Sure, we’re still a few weeks away from seeing a certain star descending a staircase and hearing everyone tell her “It’s so nice to have you back where you belong.”
But Glenn Close in SUNSET BOULEVARD has beaten Bette Midler both to the staircase and to town. While Dolly Levi has a bevy of on-stage waiters to serenade her, Norma Desmond can console herself with “those wonderful people out there in the dark” who eight times a week are giving her wild applause and cheers.
Close’s entrance is so anticipated that director Lonny Price plays it casually. He has Norma stroll onto a platform that’s way at the top of the proscenium. Only the most eagle-eyed will spot her, but enough do to start a potent entrance welcome.
Although Close had to deal with many stairs in John Napier’s original set, she now has substantially more in James Noone’s jungle gym. She may well have the greatest distance a diva has ever had to travel to reach the stage but she gets enough applause for her for her to descend each step before confronting her manservant and an intriguing intruder.
The star will wind up deserving every subsequent handclap, for she’s totally centered and zeroed-in on the script and score. The only phoning-it-in Close will do occurs when the plot has Norma get on the horn to make a surreptitious, trouble-making call.
So let’s say that those additional steps are a metaphorical way of noting that Close is even better now that she was in 1994 – and then she won a Best Musical Actress Tony as the deluded, fragile yet somehow confident Norma Desmond. The show-stopping cheers she receives after her Act One aria “With One Look” are only surpassed by those that greet her Act Two aria “As If We Never Said Goodbye.” They’re louder and more feverish than they were 23 years ago.
(Of course Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music has something to do with that, too.)
And yet, when she sings “This time will be bigger and brighter,” she’s describing herself, her performance and Norma’s dreams of a Hollywood comeb – nay, return, as she prefers to say. Opera fans are always citing “the mad scene from NORMA” but the mad scenes BY Norma here have as much power thanks to Close, Price and bookwriters Don Black and Christopher Hampton.
One must admit, however, that Close has the second-strangest opening number that any female star has been given. (Nancy Dussault’s “Where Is the Tribe for Me?” in BAJOUR will now and forever remain in first place.) But a eulogy for a chimpanzee? If she’s that crazy for a monkey, how bonkers will she become when she sees this much younger and quite attractive man?
He does seem younger now. Close was 47 when she debuted the show on Broadway, which means that 70 is now not far away. And yet, that makes Norma’s need that much greater.
Word had it that this SUNSET was merely a glorified concert with no real set. Not at all. True, what’s on stage can’t compete with (and doesn’t try to match) Napier’s astonishing movable set that caused then-Times critic David Richards to start his review with “The mansion has landed.” Nor can its half-dozen chandeliers hold a matchstick, let alone a candle, to the one dominating that other Lloyd Webber musical three streets away. But Noone’s set is ornate and extensive in its own way. Besides, because it’s often masked in Mark Henderson’s appropriately brooding lighting, we don’t much miss the realistic details.
Filling the unused stage space are more than three dozen musicians – including a harpist, who these days rarely inhabits a Broadway pit. In an era where every Main Stem musical now seems to get by with merely a band, SUNSET offers an orchestra worthy of an opera – which is why after the show has ended we see the opera convention of having the musical director Kristen Blodgette come forward to take a curtain call with the show’s most important principals. Blodgette is welcome, for The Greatest Orchestra on Broadway embellished with symphony-level sound “The Greatest Star of All” and all the other potent Lloyd Webber-Black-Hampton songs.
The book by Black and Hampton very much follows the template of the 1950 Oscar-nominated film. Norma faded away after talkies came in; her histrionic gestures that so well fit silent films were unmasked as excessive. And you know Hollywood: let an actress get a few years on her and she gets the boot.
Just as it’s hard to be poor but much harder after you’ve been rich, Norma would have found being ignored difficult early on but finds it oppressively more agonizing after her fame eroded. Close terrifyingly expresses the fight Norma has in keeping this reality from overtaking her brain.
Lucky for Norma, though, that she has an uber-devoted valet/butler/houseboy in Max. He, however, has difficulty in being the servant of two masters once this Joe Gillis stumbles onto the scene. He’s a screenwriter who becomes a work-for-hire (and stud-for-keeping) on Norma’s SALOME but whose interest really lies with a project he initiated and is now penning with studio employee Betty Schaeffer.
As Joe, Michael Xavier is a fine narrator, an amiable presence, a sincere guy – but that’s not all. When he starts the second act by emerging in the skimpiest of skivvies and soaking wet from a dip in the swimming pool, the actor is not above acknowledging the swoons from the audience. Norma constantly states that through the movies “we taught the world new ways to dream,” but when Xavier dons a bathrobe and then takes off and kicks away his swimsuit, he’s doing the same for much of the crowd.
Fred Johanson’s Max is appropriately stentorian, but he still manages to exhibit some genuine emotion. One of the biggest challenges a lyricist faces is writing a song in which the character expresses love without having him use the actual word “love.” Black and Hampton achieved this in “The Greatest Star of All,” all the while hoping that their Max would supply the love that they didn’t blatantly proclaim. Johanson certainly does.
Siobhan Dillon successfully takes Betty from a mere script reader to a self-actualized woman. Her only mistake is falling in love with the wrong man. She gains such strength that we don’t have to worry about her future – or, for that matter, Dillon’s. She’ll be welcome in many more musicals.
SUNSET was once the biggest-money loser in Broadway history, until, of course, SPIDER-MAN made its deficit seem like chump change. Recoupment now seems likely, for while this production originally had planned to close in May, ticket demand has forced an added month to the run. Good, for new theater fans who were either unborn or too young to catch it in 1994-95 will now be able to see what they missed. That includes Glenn Close, ever ready for her close-up even when she’s in the dark at the top of the stairs. You should expect to hear from these newbies “How could she and this show EVER have failed?”