By Patrick O’Brien
Sunset Boulevard holds a strange place in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s oeuvre. On Broadway, it swept up a tidy bundle of Tonys, including Best Musical, but it won virtually unopposed in a weak season for new musicals. It wasn’t an open-close embarrassment, but it wasn’t the long-running money printer that insiders had come to expect from the superstar composer. It has its flaws, but even its most ardent detractors recognize that Norma Desmond, the mad diva of Hollywood’s yesteryear, is a capstone role, albeit one that must be played by a storied actress. Thus, even though it’s licensable, productions are hard to come by.
Chicago favorite Hollis Resnik is certainly such a storied actress, and while her stunning turn as Norma in Porchlight Theatre’s Sunset is the big draw, Director Michael Weber and company moreover prove the musical can find unqualified success in an intimate setting.
Production-wise, Sunset Boulevard is the easiest of the European megamusicals to telescope down. It doesn’t need much more than a dramatic grand staircase, but Jeffrey D. Kmiec gives it a little more with his recreation of the Paramount studio gates, appropriate for a story about being on the outside of Movieland. Anthony Churchill’s projections do the rest, either with sweeping Hollywood panoramas or posters for the endless movies churned out in the twilight years of the studio system.
Text-wise, it’s a fairly direct translation of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s arsenically loving screenplay, but unlike the much-bemoaned raft of unimaginative screen-to-stage translations of late, directness here is not a detriment. Librettists Don Black and Christopher Hampton may follow the screenplay beat by beat, line by glorious line, but the grotesque tale is still so engrossing and even surprising. No small accomplishment when the story begins with one of the players, leading man Joe Gillis (Billy Rude), showing off his own ignoble demise and eager to set the record on that straight. One of many down-and-out writers who came to Tinseltown to make Important Pictures just to get stuck with lowly punch-up work and creditors at his heels, he stumbles into the driveway of Norma Desmond’s mansion and into what seems like a plum job. For 20 years, the reclusive silent-film siren has labored over a screenplay about the princess Salomé that she sees as her chariot for her grand return to the screen. To Joe, it’s hopelessly overwrought, passé, and egomaniacal — the fiftysomething Norma, of course, will play the teenage temptress — but all he says is that, for the right price, he can find time in his “very busy” schedule to look it over and give it some edits. Though Norma takes the bait and Joe finds himself working in the lap of luxury, the professional becomes dangerously personal, and it becomes increasingly difficult to tell who’s playing whom — Joe, Norma, or her glowering Mitteleuropean butler Max (a particularly rich Larry Adams), who has a bigger stake in this than one expects.
Resnik’s Norma has absolute faith in the power of a moving picture to change the world “with one look,” to teach millions of people “new days to dream,” as two of her songs put it. Perhaps more accurately, her Norma needs that faith, for without it, she has truly been abandoned by the Hollywood that built her up only to discard her. Without that faith — that script, if you will — her grandeur and garrulousness falls away, revealing a disturbing emptiness at her core. In this light, her pivotal aria “As If We Never Said Goodbye” is not only the earnest ode to movie magic that it is, but it’s also a point of no return. Having had her fantasies of making movies again humored and enabled for years, for her to come back to the Paramount lot and breathe the same air as Cecil B. DeMille again is such a high that coming down from it can only end in disaster. Thus, her final mad scene is all the more rending for Resnik’s avoidance of unchecked melodrama. It’s too easy to play the moment for jittering, bug-eyed insanity. Instead, she opts for poise. After all, in her mind, at least, she’s back at the studio making her beloved Salomé. She’s found her script again, so she’s back in her element.
(A neat invention of director Weber’s is a recurring shadow of Norma’s younger self, danced by Mandy Modic. Not only does it work for a character with both feet in the past, it’s blessedly not overdone — she’s deployed exactly when she’s called for.)
As an inverse to Norma (and perhaps as a consequence of being comparatively younger than the role calls for), Rude’s Joe isn’t a film-noir cool cynic as much as he seems to need cynicism to function. It actually works in his favor; shrugging his shoulders and quipping “That’s just L.A.” means he doesn’t have to dwell on throwing away his integrity, not on middlebrow scripts but by being cast as Norma’s gigolo. His own big moment, the title song, has him trying to convince himself as much as the audience that this is the only way to go, and when selling out is what put him at poolside, just like his Hollywood fantasies supposed, cynicism can be pretty damn persuasive.
Even so, keeping up such a perspective becomes that much harder when Joe finds a partner in Betty Schaefer (Michelle Lauto), a script girl and aspiring writer who has the patience to navigate studio realpolitik. It’s a small but crucial role — there may be some decency in Hollywood, after all.
Like any Lloyd Webber score, Sunset Boulevard is deceptively complicated to pull off, as it sits in two worlds — the Steineresque sweep of old Hollywood and the jazzier sound of the new, chock full of the composer’s beloved irregular time signatures. (In some ways, the latter marks a return to form for the composer, who’s really more a cheeky smartass Joe at heart than he is a hyper-romantic Norma like his blockbuster Phantom suggests.) As music director, Aaron Benham flits between the two with confidence. Would that it could be more grounded in the former. Lloyd Webber’s melodies for the central quartet are dynamite. The ensemble’s bouncier sound, for the most part, though, is at odds with that luscious chamber piece. It works fine for the glad-handing, falsely modest opening, “Let’s Have Lunch.” But elsewhere, it interrupts the story, and not really in a way that highlights Joe’s increasing isolation from people his own age, working in his own milieu.
And, as mentioned, when librettists Black and Hampton hew to the original screenplay, they do fine. The stuff of their own invention is a little more mixed. For every nice little zinger (“They shot my screenplay…dead”), there’s something like the recurring refrain of the title song: “Sunset Boulevard, [something nasty] boulevard…”) Bit of a shame because, thanks to their slight reshuffling of scenes, the musical arguably improves on the film, heresy as it may be to suggest. In the film, Norma freely goes out and about; in the musical, you wonder when exactly she last left the mansion.
In sum, there’s much to appreciate and bring out of Sunset Boulevard while understanding how it marked the end of the Pax Lloyd Webberica on Broadway. But like any Lloyd Webber show, when all the parts onstage and off are in place, once it gets going, it can’t stop. Not that you’d want it to stop, not with Resnik at its center, not until her strange Hollywood fantasy has enveloped everyone.
Porchlight Music Theatre presents “Sunset Boulevard” through December 8h at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.