Review: Sunset Boulevard

sunset playbillSo I haven’t had much interest in blogging lately. Clearly! As it turns out there’s a (possibly fatal) flaw in having a theater blog: seeing a ton of shows and writing about them too (on top of job, social life, and an overwhelming number of ridiculous hobbies)… Well, it seems to burn me out. Since I have started this blog, I’ve lost interest in updating it after every Tony Awards. And for longer and longer stretches! I’ve still seen plenty of shows, but I just haven’t been writing about it. So what should I do? Delete the blog?

But then a revival of Sunset Boulevard opens and it turns out I really do want a forum for my opinions. Because here’s the thing: no one is more qualified to pontificate about Sunset than I am. Remember when I mentioned my teenage love of Phantom and Les Miz? My love for Sunset trumped them all. Sunset was the show I saved for two years to see on Broadway during my first-ever trip to New York City. I had cast recordings, audio bootlegs, video bootlegs, merch. You name it. Ask anyone in my family: I was completely obsessed. I moved on, eventually, but Sunset still brings to mind my overenthusiastic, overjoyed 18-year-old self in the first row of the Minskoff Theater during my first trip to New York City.

And then there’s my love for the movie. I’m second to no one in my appreciation of the Billy Wilder original. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it. It’s certainly one of my top five movies ever (probably my favorite movie ever, now that I’m thinking of it). I get irritated whenever I see a Best Movies of All Time list and Sunset isn’t in the top ten or fifteen. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading, go watch, and come back later. The rest of this review is going to assume you’re familiar with the property.

Most people who truly love the original movie also hate the musical. There are a lot of very good reasons for this. In short, the movie is much tougher, much cleverer, has brilliant performances, and an authenticity the musical can’t match. It’s also more artful: Things that are only implied in the movie are stated outright in the musical. (Joe, in the show: “I’ve seen too many optimists sinking like stones/Felt them suck all the marrow clean out of my bones.”)

That’s not all. There are a ton of fantastic moments in the movie that disappear in the musical:

  • Joe’s love interest Betty admits to having a nose job because she came from a “picture family” who always expected her to become a big star. In the musical, she tells the exact same story, minus the nose job. This leaves me spluttering. They took out the best part! In Hollywood even the young innocent white bread love interest has had a nose job!
  • There’s a scene in which Norma puts on the “Norma Desmond Follies” for a very, very, very bored Joe. Absolutely brilliant moment from both William Holden and Gloria Swanson. The poor woman. I’ve joked around with friends about doing a tap dance to try and sustain male attention before, so I definitely know where she is coming from.
  • The quietly disgusted look on Joe’s face when Norma dries him off with a towel.
  • Max had a black patent leather dressing room on the Paramount lot. Let me say that again. Max had a black patent leather dressing room on the Paramount lot.
  • This exchange between Betty and Joe: “Don’t you sometimes hate yourself?” “Constantly!”
  • The bit with the vicuna coat. The musical, again, misses the entire point of this moment. (Jesse Green explained this one really well in his review, so I won’t get into it.)

I could go on and on.

As you can see, I know every reason you should like the movie better. I also don’t care. I love the show. I love it. I love the story, I love the music, I love the characters. Why? Well, to begin with the songs are lovely. Norma’s songs are reminiscent of Phantom, with soaring, dramatic melodies. Joe’s numbers, on the other hand, are jazzier, more energetic. Both fit their characters really well. And the story is tailor made for the Lloyd Webber treatment, too: A friend pointed out the other day that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s lush scores don’t always have a story that can hold up the outsized music, but Sunset‘s script is better than most of his other shows. And people make fun of the lyrics sometimes, but I think they’re fine. They get the job done, and Norma’s big numbers (“With One Look” in the first act and “As If We Never Said Goodbye” in the second) are huge crowd-pleasing showstoppers. It’s not Sondheim, but it’s not embarrassing, either.

I’ll even stand up for the Joe and Betty scenes. Now, granted, this is never going to be the most interesting part of the show, but with the right Joe and the right Betty, their story can work beautifully as a counterpoint to Norma’s. Norma’s numbers are all emotion and volume, while the Joe/Betty numbers are sweeter, more thoughtful, more intellectual. In some productions of Sunset, they really do feel like they’re meant for each other, making the upcoming tragedy even sadder. (That is, if the cast and staging are right. A very big if.)

So, I dunno. Perhaps because I knew the musical before I ever saw the movie. Perhaps it’s just grandfathered in because I loved the musical as a teenager. Perhaps it’s just because I like theater even better than I like movies. Perhaps it’s just because the musical is more, well, fun. I think it’s a good show. It’s a good adaptation of the movie. Of course, this should be put in perspective. Sunset the movie may be one of the best films ever made, but Sunset the musical probably wouldn’t be on my top fifty greatest musicals ever. I love it to pieces, but come now. It’s no My Fair Lady or West Side Story in ambition or innovation.

So that’s where I stand as far as Sunset is concerned. If I haven’t lost you yet, perhaps I should say something about the production? It’s directed by Lonny Price, and is quite different from the original. Where the original had a gigantic and ornate set, this production is minimal. It’s meant to look like a movie set with lots of platforms and steps and catwalks. (A friend asked after we saw it: when are Broadway musicals going to stop duplicating the Jersey Boys set?) The movie set theme is continued throughout: essentially, this Sunset has Joe as film director, guiding us from one scene to the next with a snap of the fingers or an aside to the audience. The new interpretation works fine, though I wouldn’t necessarily call it an improvement over the much more realistic original production. And there are some nice touches: archival video footage of Los Angeles opens each act and really brings us into the world of Old Hollywood. The real problem occurs when Mr. Price’s direction gets intrusive. For example, a ghost of young Norma Desmond (in all her glory as a movie star) wanders the stage through a bunch of scenes. She’s supposed to be a haunting presence, I suppose, but she mostly just distracted me from whatever the characters were doing at that moment.

Of course, there’s very little possibility of being distracted when Ms. Glenn Close is on the stage. In fact, she’s the major reason to see the show.  Now, I never saw her original performance live, but you can catch bits of it on YouTube. Go ahead and watch! I’ll wait. Now, did it seem a bit overdone to you? According to my friend Heather, who saw the original many times, as a live performance it worked beautifully. But man does it ever come across as hammy on the video! In any case, her performance now is quite different. She’s still got stage presence for days, and is completely nuts of course, but it’s a lot less over the top throughout. Her Norma Desmond in this production is textured, hilarious, convincing, heartbreaking.

Even as familiar as I was with the story, I found myself incredibly moved by Norma’s plight. A colleague and I had a discussion recently about mentally ill patients during that era — just imagine what Norma’s life would have been like after the show ends. Electroshock, hydrotherapy, maybe even a lobotomy. The poor woman. There was nothing good in her future.

It should be noted, however, that Glenn Close can’t sing very well. I mean, she’s fabulous as an actress, but she really can’t do justice to Norma’s numbers. In the theater she sounds even more wobbly than she did on the original CD. And that’s a shame, of course. But in this universe — where Emma Stone wins the Best Actress Oscar for La La Land even though she can’t really sing or dance — I’m hardly going to complain. You can’t have everything in life, and what we get from Glenn Close — weak voice and all — is plenty good enough to justify buying a ticket. (Or, three separate tickets on three separate nights, if you are me.)

Now, let’s talk about Joe Gillis. To be honest, I think this character is the key to the show, and I think he’s an even harder character to nail than Norma is. This isn’t a criticism of Glenn Close, but Norma’s a big character. If you’ve got a big stage presence, you’re already well on your way to being a good Norma. Joe’s a trickier sort. He’s the narrator, so he needs to be fairly likable, but he’s also a bit of a user and makes a lot of icky decisions throughout. The one thing you absolutely don’t want is a standard musical comedy performance. Which brings me to Michael Xavier. If you want to get a sense of how he plays the role, all you’d need to do is watch the jokey vlogs he posted to His Joe is a lot like that. Mr. Xavier is a cheerful, likable performer. Great charisma, strong rapport with the audience, expressive face, nice voice, and very handsome. And absolutely the wrong choice for Joe Gillis.

Again, go back to the movie. With all the times I’ve seen Sunset, I’ve never seen a Joe that even comes close to William Holden’s performance. To be honest, I’m not sure it’s possible, given the way the musical is written. As Heather pointed out, do you really want your leading man in a musical to be so full of self-loathing? That said, I have certainly seen Joes that do a far better job of holding their own against Norma. It’s not entirely Mr. Xavier’s fault: Lonny Price’s direction did him no favors. He’s given almost no moments in which to show his uglier side. Even the title number — traditionally the moment when the character can really let loose, show us his cynical worldview and explain why he’s decided to stay with Norma — is treated here as simply a chance to show off Joe’s toned physique in tight swimming trunks. (To be fair, Mr. Xavier looks fantastic in tight swimming trunks. So did William Holden, but Mr. Holden had the benefit of closeups and a better take on the character. What I mean to say is that the movie can afford to let us goggle at Joe for a minute or two. The musical can’t.)

Without a strong Joe, the show feels incredibly lopsided. Another friend freely admitted that she barely even watched the actors when Norma was offstage. (She gazed at the wonderful 40 piece orchestra onstage instead.) It didn’t surprise me to hear her say this, because Mr. Xavier and Siobhan Dillon as Betty have no chemistry at all. I have never felt less invested in their love story than I did here. (And like I said before, I love the Joe and Betty songs.)

And so what are we left with? We’ve got two fantastic performances (Ms. Close as Norma and Fred Johanson as Max) and a 40-piece orchestra that makes the score sound even lovelier than it did 20 years ago. We’ve got a fabulous story and a lot of fun songs. But we don’t have a great musical. And I think it’s a shame that the critics are blaming the material, when I really believe that intrusive direction and miscasting account for most of the production’s problems.

Even so, it still just makes me happy to know that Sunset is alive on Broadway and this wonderful story gets retold every night. It’s not a perfect production — in fact, I’d say the original was superior in almost every way — but I’ll take it.