Sunset Boulevard review â Hollywood musical is milder than Wilder
W hen screenwriter Joe Gillis swerves into the driveway of 10086 Sunset Boulevard, he discovers a forgotten mansion with a ghost of a tennis court and an empty pool âwhere Clara Bow and Fatty Arbuckle must have swum 10,000 midnights agoâ. In Billy Wilderâs 1950 film, the house itself is compared to Dickensâs Miss Havisham rather than its once illustrious inhabitant, Norma Desmond, the silent screen queen jilted by an industry in thrall to the talkies. The residence, which ensnares Gillis as he is employed as script doctor for Desmondâs comeback, is both museum and mausoleum for her stardom. It is key to representing how the sun has set on her career.
The 1993 London production of Andrew Lloyd Webberâs musical based on the film had an elaborately atmospheric mansion design by John Napier. But this concert version, filmed at Leicesterâs Curve just before Christmas, unfolds on a spartan circular stage without so much as a gilded divan. Using video projections to evoke the Los Angeles locations, Nikolai Fosterâs production instead promotes Curveâs own building to star status: scenes take place backstage, in the balcony, around a 16-piece orchestra, up in the rigs of the fly tower and even underneath the raked seating.The effect of a sound stage ... Jones and Danny Mac as Joe Gillis. Photograph: Marc Brenner
This venue, completed in 2008, canât rival old Hollywood for glamour and never manages to evoke the lost world of picture palaces, but some of its more anonymous areas, with accompanying bits of tech and tripod floor lamps, give the effect of a sound stage. If we lose the sense of the mansionâs stultifying atmosphere, the approach offers an imaginative alternative to all the static streamed theatre productions weâve seen since the pandemic struck. Itâs a dynamic presentation of a production whose run was cancelled in early December by the regionâs tier 3 restrictions.
With its motifs of jazz for Gillis and tango for Desmond, Lloyd Webberâs score nods to the filmâs Oscar-winning original by Franz Waxman, and captures the pell-mell buzz of the movie industry and feverish excitement of bit players looking to make it big. His lush, romantic melodies convey Desmondâs melancholic fantasies and that mix of nostalgia and hope particular to its New Yearâs Eve setting, yet the musical never captures the sheer deadpan cynicism of the film. Thatâs not just down to the score. Wilderâs film noir casts a long shadow and Christopher Hampton and Don Blackâs lyrics canât match the hard-boiled bitterness of William Holdenâs voiceover narration in the original or its quickfire dialogue (an exception comes in the reprise of the song Every Movieâs a Circus: âThey shot my screenplay â¦ they shot the thing deadâ).Tailor-made makeover ... Sunset Boulevard. Photograph: Marc Brenner
âI believe in self-denial,â sings Danny Mac as Gillis in Letâs Have Lunch, the line both a sardonic take on his cash-strapped status and an acknowledgement of his sense of unfulfillment. But the musical keeps a distance from the movieâs more twisted moments â such as Gillisâs nightmare vision of himself as a chimp dancing for pennies â and it is only when he gives Hollywood hopeful Betty Schaefer a tour of his palazzo prison that you sense the bile rising in Macâs Gillis. Fans of his One Night Only tango on Strictly in 2016 will wish he was given more moves. The musical jettisons the queasier aspects of Gillisâs relationship with Schaefer, excellently played here by Molly Lynch, and you feel the impossibility of the pairâs future together keenly.
As Desmond, Ria Jones â who originated the role at the Sydmonton festival in 1991 â is more eccentric than abrasive, her warmth for Gillis seemingly purer than that of Gloria Swansonâs Desmond (all steely glare and clenched teeth) in Wilderâs movie. The song New Ways to Dream has the bonus of showing us this Desmond in close-up, with Jonesâs hands and eyes alike flickering with silent-screen magic.
Foster tells the story with split screens, freewheeling shots and straight-to-camera addresses from Mac and Jones, while Douglas OâConnellâs video design overlays the action on stage with street scenes and, less successfully, sections of script and a blizzard of screenwriting buzzwords. Lee Proud deftly choreographs companion routines for Gillisâs high-class makeover (featuring a chorus of waistcoated tailors with tape measures) and Desmondâs desperate preparations for her comeback (with a cameo for her feted astrologist).Andrew Lloyd Webber at 70: how a ruthless perfectionist became Mr Musical Read more
The performance that stands out, and manages to capture both the musicalâs romanticism and the movieâs darkness, is Adam Pearce as Max Von Mayerling, Desmondâs fiercely protective servant and former husband. Pearceâs rumbling baritone reaches an achingly devotional high note as he insists she is still the greatest star of all, even though he is the only one writing her fan letters.
Sunset Boulevard is available online until 9 January.