1564 Broadway at 47th St.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 25, $79-$199
In 1995, Sunset Boulevard was nominated for eleven Tony Awards, winning seven, including Best Musical, Best Original Score (Andrew Lloyd Webber), Best Book (Don Black and Christopher Hampton), and Best Leading Actress (Glenn Close). Two decades later, Close, now sixty-nine, is back in Lonny Price’s mediocre revival of the musical based on Billy Wilder’s classic 1950 film noir, which was nominated for eleven Oscars, winning three. Despite this glorious history, it’s worth remembering that 1995 was an extremely weak year for Broadway musicals; no other show was up for score and book, while only Smokey Joe’s Café was also in the running for Best Musical, and Close’s only competition was Rebecca Luker for Show Boat. The night we attended this new revival, running at the Palace through June 25, much of the crowd was distracted by the presence of a radiant Hillary Clinton, but they were still familiar with the story: Trying to evade a pair of tough repo men, struggling Hollywood writer Joe Gillis (Michael Xavier) pulls into a hidden-away, fading mansion, where he meets bald manservant Max von Meyerling (Fred Johanson) and former silent-screen superstar Norma Desmond (Close), an aging, delusional woman who still moves and speaks like a silent-movie queen. Plotting a return to glory via Cecil B. DeMille (Paul Schoeffler), she takes on Gillis as cowriter and boy toy; meanwhile, smart, bespectacled studio script editor Betty Schaeffer (Siobhan Dillon), the fiancée of Gillis’s friend and colleague, Artie Green (Preston Truman Boyd), shows an interest in more than Gillis’s writing. It all leads to one of the greatest closing lines in film and theater history.
This updated version of the 1995 hit features a record-breaking forty-piece orchestra, conducted by Kristen Blodgette, taking up most of the center of the stage; the action occurs in the narrow space in front of it and on a series of ladders and platforms above and around it, rendering Stephen Mear’s choreography nearly nonexistent. While it’s lovely to hear and see such a grand orchestra, the audience is constantly looking around to find where the actors are, and David Cullen and Lloyd Webber’s orchestrations and arrangements are so mundane that a smaller band might have sufficed. Close (The Real Thing, The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs), playing the role made famous in the film by the glorious Gloria Swanson (and also played onstage by Rita Moreno, Betty Buckley, Patti LuPone, Diahann Carroll, and Petula Clark), is fine as Norma but sometimes gets caught between playing it serious and camping it up; however, her costumes, again by Anthony Powell, are spectacular. Xavier (Love Story, Into the Woods), who is rather hunky in a bathing suit, plays the William Holden part with a sly grin, while Johanson (Aladdin, Jesus Christ Superstar) excels in the role performed in the film by Erich von Stroheim. The book by Black (Aspects of Love) and Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons), who later collaborated on Frank Wildhorn’s Dracula, the Musical, follows the film almost too closely without much stagecraft, save for having a car onstage, which can so often be tacky, and black-and-white projections. The catchphrase of the music and text, extolling Hollywood as a place that creates “new ways to dream,” is repeated ad nauseam. The show opens with a life-size dummy of the deceased Gillis lifted out of an unseen pool (the story is told by the character in flashback), but for some reason it is left hanging above the stage the entire night, like a creepy ghost watching over everything, much as the ghost of the classic film hovers over the proceedings onstage, hoping the musical will get better, but except for too few shining moments, it never does.