Review: Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard at Curve, Leicester.
Billy Wilder’s 1950 film, on which this musical is based, is rightly regarded as one of Hollywood’s finest productions. Nominated for 11 Academy awards, of which it won three, including one for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay, it exemplified Film Noir at the height of its popularity. It was Gloria Swanson’s great comeback film but it was so close to her personal experience it could almost be regarded as autobiographical.
It is said that Swanson was only fifth choice for the role behind Mae Murray, Mae West, Mary Pickford and Pola Negri, of whom only the ebullient and comically talented West really managed the transition from silent to sound movies. Of the other four, Negri closely equated to Norma Desmond but the similarities between Desmond and Swanson were even more startling. A teenage sensation that had multiple husbands, romantic links with Rudolf Valentino, that became closely associated with Cecil B de Mille and was Paramount’s most bankable female star. So bankable, that in 1927, she decided to turn down a million dollar a year contract with Paramount to join the newly created United Artists, where she was her own boss and could make the films she wanted on her own terms.
During Swanson's heyday, audiences went to her films not only for her performances, but also to see her haute couture wardrobe. Frequently adorned with beads, jewels and feathers, her hair styles and fashions were copied worldwide. The screen's first clothes horse became one of the most famous and photographed women in the world.
Why am I telling you this? Because Sunset Boulevard is, above all, a conundrum: art imitates life imitating art imitating life. Gloria Swanson was probably fifth in line precisely because she was being asked to play something so very like herself that it might appear forced and unconvincing. Max von Meyerling is so close to Swanson’s real-life relationship with Erich von Stroheim who played him in the film as to make the whole thing very confusing.
It helps to know that the studio system was teetering on the brink in 1950 and that the McCarthyite witch hunt was in the air, and I did find it a little disappointing that so many in the foyer in the interval didn’t seem to have the benefit of the various back stories.
So what to make of this theatre production?
Overall I enjoyed it immensely and have no hesitation in recommending it.
The set, lighting and especially the choreography were highly impressive, though on a few occasions I found the scene changes a little over-elaborate and distracting. Just because you can move the staircase doesn’t mean you have to! On occasion I wondered whether the wardrobe department had got their era quite right but that was a minor quibble.
Beautifully performed, Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s music is as you would expect. As well-crafted as ever if a little formulaic at times, I sometimes got the feeling I heard a phrase from Phantom of the Opera or Les Miserables but it does what it’s supposed to do and gets the job done. On the other hand I found the Don Black and Christopher Hampton libretto superb, easily followed and managing to include some of Wilder’s gems within their narrative. "The Greatest Star of them all"; "We didn't
need dialogue, we had faces"; "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up” and my personal favourite "I am big; it's the pictures that got small" were all great lines from the 1950 film.
Holly Lynch as Betty Schaefer is a delight; the steady girl that Joe should date but won’t. Adam Pearce as Max transitions from an apparently thuggish minder to a caring softie in front of your eyes and Danny Mac, once you get over the fact that “it’s that bloke from Hollyoaks”, is surprisingly convincing as main man Joe Gillis forced to choose between girl and career and ultimately getting it wrong. Be careful what you wish for…. The supporting cast are hard-working and kept constantly busy particularly in the studio and bar scenes.
When all said and done this piece is all about Norma Desmond and Ria Jones plays the role with panache, combining pathos, delusion and arrogance in a heady mix. Her delivery of “The Greatest Star of All” was excellent and her singing was powerful for the first three-quarters of the show. The power tailed-off towards the end and I found it difficult to know whether that was down to Ria’s voice or a directorial decision to emphasise Norma Desmond’s declining powers. It didn’t spoil my enjoyment of Jones’s enthusiastic performance but it did leave me wondering a little.
In time Norma Desmond becomes more and more grotesque as delusion tips towards madness, and Gloria Swanson, by even accepting the role and playing it so convincingly was commendably humble. Swanson was also an intelligent woman and away from Hollywood she could probably see the writing was on the wall for the studio system; happily, she never succumbed to Desmond’s ultimate madness. The brilliance of the film, was that it was allegorical; empires of all sorts were on the wane, power dynamics were changing (Betty Schaefer was representative of a more assertive kind of post-war woman) and it is no accident that sunset was in the title. Swanson and her contemporaries had their big houses of course but just to pit fact against fiction again there was never a house at 10086 Sunset Boulevard. The film was of its time, extremely important in many ways for what its subtext said about politics, society, technology and the entertainment industry and this is, of course, the drawback with the musical format; it can deal with the human condition but tends to diminish or trivialise the important “big stuff” and compromise nuance.
Sunset Boulevard is a worthy musical, it’s enjoyable, true to the original and this is a very well executed production. It makes for great entertainment and if you get the chance DO go, but if you’ve never seen the film, maybe you need to put it on your bucket list!
Sunset Boulevard is at Curve until 30th September and thereafter tours right through the New Year. Details at https://uktour.sunsetboulevardthemusical.com