REVIEW: Sunset Boulevard, the Musical – Princess Theatre

Screenwriter Joe Gillis is struggling to keep his career going during the Golden Age of Hollywood. When he crosses paths with Norma Desmond, a faded star from the silent era, she thinks he can help her return to the big screen. But as their professional relationship develops, their lives become tangled in ways neither of them planned for. And as we know from the opening moments, they are headed for a dark and tragic ending.

Based on the Billy Wilder film from 1950, starring Glora Swanson and William Holden, the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black & Christopher Hampton first appeared on the West End in 1993 and Broadway the following year.

This new production is the first in Australia since 1996. That version starred Debra Byrne as Norma and a young Hugh Jackman as Joe. This time, the key ingredient, the starring role is played by West End legend, Sarah Brightman. Brightman, much like Norma, has disappeared from the spotlight for a long time. This is her first stage production for thirty years, though she has been recording albums in the subsequent decades. It’s quite the coup.

The role has attracted the cream of the musical diva crop over the years, including Patt LuPone, Glenn Close, Diahann Caroll, Petula Clark and – currently on the West End, in an entirely different, more minimalist production – Nicole Scherzinger.

The original film is a black comedy, a film noir mystery steeped in satire on stardom and Hollywood, borne from people who made the transition from the silent era to talkies and beyond. It was a contemporary critique of the industry, made at Paramount Pictures, with Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton, Header Hopper and H.B. Warner starring as themselves.

The musical is a poor replica. The songs are mostly unmemorable, except for the title song sung by Joe at the opening of Act Two and Norma’s solo “As If We Never Said Goodbye”, which she delivers on her return to the studio that made her. Or, perhaps, was made by her.

A lot of the songs feel like they would have worked better simply as dialogue scenes. The ensemble numbers are mostly forgettable, even if “Every Movie’s A Circus” is fun. Two of the songs, “The Lady’s Paying” and “Eternal Youth Is Worth a Little Suffering,” have been cut from the most recent West End production and you can see how they would lift out and never be missed.

The design for this production, unlike the current London run, is maximalist. Norma’s house looks like it’s been lifted from the film and the detailing is exquisite. It’s a monochromatic design from Morgan Large, contrasting the rainbow of colours outside Norma’s estate – at the studio, at Schwab’s or on New Year’s Eve. The house fits the gothic melodrama to a tee.

Tim Draxl’s turn as Joe is charming, charting his run from enthusiastic writer to doomed offsider. Robert Grubb doesn’t quite have the dourness of Erich Von Stroheim in the film, but his voice is rich and he really owns those moments of revelation in the part of Norma’s butler, Max. Ashleigh Rubenach’s Betty is a delight but the character is the ingenue without anything else to flesh her out.

Which brings us, of course, to Sarah Brightman in the role of Norma Desmond. The casting of a musical theatre performer of her calibre, who hasn’t been on stage in so long, feels so fitting but perhaps it’s a better as an idea than in execution. Brightman’s soprano swallows most of the lyrics in her early song, “Surrender,” which affects the song’s reprisal by DeMille later. Her silent-film-actress affections are effective much of the time; it’s over-the-top in much the same way as in those old films. But on stage, it sometimes comes off as misjudged.

Many years ago, musical theatre legend Stephen Sondheim thought about turning the film into a musical. He ran into the director and co-writer of the film, Wilder, and asked him what he thought of the idea. “You can’t make a musical out of Sunset Boulevard, it has to be an opera! It’s about a dethroned queen.” And Sondheim, resisting opera, put an end to his plans.

Lloyd Webber and collaborators decided they could turn it into a musical. It always struck me as strange to tell the story of a silent screen star in this form. Perhaps Sondheim could have made it work. Maybe it should be an opera.

Some of the stage elements in this production suggests a play of the film might work, but it’s impossible to match the classic original which is a film about film, made in the era it is commenting on. A commentary on fame is always welcome, but satirising old Hollywood now feels rather pointless.

Sunset Boulevard is a by-the-numbers recreation of a grand, superior work. 

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

Sunset Boulevard is playing at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne until August, after which is tours to the Opera House in Sydney. Tickets on sale here.

Photographs: Daniel Boud