This month, ten years ago, carried a lot of significant events for me, and this weekend in particular. On 5/21/09, which was a Friday, as I blogged yesterday, I saw Star Wars, Episode I. The next day, we saw Sunset Boulevard in Atlanta.
I saw it around the time it had closed in both London and New York. While its sales were as good as Phantom and Cats, they said that Sunset’s budget was just too high, and it was too hard keeping stars: Patti LuPone, Glenn Close, Elaine Paige, Betty Buckley, Petula Clark and Rita Moreno had all taken turns at playing Norma Desmond on Broadway and the West End.
It was Clark who made something more of a career of it, touring for several years (including the production my parents and I saw), and doing a special radio broadcast of it for the BBC, with Michael Ball as Joe Gillis.
I had wanted to see Sunset for years, both because I love the score and the story and because I knew the production relied heavily on spectacle. Knowing from my reading what the special effects were supposed to be like in Phantom of the Opera, and seeing a touring production, I found it a bit overwhelming, spectacle-wise. But Sunset amazed me, especially what they accomplished as a touring show.
On Broadway, they used a giant set on hydraulic lift for Norma’s living room, since most of the story takes place there. The touring production did it in several moving pieces. The Broadway production made a point of truly filling the living room with images of Norma, as in the film (in the film, it was easy–they just used real-life photos and paintings and statues of Gloria Swanson). This is one of the reasons it was so expensive: every time a new actress took over, they had to rework the set.
My mom says it’s a story of unconditional love: the love of Max von Mayerling, living in absolute subservience to the woman he adores.
While Wilder’s movie is clearly dark comedy/grotesque (the final image of Norma’s “close-up” proves it), Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score plays it more straight, crossing the thin line from dark comedy to tragedy.
One book I read said that Sunset Boulevard is Lloyd Webber’s second “Monster Musical”, pointing out several parallels between it and Phantom of the Opera, most superficially the organ. Max is like an Igor/henchman (even though Erik does not have one in Lloyd Webber’s musical). We might compare him to Madame Giry. Unlike Christine with the Phantom, Joe doesn’t exactly get any tutelage from Norma, but both Joe and Christine are forced to flee at the end, sacrificing (presumably) their careers that were so important at the beginning. Both Norma and the Phantom, in different ways, are revealed as being hideous.
In fact, that is one of the ways Lloyd Webber’s production differs from the movie, depending upon who deserves the credit, and something it was important to see it to understand:
In both, Norma undergoes “beauty treatments,” plastic surgery and other procedures to try and reclaim her youthful beauty, but it backfires. In the film, her face is covered in bandages, creating a clownish effect. In the musical, the revealed grotesquery is more horrifying than comic, adding to the tragic tone. We feel sorry for her; we don’t laugh at her (or at least we shouldn’t).
“Why are they laughing?” Mom asked of the audience at one point. “This is sad!”
“They’re Americans,” I said.
You don’t know what’s happening during instrumentals on a CD, unless you’re reading the libretto, and that doesn’t even necessarily capture the whole idea. The frantic instrumental of the title song before the final scene, when Joe is preparing for Betty’s arrival at 10086 Sunset Blvd. features a pantomime battle of conscience, during a raging storm, as each flash of lightning carries an image that haunts Joe: his friend Artie, engaged to Betty; the bill collectors; producers turning him down.
Like Christine, Joe solves his dilemma with a noble gesture. But his noble gesture is to reject all of it, both the dreams that tempt him, in favor of a return to the copy desk in Dayton, OH.
But then the show ends where it begins, as Lloyd Webber’s musicals often do.
There’s an episode of ALF where the title alien says, “I hate musicals! People are always breaking into song!”
That line reflects a common sentiment, and Andrew Lloyd Webber always tries to allow suspension of disbelief: he likes stories involving theatrical personalities and performers, for example (Eva Peron is an actress; Phantom takes place at an opera house; Sunset deals with Hollywood types; Aspects of Love centers around a bunch of artistic Mandarins).
But the main technique he uses is to set his musicals inside a character’s mind. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is presented as what it originally was: a parochial school Bible play. Jesus Christ Superstar, framed by “Heaven on Their Minds” and “Superstar,” is clearly told from Judas’s perspective. Whether he’s talking during or after the events of the Gospel is unclear. The film from the early 1970s (often criticized for its anachronisms) adds the framing device of a touring company putting on a play in Israel. Evita is told from Che’s perspective, after the fact; Phantom, from Raoul’s; Aspects from Alex’s. Cats and Starlight Express are fantasies (though Starlight is all taking place in a child’s mind). Tell Me On a Sunday/Song and Dance is ostensibly the girls telephone conversations, diary entries and letters, except for a few one sided dialogue songs.
So, Sunset made perfect material for Lloyd Webber, since Billy Wilder wrote the movie with Joe narrating after his death, about the events leading up to it.
Indeed, Andrew Lloyd Webber had wanted to make a musical of it since he first saw the movie ca. 1970. He says that the idea of “As If We Never Said Goodbye” and the main theme came to him while watching the film. He spent 20 years trying to get the rights.
In the meantime, he used the theme melody as the theme for the film Gumshoe during his brief film scoring days in the early seventies.
People think of Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice as “the team,” and often compare them to Rodgers and Hart or Hammerstein, or to Gilbert and Sullivan, even though they only wrote three musicals and a handful of second-rate pop songs.
But his Lordship collaborated just as much, if not more, with Richard Stilgoe (Cats, Phantom) and Don Black (Song and Dance, Aspects of Love), who were the principle lyricists for Sunset.
The themes are those of most of his shows: the cost of fame, the cost of trying to live by the world’s standards versus “being true to oneself”, and the way the world can so easily discard its “superstars.”