Glenn Close starred as the faded movie star Norma Desmond in the musical adaptation of one of the most melodramatic films ever made back on Broadway and in LA in the early ’90s, and she made the role her own, winning a clutch of awards including the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical. As musical theatre performances go, her Norma has been elevated to that of theatrical legend and so to see her finally bringing the role to London in a semi-staged production at the huge Coliseum, home of the Englsih National Opera, has rightly been heralded as one of the year’s biggest theatrical events.
Sunset Boulevard, if you don’t know, is a musical of the classic Billy Wilder film; the story of an old silent-movie superstar, now in her fifties who cannot bare her fall from the silver screen and is plotting a ‘return’ as she calls – not a comeback. A down-on-his-luck script writer, Joe Gillis, (a handsome Michael Xavier) crashes his car into the driveway of her huge mansion and Ms Desmond pounces on him like a tarantula. She demands he rewrites the awful script she believes will make her name again. He moves into her mansion to start work. Damaged and almost psychotic, she slowly erases his connections with his former life and emotionally blackmails him into starting a relationship with her. Although it cannot end well, she belts out a few great numbers and brings the house down.
Glenn Close is brilliant. No doubt. She’s one of the greatest actress of modern times, someone who exudes that ‘X’ factor we hear so much about and see so rarely. It is a thrill watching her perform and she receives thunderous ovations after her two big numbers and you can sense the excitement, warmth and love for her in the audience. The large, rich orchestra is phenomenal and Lloyd Webber’s pleasing and often thrilling score has never sounded better. Director Lonny Price does a great job with this semi-staged production and has fun playing with some new ideas such as having a young Norma appear on stage from time to rime reminding us of just what our anti-hero has lost. There are many blissful musical moments, fabulous costumes and some haunting and evocative projections.
But I couldn’t enjoy Norma’s glittering tragedy as I did before. In the last 20 years since Sunset was such a big hit much has changed. Our understanding of mental illness has evolved. The narcissism of the world, partly fuelled by its digitisation, and extreme obsession with celebrity has risen into the stratosphere. Watching Sunset now made me think of endless desperate selfies and of Kim and Kanye and talent show judges laughing at fame hungry wannabes who’ve been told that fame is the only measure of success and then been ridiculed for believing it. Sunset can be seen as a criticism of Hollywood’s values but it seems to me to, in part, celebrate the celluloid monster that Norma becomes. Or at least it’s audience does.
Whether the time is right for a more sobering theatrical exploration of the quest for endless validation and exhausting one-up-manship on Twitter, I don’t know. Of course for the fans of this musical and as my Facebook feed has shown me just how many there are, this is all a load of over thought nonsense. And there’s some truth in that: if you’re looking for a lush score and knock-out musical performance, then Ms Close cannot be bettered.
Sunset Boulevard is at the Coliseum, until May 7. For more information visit eno.org/whats-on/sunset-boulevard.
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