In Billy Wilder’s indelible 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond, long-faded star of the silents, insists “We had faces then.” As if the more recent stars of Hollywood films in those days didn’t have faces. Norma was wrong then and would still be wrong now. Movie stars had faces. Movie stars still do.
Of all those faces, one extremely prominent one belongs to Glenn Close, reprising her Norma Desmond on Broadway in the English National Opera’s revival of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Don Black-Christopher Hampton musical version of Wilder’s film. More than 20 years after Close originated the role on Broadway and won a Tony for her efforts, she’s presents a face now, at the Palace Theatre, even more striking than we remember it — even more striking, perhaps, than in any of her stage appearances or on film, even with six Oscar nominations to her credit.
Close presents us, too, with her voice again — something many of those silent-screen legends, factual or fictional, never had to do — and, as in 1995, that poses more of a problem. Close’s fans, Norma’s fans — they cheer her in the middle of the Act 2 showstopper, “As If We Never Said Goodbye.” But frequently she’s unsure of her pitch and from time to time awkwardly transfers from head voice to chest voice and back again.
She does appear to have had much vocal training, as reported elsewhere. But I think she still sounds better in a few YouTube tracks. Do a comparison-listen to such Norma Desmonds with more raise-the-roof stage pipes — such as Patti LuPone (who originated Norma in London before her famous falling-out Lloyd Webber) and Betty Buckley.
So as this Sunset Boulevard marches along, it’s clear that Close is on hand for the acting and for striding effectively about in the flowing robes and turbans designed for her by Anthony Powell. (Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas provided the many wigs; Alexandra Urvois is Close’s praiseworthy makeup artist.) And Close does offer an imperious Norma in a script that lacks the impact of the flick — perhaps because it leaves out a crucial scene, about which more later.
Actually, the plot nowadays might hit ticket-buyers, however sold they are on Close, as ever-so-corny. After down-on-his-luck writer Joe Gillis (Michael Xavier) winds up accidentally in Desmond’s Beverly Hills driveway, the aging actress coerces the young man to stick around — aided by Max von Mayerling (Fred Johanson), her butler and onetime director. Yes, Joe will stick around and rework the screenplay for Desmond’s long-awaited comeback role, Salomé.
Desmond is delusional, of course. So when she casts her melodramatic, suicide-threatening wiles in his direction, Gillis strikes up a friendship, and then more, with Betty Schaefer (Siobhan Dillon), a studio staffer and wannabe writer. A diversion for him, a problem for Desmond.
A more ominous fly in the Hollywood ointment is Desmond’s belief that the great film director Cecil B. DeMille (Paul Schoeffler) wants to make the Salomé epic. So she drops in to see him in the Act 2 scene culminating in “As If We Never Said Goodbye” — arriving in a luxury vehicle constructed by BB Props.
It all ends tragically, as it must — as revealed in the special effect of the opening scene. But not before Desmond offers us that well-known line from the film: “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.” It’s a denouement sequence that the director of this revival, Lonny Price, unfortunately allows to be more of a parody of silent-movie acting than is really needed.
Then again, the whole script is credulity strained. Gillis needs money to pay off bills, but why he puts up with Desmond as long as he does, to his eventual undoing, is never fully explained.
In the film, Wilder and Charles Brackett (who shared an Oscar for Best Screenplay) carefully include a sequence in which Swanson’s Desmond does a Charlie Chaplin imitation of such amusement and charm that Gillis is disarmed. Those few minutes are invaluable for explaining Gillis’ actions.
Here, the musical’s creators try something less effective: bringing out a shadow figure to represent how Desmond looked in her prime, how Joe imagines that she was. To strengthen the tactic, choreographer Stephen Mea has the three of them briefly tango. The conceit hasn’t the same celluloid oomph.
What this Sunset Boulevard does have in its favor is what it always had: the Lloyd Webber-Black score. It’s enhanced immeasurably by situating one of the largest Broadway orchestras in years — nearly 40 musicians, conducted by Kristen Blodgette — upstage. The ploy does plenty for the overture, which Lloyd Webber cannily composed with the sweep of a film score. (David Cullen shares credit with Lloyd Webber for orchestrations as well as the vocal and instrumental music arrangements.)
In the nearly 50 years since arriving on Broadway, Lloyd Webber — whose Cats, The Phantom of the Opera and School of Rock are all on the boards right now — has been dunned for lifting inspiration, if not outright riffs, from the likes of Giacomo Puccini. Well, let them dun away. Many of his melodies you can’t beat with a stick, and several grace this score. Aside from “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” Desmond floors the audience in Act 1 with “With One Look” and “This Time Next Year.” She intones “New Ways to Dream,” with the lyric line “We gave the world new ways to dream,” summing up the enormous effect of movies on the globe.
Gillis has a couple of tough-minded numbers, too — the title tune, for instance, which Xavier delivers as an unforgiving indictment of everything La La Land. Xavier and Dillon, as suddenly surprised lovers, sing “Too Much in Love to Care,” another plangent melody. Yet another is “The Greatest Star of All,” which Johanson gives impressive voice to. Lloyd Webber’s music here stands the test of time.
Certainly the supporting players all possess musical and acting ability beyond the call of duty. Xavier’s Gillis, looking Men’s Health-chiseled in a bathing suit, is a convincingly conflicted hard-luck male. Johanson’s stolid, imposing, scary Max is top-drawer; Dillon fulfills the smart-gal requirements of Betty handily.
Kudos as well to Mark Henderson’s lighting, Mick Potter’s sounds and definitely James Noone’s set. Having to deal with an onstage orchestra can’t have been easy for Noone, but the multi-leveled metal walkways and spare furnishings work well, particularly a Christmas-tree-like assortment of chandeliers dropped in to indicate the Desmond mansion.
Which is important, because Desmond’s world must project larger-than-life. Indeed, if that’s the plateau from which Sunset Boulevard is to shine, it succeeds. Like Hollywood itself, it has a “Wow”-factor even when — with one look — it falls short in other ways.