SUNSET BOULEVARD: Six Paradoxes in Search of a Resolution

Back in New York, back to Broadway. First stop, the current revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard, whose conflicted quality can be summarized in these artistic paradoxes:

  1. Lonny Price’s sensibly lavish production does its best to restrain Andrew Lloyd Webber’s signature 1980s flab, but his unwieldiness simply cannot be contained; every ensemble number jarringly pulls the dramatic focus, and Joe/Betty’s romantic subplot also detracts from the proceedings.
  1. Similarly, though the ginormous orchestra – a truly rare treat in today’s musician-stingy Broadway landscape – gorgeously accentuates Andrew Lloyd Webber’s customarily lush score, his chosen operatic style – seemingly an ideal form to probe the fragile yet larger than life emotionality of the central relationship (as the best songs do, such as “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” which I suspect stopped the show more out of respect for Glenn Close’s entire career rather than the power of her rendition here; more on her in a bit, but I have a hard time believing an actress lacking Close’s pedigree who nevertheless turned in the same performance would have received the same ovation) – becomes far too lyrically bogged down in overly detailed incidents, robbing them of much of their potency. Whereas the movie’s narrative is so tightly wound that it often feels like a psychological thriller with wicked pitch black humor, here it’s merely a limp spectacle that draaaaaaags.
  1. It may be unfair to compare anything to one of the most heralded movies of all time, but such is the unavoidable nature of the screen-to-stage beast, and expectedly all comparisons prove unfavorable to the latter incarnation. Close elevates – sometimes even transcends – this often clunky adaptation, but when going up against one of the greatest performances ever in any medium – which is the esteem Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond is held in – anything less than the absolute best falls short and is frankly just not good enough. 
  1. Yet the most damning comparison comes in their respective understanding that Joe’s role as a foil to ground Norma’s memorable theatrics is as critical to the success of Sunset Boulevard as hers, despite the latter usually receiving all of the accolades and attention. William Holden was an endearing Everyman with dark depths palpably bubbling under the surface of his psyche whose utterly compelling perspective crucially escorted the audience into Norma’s world; Michael Xavier is performative superficial vanilla, which makes their relationship – the crux of the story – excessively lopsided to point of almost being uninteresting. 
  1. Returning to the first paradox above, the most impressive technical attributes of Lonny Price’s “sensibly lavish” production are its most theatrical: the appropriately extravagantly radiant costume and makeup (mostly hers, expectedly) are early contenders for Tony Awards (which should follow the Oscars’ lead by adding a ‘makeup and hairstyling’ category), and the film noir lighting is effectively evocative. In fact, the most thematically resonant moment of the whole revival may be the illumination of the Palace’s house chandeliers to mark the interior of Norma’s dilapidated yet still elegant mansion; the bygone ornateness of the Palace – which was once the sort of movie palace that brought Ms. Desmond such fame – highlights how much Sunset Boulevard is a ghost story, from her being a ghost of her former, famous self – haunted by the ghostly memories of her past housed in such theatres as the Palace – to the narrator literally being a ghost. The design only errs when harkening back to its cinematic origins; though the projections may be apt given the classic Hollywood backdrop – PROJECTORS!!! – such justification in no way ensures artistic success as opposed to needless distraction in execution. Honestly, the musical would’ve been wise to distance itself as much as possible from the source material all those years ago by finding added resonance unique to theatre in transposing the story to the stage, an opportunity still open to any revival that this one does not take advantage of. Instead of keeping Norma a fading screen starlet, why not change her into a once-luminous Broadway diva who time – and even life – has passed by? Whereas modern audiences know film is inherently recorded for posterity, theatre practitioners must wrestle with the transient nature of their craft; will anyone remember us after we’re gone is a question that also plagues Norma. By re-setting her new plight in the early 20th century when movies threatened to hammer the nail in live entertainment’s coffin, this adaptation could’ve imparted new insights on this decades-old tale, which should really be the point of all revivals. The way to improve an adaptation of one of the best flicks of all time is to fundamentally alter it – that’s what I call another paradox in a show cripplingly full of them.
6. This Playbill art even comes with a paradox: the black and white, clearly touched up and dated photo fits the subject, but could this have been an unintentional result of frugal producers (B&W is cheaper than color) and an appearance-concerned aging superstar?

One thought on “SUNSET BOULEVARD: Six Paradoxes in Search of a Resolution

  1. Pingback: The 83rd Annual Drama League Awards Coverage – ryanthornhillblog

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