would be maudlin if it weren’t so fragile-seeming. And anyway, if Norma Desmond isn’t bigger than life, who is? Well, possibly Close herself, who famously stepped into the role when Lloyd Webber chose her over his London Norma, Patti LuPone. After a very public spat, LuPone emerged $1 million richer and promptly installed a swimming pool at her Connecticut home immortalizing their divorce.
And I haven’t even mentioned the role Faye Dunaway played in the endlessly entertaining Sunset Boulevard saga. All of which seemed entirely appropriate for a louche, grandiose reinvention of Billy Wilder’s black-hearted 1950 satire. But that was then, this is now.
This production had its debut, with Close, at the English National Opera, where it was greeted with huzzahs. The staging is by Lonny Price (Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill; Trevor Nunn directed the original) with attractive period-style dancing by Stephen Mears. You know the story: Twenty years after her last hit, silent-film legend Norma Desmond is a wealthy recluse living in her hermetically sealed Sunset Boulevard mansion, alone but for her man-servant Max and her beloved chimpanzee who, at the top of the story, his just departed this mortal coil. Enter broke screenwriter Joe Gillis, pursued by a pair of knee-busters divining vigorish on a loan.
He’s unwittingly turned into her driveway and ends up helping Norma with the screenplay she has written for her comeback, about Salome. Soon Joe’s enjoying Norma’s charms, such as they are, and living the good life. He’s the boy she’s mad about, mad being the operative word. But wait – there’s smart, poor Betty Schaeffer, who knows in her heart that Joe is more than a studio hack and wants him to write a screenplay and fool around with her. Norma devolves from demented to really demented. It doesn’t end well for Joe. Of course, we knew that all along, as the film opens with Joe dead, in the swimming pool, and the film’s Joe, William Holden, starting at the end of the tale. (Somehow it’s only just occurring to me now how similar in plot the rather more lighthearted Singin’ In The Rain would be, two years later.)
This company is spectacularly well cast. None of the previous Joes could hold a candle to Michael Xavier, who is in much better shape than we imagine Joe to be, though to be sure, no one complained when he took off his shirt. Unfortunately, he also gets the show’s dopiest song, the title number. As Betty, Siobhan Dillon is sweet before she’s heartbroken, and as Max, Fred Johanson plays against the kitschiness of the part. And while Close is not the singer others have been in the role, that now works more to her advantage; she’s not pushing so hard to win us over. She’s also dropped most of what I recall as her Kabuki-style makeup. She’s a sick and wounded creature with occasional flashes of the egomaniac star who once commanded the adulation of the masses and the obeisance of moguls.
There are a couple of good songs and one great number in the show, that being “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” which comes in Act II, when Norma makes a delusional appearance at the Paramount backlot, under the impression that Cecil B. DeMille (the wonderfully subtle Paul Schoeffler) is eager to put her back up there on the silver screen. Close is perfect, and while it felt to me that Lloyd Webber undercut the song in the original show with a lot of orchestral bombast, here it shines on its own and is greeted with earned cheers.
To that end, the book and lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black pay homage to the film’s celebrated lines and have their smart-ish moments. There are some deeply silly passages, notably a couple of car chases enacted by shadowy figures wielding hand-held headlights that reminded me of the poor racers in Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express.
Still, the show holds together and Close is every ounce the star she is playing. Lord Lloyd Webber has long since recovered whatever it took to set his original star free, and now has four shows running concurrently on Broadway, including The Phantom Of The Opera, which, with every performance, sets a new record for longest-run ever. The man is huge.