THEATER REVIEW: Sunset Boulevard
Palace Theatre, New York, May 7, 2017
Making her return, as Norma Desmond defiantly crows, as a great star attempting her own ill-fated comeback, Glenn Close is following in the tradition of Broadway stars who’ve revived their characters for a new generation.
Carol Channing and Yul Brynner famously played over 5,000 performances of Hello, Dolly! and The King and I each. There were revivals of Alfred Drake in Kismet, Richard Burton in Camelot, Angela Lansbury in Mame, Rex Harrison (twice!) in My Fair Lady, Richard Kiley (also twice!) in Man of La Mancha. Joel Grey welcomed his Tony- and Oscar-winning Emcee back in 1987, and I saw Alan Cumming bring his Emcee back to Broadway in 2015.
This time around, Close’s Norma Desmond is more recognizably human. From all the evidence—her 1993 cast album and various videos from her run—Close’s first Norma made Gloria Swanson seem subtle. She was a grotesque superwoman, a Medusa-like spider who ensnared poor Joe Gillis in her web. Close has made a career of larger-than-life villains; but now, at 70, she’s commanding without the horror-show trappings and wild gesticulations of her first take on Norma. There’s been vocal decline since she first sang the part, but her voice was always a fragile instrument she coaxed and pulled to do her bidding.
As for the musical? It’s OK, mostly where the skeleton of Billy Wilder’s masterful film remains. The mysterious Romantic noir prelude, with its eerie descending ninths, sounded wonderfully lush from the 40-piece on-stage orchestra. (I have to say, I would happily sacrifice big sets for fuller orchestras on Broadway.) But all those clichéd Hollywood hopefuls quickly grate our nerves, and the less said about the preening gay mockery of “The Lady’s Paying,” the better. The audience was enthusiastic for Close, and merely polite for everyone else.
Joe Gillis gets to keep a lot of Wilder’s lines, but this adaptation doesn’t really probe him psychologically. It’s hard to cast a leading man who can sing the score (the title number’s in 5/8) and show us his sardonic, self-disgusted side like William Holden. On this stage, Michael Xavier looks good in a bathing suit, but he’s a little too aloof in Joe’s rented loafers.
But stars are ageless, aren’t they? (An immortal Swanson line cut from the stage show.) I felt a little misty when Close started “As If We Never Said Goodbye.” There are allusions to her return throughout the show, like when she watches her own silent-screen visage while singing “New Ways to Dream”: “There were no rules, we were so young.” Later in the song: “We’ll show them all nothing has changed.”
Some things have. In her previous rendition, Close was strong-willed, challenging the screen, until breaking down and rushing from the room. Now, she’s become more reflective, in awe watching herself projected up there, and she doesn’t try to push for the notes. There’s a real woman inside this Norma, the younger, self-assured star occasionally breaking through.
P.S. Here’s a cool article on the Sunset Boulevard orchestra.