“When I speak, it’s with my soul,” sings the faded yet defiant silent film star Norma Desmond (Patti LuPone) early in “Sunset Boulevard,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical of Billy Wilder’s 1950 movie, and not for the first time one is left wondering if the same will ever be true of Lloyd Webber when he composes.
Almost obsessively faithful to its legendary source, this “Sunset” has a lot going for it — pre-eminently a star performance and a production design of equal virtuosity — without that crucial element, a soul, to justify the musical on its own theatrical terms.
“I can play any role,” Norma goes on to sing to the young scriptwriter Joe Gillis (Kevin Anderson), just as Lloyd Webber can no doubt compose in any style. But where are the ferocity, the irony, the sardonic comedy that gave Wilder’s acrid film its pungency? One can only speculate what a Kurt Weill or Stephen Sondheim would have made of such a dark and desperate story. In the Lloyd Webber version, it’s not the pictures that have “got small” but the singular work of a master director whose vision has been diluted into something non-threateningly generic.
Reconceived by Lloyd Webber with book and lyrics by the first-time creative team of Don Black and Christopher Hampton, this “Sunset” works overtime to pay homage to the film — the story is virtually identical as is much of the dialogue — without ever finding its own voice. True, the tears may flow more freely this time around; but to this dry-eyed observer, that’s merely the difference between a movie that cast a transfixing and idiosyncratic spell and a stage treatment content merely to pump up the easy-listening music.
Those expecting a new reach from Lloyd Webber may be surprised by a score that repeatedly takes the soft option, not least when it’s rehashing shopworn anti-Hollywood bile (the title song, stirringly sung by Anderson’s Joe to start Act 2) or extolling Norma’s star quality. LuPone’s dark, yearning eyes and extravagant gestures have made that fact apparent long before the dully overexplicit paean, “The Greatest Star of All,” sung by the butler Max (Daniel Benzali, inheriting Erich von Stroheim’s bald pate and ramrod posture, but none of his wit). Most depressing is a long and thoroughly ersatz Act 2 duet for Joe and the devoted script reader Betty (Meredith Braun in the Nancy Olson part), whose title –“Too Much In Love To Care”– and lyrics even sound like imitation Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Elsewhere, the songs busily reprise one another or, on occasion, earlier Lloyd Webber shows (not to mention Paganini, Puccini, and the usual crew), which makes sense if one recalls that “Evita,””Phantom of the Opera,” and “Aspects of Love” also focus on show business heroines. (Buffs will even spot a reference to the failed verse play, “La Bete,” which Lloyd Webber co-produced.) But whereas “Aspects” had one song –“Love Changes Everything”– to knit that show together, this one has three: the title melody, and two solos for Norma, “As If We Never Said Goodbye” and “With One Look.” Arguably the most intriguing number, “Surrender,” is Norma’s first, a lament for her dead chimp; the song is later reprised by Cecil B. DeMille (Michael Bauer) as a lament for a dying star.
If “Sunset” has little distinctive music to match Franz Waxman’s fervid score for the film, its look may well become one of the show’s chief talking points. While the Paramount lot in particular seems to pastiche Robin Wagner’s work on London’s other Hollywood musical of late, the ill-fated Broadway export “City of Angels,” John Napier has boldly imagined Norma’s 10086 Sunset Boulevard as the kind of Rococo mansion Max Escher might have drawn up for the Ottoman empire: winding staircases and columns, rich fabrics, and the inevitable organ. Act 2 starts with a poolside tableau worthy of David Hockney, shimmeringly lit by Andrew Bridge, amid which Norma emerges in the kitschiest of Anthony Powell’s entertaining costumes (a leopard pattern for the pool, with turban to match).
The musical’s other talking point will doubtless be LuPone’s silent-era Norma , which honors, and then puts aside, memories of Gloria Swanson. There’s always been an element of outsized theatricality — of the grand gesture — to LuPone, who perhaps for that reason seems more quintessentially a creature of the theater than most contemporary Broadway stars. Norma, then, is an apt fit for the performer who meets the challenge thrillingly: the curl of a lip, the flash of a smile, the narcissistic lapses into reverie — she gives us the screen goddess as grotesque, at once seductive and suicidal, and her final descent down the staircase (and into madness) chills the audience in a way the score’s closing crescendo can only approximate.
The only other role of note is Joe, whom Anderson plays as a rather too affable extension of that other callow Joe, in Rodgers and Hart’s “Pal Joey,” a part he has done on stage in Chicago. There’s nothing remotely period about this actor, whose body language is pure ’90s. He will surely convince more when he tries to ingratiate less: as it is, he’s halfway towards William Holden’s understanding of Gillis as a man doomed prior to the fatal gunshot.
As drilled by an underused Bob Avian, the 23-strong chorus exists mainly to fill out scenes at Schwab’s and at the Paramount lot, and to sing two parallel (and forgettable) numbers about dressing Joe properly and giving Norma a massage.
That massage, though, pales next to the one Lloyd Webber gives the audience, allowing a ready cry on matters that in the film are too macabre for tears. In context, what hope had director Trevor Nunn of excavating the buried emotions he frees up so beautifully in Tom Stoppard’s new play, “Arcadia?” In “Sunset Boulevard,” nothing is buried except the bile that made the film great to begin with. In trying to humanize Wilder, Lloyd Webber has only sentimentalized him.