As screenwriter Joe Gillis turns into the 10086 Sunset Boulevard driveway, he finds a forgotten mansion with the ghost of a tennis court and an abandoned pool “where Clara Bow and Fatty Arbuckle must have swam 10,000 nights ago.”
The house itself is more comparable to Dickens’ Miss Havisham in Billy Wilder’s 1950 film than its once illustrious resident Norma Desmond, the silent film queen jilted by an industry lapping into talkies. When he is hired as a script doctor for Desmond’s return, the house that ensnares Gillis is both a museum and a mausoleum for her glory.
An evocative mansion design by John Napier was featured in the 1993 London production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, based on the film.
But this concert version, shot just before Christmas at Leicester’s Curve, unfolds on a circular spartan stage without as much as a gilded divan. Instead, Nikolai Foster’s production elevates the Curve building itself to star status using video projections reminiscent of Los Angeles locations: scenes unfold backstage, on the staircase, around a 16-piece orchestra, up in the rigs of the fly tower, and even under the slanted seating. The place, completed in 2008, does not match the glamour of old Hollywood, nor does it manage to invoke the sunken world of movie palaces, but some of the more anonymous areas give the appearance of a soundstage with their accompanying technology and three-legged floor lamps.
If we lose the sense of the stultifying atmosphere of the mansion, the solution presents an innovative alternative to all the stagnant, streamed theater productions that we have seen since the pandemic outbreak.
Lloyd Webber’s score is a nod to Franz Waxman’s Oscar-winning original, reflecting the hustle and bustle of the film industry and the feverish energy of bit players looking to make it big, with its jazz motifs for Gillis and tango for Desmond. Its lush, romantic melodies convey the melancholy dreams of Desmond and the mixture of nostalgia and hope characteristic of the setting of New Year’s Eve, but the musical never captures the film’s sheer, deadpan cynicism. This isn’t because of the ranking alone. “The film noir of Wilder casts a long shadow, and the lyrics of Christopher Hampton and Don Black do not equal the hard-boiled bitterness of the voice-over narration of William Holden in the original or its quick-fire dialog (one exception is the reprise of the song Every Movie’s a Circus: “They shot my script… they shot the thing dead”). Danny Mac sings as Gillis in Let’s Have Lunch, the line both a sardonic look at his money-strapped status and an acknowledgment of his sense of unfulfillment. “I believe in self-denial,”
But the musical keeps its distance from the more twisted moments of the film – including Gillis’ nightmare image of himself as a chimpanzee dancing for pennies – and it’s only when he gives a tour of his palazzo prison to Hollywood’s optimistic Betty Schaefer that you feel the bile growing in Mac’s Gillis. Fans of his one-night-only tango would wish Strictly in 2016 had more movements. The musical leaves aside the peculiar aspects of Gillis’s relationship with Schaefer, played superbly by Molly Lynch here, and one obviously senses the impossibility of the future of the pair together. Ria Jones, who played the part at the 1991 Sydmonton Festival, is more quirky than violent as Desmond, her warmth appearing purer for Gillis than that of Desmond’s Gloria Swanson (with a look and c With both the hands of Jones and her eyes flickering with silent movie magic, the song New Ways to Dream has the benefit of showing us this Desmond in close-up. Foster tells the tale with split screens, freewheeling shots, and direct addresses from Mac and Jones, while the video production of Douglas O’Connell overlays the action on stage with street scenes and, less effectively, with parts of the script
Lee Proud deftly choreographs Gillis’ high-class makeover accompaniment routines (with a chorus of tailored tailors with tape measurements) and Desmond’s urgent arrangements for her comeback (with a cameo for her celebrated astrologer). Andrew Lloyd Webber at 70: How Mr. Musical became a relentless perfectionistContinue readingAdam Pearce, as Max Von Mayerling, Desmond’s intensely protective valet and former husband, is the standout performance, which manages to capture both the romance of the musical and the darkness of the film.