Sunset Boulevard (musical)
Original West End Logo
|Music||Andrew Lloyd Webber|
|Basis||1950 film Sunset Blvd.|
|Productions||1991, 1992 Sydmonton Festival
1993 West End
1993 Los Angeles
1996, 1998 US tour
2001 UK tour
2008 West End revival
2008 The Netherlands
|Awards||Tony Award for Best Musical
Tony Award for Best Score
Tony Award for Best Book
Sunset Boulevard is a musical with book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Based on the 1950 film of the same title, the plot revolves around Norma Desmond, a faded star of the silent screen era, living in the past in her decaying mansion on the fabled Los Angeles street. When young screenwriter Joe Gillis accidentally crosses her path, she sees in him an opportunity to make her comeback to the big screen. Romance and tragedy follow.
Opening first in London in 1993, the musical has had several long runs internationally and also enjoyed extensive tours, although the show, which has been the subject of several legal battles, lost money because of its extraordinary running costs.
From approximately 1952 to 1956, Gloria Swanson worked with actor Richard Stapley (aka Richard Wyler) and cabaret singer/pianist Dickson Hughes on a musical adaptation originally entitled Starring Norma Desmond, then Boulevard! It ended on a happier note than the film, with Norma allowing Joe to leave and pursue a happy ending with Betty. Paramount originally had given Swanson verbal permission to proceed with the musical, but there had been no formal legal arrangement. On 20 February 1957, Paramount executive Russell Holman wrote Swanson a letter in which he asked her to cease work on the project because "it would be damaging for the property to be offered to the entertainment public in another form as a stage musical." In 1994, Hughes incorporated material from the production into Swanson on Sunset, based on his and Stapley's experiences in writing Boulevard!. A recording of the entire score, which had been housed in the Gloria Swanson archives at the University of Texas, was released on CD in 2008.
In the early 1960s, Stephen Sondheim outlined a musical stage adaptation and went so far as to compose the first scene with librettist Burt Shevelove. A chance encounter with Billy Wilder at a cocktail party gave Sondheim the opportunity to introduce himself and ask the original film's co-screenwriter and director his opinion of the project (which was to star Jeanette MacDonald). "You can't write a musical about Sunset Boulevard," Wilder responded, "it has to be an opera. After all, it's about a dethroned queen." Sondheim immediately aborted his plans. A few years later, when he was invited by Hal Prince to write the score for a film remake starring Angela Lansbury as a fading musical comedienne rather than a silent film star, Sondheim declined, citing his conversation with Wilder.
When Lloyd Webber saw the film in the early 1970s, he was inspired to write what he pictured as the title song for a theatrical adaptation, fragments of which he instead incorporated into Gumshoe. In 1976, after a conversation with Hal Prince, who had the theatrical rights to Sunset, Lloyd Webber wrote "an idea for the moment when Norma Desmond returns to Paramount Studios"; Lloyd Webber did no further work on the play until after 1989's Aspects of Love.
At that point, Lloyd Webber "felt it was the subject [he] had to compose next", though by February 1990 he had announced plans to turn Really Useful Group private so he could "make movies rather than musicals."
In 1991, Lloyd Webber asked Amy Powers, a lawyer from New York with no professional lyric-writing experience, to write the lyrics for Sunset Boulevard. Don Black was later brought in to work with Powers; the two wrote the version that was performed in 1991 at Lloyd Webber's Sydmonton Festival. This original version starred Ria Jones as Norma. but it was not a success. A revised version, written by Black and Christopher Hampton had a complete performance at the 1992 Sydmonton Festival, now with Patti LuPone playing Norma, and "met with great success". Lloyd Webber borrowed several of the tunes from his 1986 mini-musical Cricket, written with Tim Rice, which had had an acclaimed run at Windsor Castle and later at the Sydmonton Festival.
In 1949 Hollywood, down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis tries to hustle up some work at Paramount Studios. He meets with a producer who shoots down his proposed script as well as a request for a loan to bring his car payments up to date. He does, however, meet Betty Schaefer, a pretty, young script editor who proposes they work together to develop one of his earlier projects. As they chat, Joe is spotted by car repossession agents and makes a quick escape.
During the car chase that ensues down Sunset Boulevard, Joe evades his pursuers by pulling into the garage of a dilapidated mansion. Beckoned inside the house, Joe encounters Norma Desmond, the "greatest star of all" from the silent film era who never made the transition to sound movies. Taken aback, Joe comments, "You used to be in pictures – you used to be big," to which she retorts, "I am big ... it's the pictures that got small!"
The huge, gloomy estate is inhabited only by Norma and Max, her loyal butler and chauffeur. Although decades past her prime and mostly forgotten by once-adoring fans, Norma is convinced she is as beautiful and popular as ever. She informs Joe of her intention to return to the screen with a script she's written for Cecil B. DeMille to direct called Salome, with her in the starring role as a 16-year-old seductress. Sensing an opportunity, Joe persuades Norma to let him revise the story in exchange for room and board.
Joe quickly realises the script is an incoherent jumble that no amount of editing could fix, but he keeps this fact to himself and the revision continues for several months. During this time he strikes up a working relationship with Betty, which blossoms into a romance that has her reconsidering her recent engagement to Artie, Joe's best friend.
Blind to Joe's opportunism, Norma lavishes him with gifts that include a complete wardrobe makeover. She professes her love to Joe and becomes quite possessive; when he leaves the house to attend a friend's New Year's Eve party, she attempts suicide. To placate her, Joe reluctantly returns to finish his work on Salome. Their relationship turns sexual, and Joe ends up becoming her kept man.
Someone from Paramount phones the mansion with a cryptic request. Certain DeMille is eager to shoot her script, Norma drops in on the set of his current film. She is greeted warmly by former colleagues and the director himself, but DeMille remains noncommittal about Salome. Meanwhile, Max discovers it's Norma's exotic car the studio wants for an upcoming movie, not her. However, the delusional Norma leaves the lot convinced she'll be back in front of the cameras in short order.
Norma eventually deduces that Joe and Betty are lovers. She calls the younger woman to confront her, but Joe grabs the phone and tells Betty to come see for herself how he lives. Realizing their affair is doomed, Joe roughly tells Betty he likes being Norma's pet and that she should go back to Artie. After Betty departs, brokenhearted, Joe tells Norma he's leaving her and returning to his hometown in Ohio. He also bluntly informs her that Salome will never be filmed and her fans have abandoned her. Furious and grief-stricken, Norma fatally shoots Joe.
Completely fallen into insanity, Norma mistakes the police who soon arrive for studio personnel and her beloved fans. Thinking she is on the set of Salome, Norma slowly descends her grand staircase and speaks the immortal phrase, "And now, Mr. DeMille, I am ready for my close-up."
- Norma Desmond — a faded, eccentric, former silent screen star
- Joe Gillis — a struggling young screenwriter
- Max von Mayerling – Norma's first husband and butler
- Betty Schaefer – A budding writer and Joe's love interest
- Cecil B. DeMille – the famous director
- Artie Green – Betty's fiancé
- Sheldrake – a movie producer on the lot
- Manfred – an expensive tailor
† This is not included on the Original London Production or in the World Premiere recording.
∞ Originally a reprise of "Let's Have Lunch"
Original London production
The original West End production, directed by Trevor Nunn and choreographed by Bob Avian, with costumes from Anthony Powell, opened on 12 July 1993 at the Adelphi Theatre. The cast featured Patti LuPone as Norma Desmond, Kevin Anderson as Joe Gillis, Meredith Braun as Betty Schaefer, and Daniel Benzali as Norma's ex-husband, Max.
Billy Wilder and his wife Audrey were joined by Nancy Olson, who had played Betty Schaefer in the original film, at the opening night performance. Of it, Wilder observed, "The best thing they did was leave the script alone," and of Patti LuPone he exclaimed, "She's a star from the moment she walks on stage."
Reviews were mixed, according to the Associated Press (AP) review summary. That summary quoted, for example, the review by Michael Kuchwara for the AP: "Some reviewers felt Lloyd Webber took the sting out of a cynical tale. 'Wilder's bitter brew has been diluted,' wrote AP Drama Critic Michael Kuchwara. He added: 'When LuPone is off stage, the show sags.'" Frank Rich wrote "Much of the film's plot, dialogue and horror-movie mood are preserved, not to mention clips used to illustrate those sequences in which the faded silent-film star, Norma Desmond ...and her kept young screenwriter, Joe Gillis ..., travel by car. The lyricist, Don Black ..., and the playwright, Christopher Hampton ..., smartly tailor their jokes to the original screenplay's style. At times even Lloyd Webber gets into the Wilder swing. Both acts open with joltingly angry diatribes about Hollywood, part exposition-packed recitative and part song, in which the surprisingly dark, jazz-accented music, the most interesting I've yet encountered from this composer, meshes perfectly with the cynical lyrics. Anderson makes the sardonic Wilder voice an almost physical presence in Sunset Boulevard. But that voice is too often drowned out by both LuPone's Broadway belt and by the mechanical efforts of Lloyd Webber and his director, Trevor Nunn, to stamp the proven formulas of Phantom and Les Miz on even an intimate tale. At odd moments the mammoth set advances like a glacier toward the audience or retreats or, most dramatically, rises partly up into the flies, actors in tow."
The show closed for three weeks, re-opening on 19 April 1994, revamped to follow the Los Angeles production, with a second official "opening". The revamped musical had a new song, "Every Movie's A Circus", a new set, and new stars, Betty Buckley and John Barrowman.Michael Bauer, who had played DeMille in the original production replaced Benzali as Max, a role he played until the end of the London run (and subsequently on the UK tour and the BBC concert) and Anita Louise Combe (also from the original cast, understudying the role of Betty Shaeffer for the first nine months – and subsequently went on to play Betty Schaeffer in the Canadian Premiere with Diahann Carroll). Buckley and the production garnered rave reviews. David Lister of The Independent, for example wrote: "The show looked an improvement on the one that got decidedly mixed reviews last summer."
Buckley then followed Glenn Close as Norma Desmond in the second year of the Broadway production. Elaine Paige, who had filled in when Buckley was ill in 1994, took over as Norma Desmond in the West End in May 1995 before joining the Broadway production for the end of its run between 1996 and 1997. Petula Clark filled in for Paige during her holiday in September/October 1995, before taking over the role in January 1996 when Paige departed for the United States. The last "star" to take on the role of Norma Desmond in London was Rita Moreno, who filled in for a vacationing Clark in September and October 1996. John Barrowman played Joe until 1995, when he was replaced by Alexander Hanson. Graham Bickley played the role for the final year of the London run.
The show closed on 5 April 1997, running for 1,530 performances.
Los Angeles production
The American premiere was at the Shubert Theatre in Century City, Los Angeles, California, on 9 December 1993, with Close as Norma and Alan Campbell as Joe. Featured were George Hearn as Max and Judy Kuhn as Betty. Lloyd Webber had reworked both the book and score, tightening the production, better organising the orchestrations, and adding the song "Every Movie's A Circus". This new production was better received by the critics and was an instant success, running for 369 performances. The Los Angeles production also recorded a new cast album that is well regarded. It is also the only unabridged cast recording of the show, since the original London recording was trimmed by over thirty minutes.
A huge controversy arose with this production after Faye Dunaway was hired to replace Glenn Close. Dunaway went into rehearsals with Rex Smith as Joe and Jon Cypher as Max. Tickets went on sale for Dunaway's engagement but shortly after rehearsals started the producers announced that Dunaway was unable to sing the role to their standards and the production would shut down when Close left. Dunaway filed a lawsuit claiming her reputation had been damaged by the producer's claims. Speculation was the real reason for the closing was that ticket sales for Dunaway's engagement were not what had been hoped for and the producers feared the bad press from a financial and perhaps artisticlly struggling LA engagement would hurt the buzz for the upcoming Broadway opening. Dunaway's lawsuit was settled and the producers paid her a settlement but no other terms of the agreement have ever been discussed.
Original Broadway production
The musical opened on Broadway at the Minskoff Theatre on 17 November 1994 with Close, Campbell, and Hearn recreating their roles from the Los Angeles production and Alice Ripley joining the cast as Betty. Also in the cast were Alan Oppenheimer as Cecil B. DeMille and Vincent Tumeo making his Broadway debut as Artie Green. The production opened with the highest advance in the history of Broadway ticket sales at that time and ran for 977 performances. Billy Wilder was in attendance on opening night and was coaxed onstage by Close for the curtain call. In a season with only one other musical nominated for Best Musical, the production won several Tony Awards; Glenn Close, with only one other nominee as Best Actress in a musical, won the Tony for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.
New York Times theatre critic Vincent Canby commented about the Tony Awards for this year: "Awards don't really tell you much when the competition is feeble or simply nonexistent, as was the case the year that Sunset Boulevard won its Tony. Such prizes are for use in advertising and promotion and to impress the folks back home."
Patti LuPone, who initially had been promised the Broadway run, sued Lloyd Webber and received a settlement reported to be $1 million; Faye Dunaway, set to replace Close in L.A., was let go because Lloyd Webber felt her singing voice was not up to the role. She also sued Lloyd Webber. Frank Rich, in his book The Hot Seat, noted that these lawsuits contributed to Sunset Boulevard setting the record for the most money lost by a theatrical endeavour in the history of the United States. According to The New York Times, operating costs soared far beyond the budget, and the "Broadway production has earned back, at best, 80 percent of the initial $13 million". For example, during the week of 2 July 1995, "it cost $731,304 to run Sunset Boulevard, including... advertising fees of $138,352 (which had been budgeted at $40,000 a week)." The road companies also generated large financial losses. Rich puts the final figure near or above US$20 million lost, making the show what he termed a "flop-hit," as it ran more than two years. The musical sold over a million tickets on Broadway.
The first national US tour in 1996 starring Linda Balgord ended in early 1997 after only a handful of venues due to exorbitant costs involved in transporting the set. Lloyd Webber called in director Susan H. Schulman to design a scaled-down production, with Petula Clark once again in the lead opposite Lewis Cleale as Joe. This production featured Anthony Powell's Tony Award nominated costumes, a slightly modified libretto by Schulman and Don Black and a new, more tour-friendly set by Derek McLane. The revised production, opening in Pittsburgh about a year after the closing of the original tour in Chicago, went on the road for almost two years, though it avoided the cities covered by the previous tour.
In August 2001, a UK tour commenced in Plymouth starring Faith Brown as Norma, opposite Earl Carpenter as Joe. The production had a completely new set, much simpler than the original London set, but without compromising the quality of the show and the overall production remaining more faithful to the original staging than the previous US tour with Petula Clark. Carpenter left midway through the tour and was replaced by Jeremy Finch, who had previously understudied the role. The tour finished in late 2002 in Manchester and met with both excellent reviews and respectable ticket sales.
Original Canadian production
The Toronto production opened in 1995 with Diahann Carroll in the lead role. Her performance was also praised by critics, although the production closed sooner than expected. It also starred Rex Smith as Joe, Walter Charles as Max and Anita Louise Combe as Betty. The production later moved to Vancouver for the final few months of its run. A highlights cast recording of this production was issued on CD in 1995.
Original Australian production
In October 1996, the original Australian production of the musical opened at Melbourne's newly restored Regent Theatre. The cast included Debra Byrne as Norma, Hugh Jackman as Joe, and Catherine Porter as Betty. Maria Mercedes starred as the alternate Norma, performing two of the eight shows each week. Future Wicked star Amanda Harrison took over the role of Betty for the final months of the show's run. The production ran until 14 June 1997.
A German production of the musical opened 7 December 1995 at the newly-built Rhein-Main Theater in Niedernhausen near Wiesbaden, starring Helen Schneider and Sue Mathys (Matinees and Stand-By) as Norma Desmond and Uwe Kröger as Joe Gillis. A cast recording (with Schneider and Kröger) was released in 1996. The role of Norma Desmond was later played by Daniela Ziegler and Christina Grimandi, before Schneider once more, and, for the last few months, Sue Mathys returned to play the lead. The German production of Sunset Boulevard closed in May 1998.
A low budget unauthorised production played for a time in Spain in 2000, with heavy alterations to the book and using a combination of the original score and the subsequent revision that appeared in the Los Angeles production.
A year-long Dutch tour commenced in the Netherlands on 10 October 2008, with Simone Kleinsma and Pia Douwes alternating as Norma and Antonie Kamerling as Joe. Kleinsma went on to win the Best Actress Award for the role in the 2009 Dutch Musical Awards and also Best Actress for the Flemish Musical Prizes. An official cast album was released, with Kleinsma appearing on the main album and with a four track bonus CD of Pia Douwes singing Norma's main arias.
The Swedish premiere took place at the Värmlandsoperan in September 2009, to mostly positive reviews. The role of Norma Desmond was played by Swedish actress Maria Lundqvist. A second much more elaborate production opened in October 2010, at the Gothenburg Opera House, with Gunilla Backman (who previously understudied the role of Betty Schaefer in the original German production) starring as Norma.
In 2004, Petula Clark reprised her role as Norma opposite Michael Ball in a concert production of the show that ran for two nights at the Cork Opera House in Ireland, which was later broadcast on BBC Radio. To date, with more than 2500 performances to her credit, she has played the role more often than any other actress.
Another two-day concert engagement took place in 2004 in Sydney by the Production Company; Judi Connelli starred as Norma, Michael Cormick played Joe and Anthony Warlow was Max. The Production Company staged a slightly more elaborate version of the concert for a week in Melbourne during 2005. Connelli again starred as Norma, and David Campbell took the role of Joe. The State Theatre was sold out for every performance.
2008 London revival
An eight-week engagement of a minimalist production, in which the actors used musical instruments, enjoyed a good run at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury over the summer of 2008. Directed and choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood, the cast featured Kathryn Evans as Norma and Ben Goddard as Joe. A West End transfer of the Watermill production began on 4 December 2008 prior to an official opening 15 December at the Comedy Theatre, with Evans and Goddard reprising their roles, and Dave Willetts joining the cast as Max. The production received rave reviews and extended its run to September 2009. However, the production closed just after initially planned on 30 May 2009. It had originally been booking until 19 September 2009. There are plans for a UK Tour and also talks of bringing the production to Broadway
In 2004, the first regional production of Sunset Boulevard was staged in the round at the Marriott Theatre in Chicago for a limited period and was the first and only regional production to be licensed by the Really Useful Group (RUG) for the next six years. However, in the spring of 2010, the leasing rights were finally released to regional companies and numerous productions are now being planned across the United States.
The Ogunquit Playhouse production ran from 28 July through 14 August 2010, and starred Stefanie Powers as Norma Desmond and Todd Gearhart as Joe Gillis. This was the first fully staged production in the U.S. in nearly a decade. The Ogunquit production was directed by Shaun Kerrison, with choreography by Tom Kosis and featured costumes by Anthony Powell and an all new set designed exclusively for the Ogunquit stage by Todd Ivins.
The Arvada Center production ran from 14 September to 10 October 2010, in Denver, Colorado, ironically the same city that launched the ill-fated first US tour back in 1996. The show starred Ann Crumb as Norma Desmond and Kevin Earley as Joe Gillis. The production was directed by Rod A. Landsberry.
The Signature Theatre (Arlington, Virginia) production ran from 7 December 2010 to 13 February 2011 and starred Florence Lacey as Norma Desmond, with direction by Eric D. Schaeffer. Schaeffer said that the theatre was turned "into the back lot of Paramount Studios, so you feel like you're sitting in the back lot and there's sandbags and catwalks overhead, and then that actually transforms into the mansion." The production featured a 20-piece orchestra, which is the largest the theatre has ever used.
Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, Utah staged their production 29 April 2011 to 14 May 2011. Lynne Wintersteller starred as Norma Desmond, Benjamin Eakeley as Joe Gillis and Martin Vidnovic as Max von Mayerling. The show was directed by John Going. The production team included choreographer Jayne Luke, music director Michael Rice, set designer George Maxwell, costume designer Carol Wells-Day, lighting designer Dennis Parichy and sound designer Matthew Tibbs.
The Music Theatre of Wichita staged a production from 6 to 10 July 2011, using a 27 piece orchestra. The show was directed by Mark Madama and starred Ann Morrison as Norma Desmond, Chris Peluso as Joe Gillis, Nicolas F. Saverine as Max Mayerling and Kaleigh Cronin as Betty Schaefer.
The Barn Theatre in Augusta Michigan staged a production starring four time Emmy winning Soap star Kim Zimmer from 23 August to 4 September 2011. The show was directed by Hans Friedrichs, with music direction by John Jay Espino.
The Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria, AZ is slated to stage a production beginning in March 2012. Cassandra Klaphake will be starring as Norma Desmond.
Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick, ME staged a production for their 2012 Summer Season starring Denise Whelan as Norma Desmond and Gregg Goodbrod as Joe Gillis. The production was directed and choreographed by Marc Robin and featured a revised script and score by Robin. The cast was reduced to 10 and the script was slimmed down to focus on Norma and the people closest to her. The production also starred Lauren Blackman as Betty Schaefer, Curt Dale Clark as Artie, David Girolmo as Max von Mayerling, and Bill Nabel as Cecil B. DeMille.Rounding out the ensemble were Charis Leos, Theo Lencicki, Brian Michael Hoffman, Chuck Ragsdale and Courtney Romano Hanson.
MUSIC THEATRE WEST will end their 60th season with a fully staged production at the Carpenter Center Theatre. Long Beach,CA in the summer of 2013.
Abandoned and Possible Film Project
Paramount Pictures and the Relevant Picture Company announced in 2005 that they were developing a film adaptation of the musical. In 2007, The Telegraph reported that actresses being considered for the role of Norma Desmond included Close, Paige, Meryl Streep, Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand. In an interview in 2008, Andrew Lloyd Webber said that there are no plans for a film adaptation to be made in the near future, but he remains hopeful one will be made at some point. In 2011, Lloyd Webber indicated he would like Madonna to star in the film, though she wasn't taking his calls. In December 2011, Andrew Lloyd Webber told The Daily Mail that he was considering filming a stage production of the show for cinema and DVD release featuring Glenn Close as Norma Desmond, but noted that the inherent costs in forming the production might hinder the project's viability.
Awards and nominations
Original London production
|1994||Laurence Olivier Award||Best New Musical||Nominated|
|Best Actress in a Musical||Patti LuPone||Nominated|
Original Broadway production
|1995||Tony Award||Best Musical||Won|
|Best Original Score||Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black and Christopher Hampton||Won|
|Best Book of a Musical||Don Black and Christopher Hampton||Won|
|Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical||Alan Campbell||Nominated|
|Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical||Glenn Close||Won|
|Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical||George Hearn||Won|
|Best Direction of a Musical||Trevor Nunn||Nominated|
|Best Choreography||Bob Avian||Nominated|
|Best Scenic Design||John Napier||Won|
|Best Costume Design||Anthony Powell||Nominated|
|Best Lighting Design||Andrew Bridge||Won|
|Drama Desk Award||Outstanding Actress in a Musical||Glenn Close||Won|
2008 London revival
|2009||Laurence Olivier Award||Best Actress in a Musical||Kathryn Evans||Nominated|
|Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical||Dave Willetts||Nominated|
- Based on liner notes to Boulevard! CD release by Richard Stapley, Tim J. Hutton, and Steven M. Warner
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