“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. 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 — preeminently 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 Joe Gillis (Kevin Anderson), the newly arrived scriptwriter in her midst, just as Lloyd Webber can no doubt compose in any style. But where are the ferocity, the irony, the sardonic comedy that made Wilder’s acrid film noir a classic? In the musical, it’s not the pictures that have “got small” but the singular vision of a master director, Wilder, whose genius has been diluted into something much more generic.
That’s not to say “Sunset” cannot be adapted for the stage: One imagines what Kurt Weill or Stephen Sondheim would have made of such a dark and desperate story. But as re-conceived 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 finding its own voice.
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) 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 to her, “The Greatest Star of All,” sung by the butler Max (Daniel Benzali, inheriting Erich von Stroheim’s bald pate and ramrod posture without any of his wit).
Most depressing is a thoroughly ersatz love duet for Joe and devoted scriptreader Betty (Meredith Braun in the Nancy Olson part), whose title –“Too Much in Love to Care”– even sounds 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 he produced.) Perhaps the most musically intriguing number, “Surrender,” is Norma’s first: a lament for her dead chimp later reprised by Cecil B. DeMille (Michael Bauer) as a lament for a dying star.
While the setting of the Paramount lot in particular seems to pastiche Robin Wagner’s work on “City of Angels,” designer John Napier has boldly imagined Norma’s 10086 Sunset Boulevard as the kind of rococo mansion M.C. Escher might have drawn up for the Ottoman empire: winding staircases, columns, rich fabrics and the inevitable organ. Act two 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.
The musical’s other talking point will doubtless be LuPone’s Norma, which manages rightly to honor, and then put aside, memories of Gloria Swanson. There’s always been an element of outsized theatricality to LuPone, who perhaps for that reason seems more quintessentially a person of the theater than most current Broadway stars.
Norma is an apt fit for the performer, who meets the challenge thrillingly: 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 Lloyd Webber’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, Rodgers and Hart’s “Pal Joey,” a part he has done on stage in Chicago. There’s nothing faintly period about this actor, whose body language couldn’t be more ’90s, but he will surely convince more when he tries to ingratiate less.
As drilled by an underused Bob Avian, the 23-strong chorus exists mainly to fill out scenes at Schwab’s and at Par, 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? In “Sunset Boulevard,” nothing is buried except the bile that made the film great to begin with. It’s as if in trying to humanize Wilder, Lloyd Webber could only sentimentalize him.