Featuring Glenn Close, Michael Xavier, Siobhan Dillon, Fred Johanson
Palace Theatre 1564 Broadway
Open February 9, 2017
The orchestra is huge and muffled, the set is fascinating and disassembled, and a dead man mannequin rises in the first moments then floats several stories up throughout the proceedings. Amidst these distractions at the storied Palace Theatre, part way through the second act of Sunset Boulevard‘s current Broadway revival, we finally know why this revival meeting has been called. Through the imbalanced casting, pervasive murky sound (making nearly 40 musicians sound like 15), and often dull omnipresent orchestrations of an often dull score, we land in a resonant place. An opera in a scene, a play in a song, a lifetime in a lyric: “As If We Never Said Goodbye.” This single sequence makes the entire adventure worthwhile.
First, the story. Based on the black-and-white Billy Wilder masterpiece and set in the 1950s Hollywood of movie where stars from the outmoded and supplanted silent movie era lingered, some with and some without fortunes earned and saved, among studios on the wane and film making methods and acting styles that have left silent film stars behind. Our young narrator, screenwriter Joe Gillis (Michael Xavier), is killed at our story’s beginning — from man shot to man floating in a pool to corpse floating high above the proscenium. We know the ending, but what is the beginning and whose story is this?
Joe we soon learn, is in debt and frustrated. In an evocative chase scene with noir-y overtones (maintained throughout in the scaffolding set by James Noone and shady lighting by Mark Henderson), Joe escapes his shady pursuers by careening car, through the streets of Beverly Hills then onto the grounds of a hulking Sunset Boulevard mansion owned by silent movie star Norma Desmond (Glenn Close). The chase is evoked entirely by headlights on sticks on a dark stage, raising the question of whether the drama of the chase would communicate to someone who hasn’t seen the film. Joe is fascinated by the opulence and intrigued by the wonders he witnesses at this mansion that was built and furnished by a fortune earned a generation before, draped in memories of parties and successes long past.
Joe allows the out-of-time opulence to embrace him while he studies and considers how to take advantage of its owner. Desmond is quirky, a bit untethered (there’s an intense attachment to a pet monkey to make sense of among many other things). This quirky once-star of silent movies lives amidst her memories in a rambling rococo mansion, is well-off financially but adrift personally. Joe is cute (she’s a flirt and accustomed to getting her way) and Joe is a writer whose car is in need of repair and Joe needs to hide out. Norma ensnares him to assist her in finalizing a script she thinks is her ticket back before the cameras: her own overblown version of Salome in which she will star. She buys him a new wardrobe, she entices him with comforts, she needs his constant attention.
Joe is headstrong, Joe is curious and aghast. The musical, as the movie before it, unspools as big and little mysteries — what’s the deal with the monkey, why doesn’t Joe just walk away, where are Norma’s friends to help her through these times, and ell us more about the ex-husband-cum-butler Max (Fred Johanson) and his incentive for sticking around. We lose in this adaptation the delightful film scene with Norma’s fellow silent film ex-pat pals who regularly gather to play cards (featuring other silent film stars like Buster Keaton). In Wilder’s film, we see that Norma does have a world of comrades and familiars to whom she is generous and with whom she shares a past. In the musical adaptation, a large ensemble plays swirling kids at the studio and swirling kids on the set Norma visits — but Norma herself is an island without colleagues (save the loyal Max).
It’s a tenuous balance, the story of Norma in her web of memory, the scaffold-ed dreamscape she maintains by her costumes and her riches and her loyal adjutant Max, juxtaposed with the partying youngsters yearning to find their place in the Hollywood hierarchy. When Joe’s self-absorbed present and the enthusiasm of his friends take precedence in song or story, especially on the live stage retelling of this celluloid drama that has been told many times before (e.g. Day of the Locust, What Price, Hollywood? and the multiple A Star is Born remakes), the power of Norma’s out-sized and primary narrative is diminished and our attention wanes. Until a gun emerges and someone gets shot.
Yet with all the schmaltzy extra notes and murky sound and too many bodies on stage and too much space (we never feel trapped by this place and Norma’s personality as we need to feel that Joe was, even with the looming stuffed dead body of Joe overseeing the show from the rafters), there is that one sequence that justifies the price of admission and the length of the show.
“As If We Never Said Goodbye” is Norma’s solo when she has returned to the studio of her great triumphs in the 1920s and 1930s — Paramount as in the movie, which was the studio of Gloria Swanson the star who played Norma, a refracting dimension of the movie that is irrevocably lost in any adaptation and casting of this story if kept in its original time frame. Placed early in the second act, after we’ve spent a bit too much time with Joe and his friends, and not enough time living in Norma’s mansion, Norma visit her old director director pal Cecile B. DeMille (Paul Schoeffler). (Here is yet another oddity of the adaptation that might not work for future generations — the resonance of having the real DeMille play himself in the movie opposite Gloria Swanson who had indeed been one of his silent film stars is totally lost here.) Norma believes that DeMille is interested in her blowsy, flowery adaptation of the Biblical stories of the temptress Salome; he is unaware that his assistant has called her house to inquire about renting her fancy vintage automobile for his current pictures.
The mis-cue is never understood by her, yet this coincidence of timing and location allows for a meeting of past and present, real life and movie magic, daylight and movie lights. All these worlds co-exist for several minutes. In one tune, with one look, with on-set relationships rekindled and a reservoir of feeling tapped, this 10-minute sequence provides the chief reason to sit there … amid the gold-highlighted boxes and chandeliers and broad expanse of stage from the days of Vaudeville of the Palace Theatre at the edges of the stage scene evoking a Hollywood now nearly 70 years in the past.
We feel with Norma here, as we don’t feel with characters at any other point of this production. She enters not as a diva but with the glee of a school girl returning to a familiar playground where everyone is her colleague, part of the common enterprise of making movie magic. When she is recognized from the rafters by a lighting man who knew her decades before, he pivots his spot to her (a move stolen sweetly from Wilder’s film choices for the parallel scene). The song that follows — purely lit, evocatively costumed, and dramatically delivered — conveys her love of the spot light, her adoration of the world of movie making, her connections to colleagues on the set. We feel it personally, we see it professionally, we ache with her as she recalls what she had and what she, in one misguided moment, assumes she may have again. Stating her fear honestly — “I don’t know what I’m frightened / I know my way around here” — she opens up and shares with us all that she feels. The outsized and the diminished are in equipoise; the quirks have found their resonance.
A documentary covering the short shelf life of women in movies offers a scene that resonates with this tune as potently performed by Close. In Searching for Debra Winger (2002), Jane Fonda, then married to Ted Turner and in the midst of a multi-year absence from movie making, reflects on the evocation of movie magic and the sensual dimensions and responsibilities of movie making. This is all delicious, but starting about two minutes in, consider the picture Fonda paints.
Close as Desmond muses “it’s as if we never said goodbye” to the set and community of movie making. Fonda evokes that center-of-the-world responsibility, solo turn, ensemble magic making. I don’t know about all of Sunset Boulevard, but this scene, this melody, these words, this sensibility, is everything.
© Martha Wade Steketee (March 9, 2017)
Book | Don Black + Christopher Hampton based on film by Billy Wilder
Music | Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics | Don Black + Christopher Hampton
Director | Lonny Price
Set Design | James Noone
Costume Design | Tracy Christensen
Lighting Design | Mark Henderson
Sound Design | Mick Potter
Featured image caption: Glenn Close at center stage on a set in a movie studio she’s been absent from for years, feeling as if she never said good-bye. Photo: Sara Krulwich.