Two decades since its splashy Broadway premiere, the plot and the production history of “Sunset Boulevard,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sweeping 1990s musical treatment of Billy Wilder’s 1950 film noir, have become one and the same.
At the end of “Sunset Boulevard,” Norma Desmond, the former silent screen star who has spent two decades in lonely obscurity, determinedly thrusts herself back into the spotlight, ready for either a close-up or the madhouse.
In sync with Norma’s intentions, the musical has returned to Broadway two decades later, bringing Glenn Close (who won a Tony as Norma in 1995) back to the stage and Lloyd Webber (who now has four musicals running simultaneously) back to his glory days.
Whereas the original production featured a lavish set design including Norma’s mansion and Hollywood backlots, this revival (which originated at the English National Opera and is directed by Lonny Price) is a smooth concert-style staging (not unlike what you would find at City Center Encores!) dominated by a 40-piece orchestra, plus zigzagging walkways, some video projections and a mannequin representing a corpse that creepily hovers above.
“Sunset Boulevard” originally received mixed reviews, but the revival makes a strong case for Lloyd Webber’s music (an uneven but bold mix of sweeping romantic melodies, jazz and underscoring) and Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s book (which strictly follows the fast-paced original narrative), if not their prosaic lyrics.
Close eschews the exaggeration and all-out insanity of Gloria Swanson (who starred in the film) and portrays Norma in a soft light as a wounded, vulnerable creature. Despite some obvious vocal difficulties, Close once again gives a fully invested, psychologically revealing performance.
In the other key roles, as Joe Gillis, the down-on-his-luck screenwriter who serves as our narrator, Michael Xavier has a strapping presence and a pleasing rock tenor voice, but he gives a shallow performance that downplays Gillis’ self-loathing. Fred Johanson is appropriately stoic and serious as Norma’s dutiful and mysterious butler Max.
So what will be the next Lloyd Webber musical to come back? I vote for “Evita,” which has an obvious political relevance.