When “Sunset Boulevard” opened in London last July, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of the 1950 Billy Wilder film was at best a work in progress. Five months later, “Sunset” takes its U.S. bow on home turf, before an audience made up largely of the Hollywood denizens Wilder and co-scenarist Charles Brackett deftly picked off like so much unsuspecting game. The show that opened Thursday at the Shubert Theater in Century City is an infinitely more confident production than its West End predecessor. And with Glenn Close, Lloyd Webber has a persuasive Norma Desmond, perfectly conveying the shattered hauteur of a star whom time and technology have long since passed by. Close is the draw, and audiences won’t be disappointed.
In London, Trevor Nunn’s staging was diffuse and unfocused. John Napier’s outsized sets seemed on the verge of a nervous (or at least a digital) breakdown. Patti LuPone, a great singer, was miscast in the Gloria Swanson role of the imperious, insane, silent-screen star, Norma Desmond. Most important, the tone of the show careened wildly between the near-slavish adherence of Christopher Hampton and Don Black’s book and lyrics to the chilling, satirical screenplay, and Lloyd Webber’s music, which sent up most of it in a kitschy, sentimental hash.
Nunn and Napier have finally worked out the technical elements. Here, “Sunset” sounds bolder and looks more solid; the performances are more coherent and the acting ensemble is better, as are most of the leads.
So, more confident, yes. But in the end, no better. Lloyd Webber embellishes “Sunset” without improving it, imbuing the story instead with a lowbrow sensibility that owes more to burlesque than to film noir. For Los Angeles, the composer has reworked several scenes and added a lot of portentous underscoring, as well as a new song whose chief attribute is that it displaces one of the countless reprises that are a Lloyd Webber hallmark.
What the new production shares with the old is a major casting misstep, this time in the choice of Alan Campbell as Joe Gillis, the luckless young writer who stumbles into Norma’s life and stays on as her (well-) kept man. While the age difference between them is now better delineated (due primarily to Close’s acting skill), Campbell is a sexless gigolo, lacking the slouchy prowl and the slangy insouciance Kevin Anderson brings to the role in London.
Joe opens the second act with the title song, a bitter but ironic paean to the Hollywood prism that corrupts ambition and magnifies everyone’s darker side; it’s a jazzy number that Campbell wrongly hammers home as an angry anthem, as if he were belting out “Rose’s Turn.”
Like the movie, “Sunset” opens with a nifty view of Joe’s lifeless body being pulled from Norma’s pool, followed by the entrance of the anti-hero himself to narrate the tale. Scene fluidly shifts to the Paramount lot, where Cecil B. DeMille (“Murphy Brown” semi-regular and DeMille lookalike Alan Oppenheimer) is helming “Samson and Delilah,” the first of several excuses the composer uses to trot out a bevy of beauties in spangles and pasties. (When Lloyd Webber did the same thing in “Phantom of the Opera,” at least Hal Prince managed to mix some humor into the brazen backstage flesh-mongering.)
Unable to find work, and on the run from goons who want torepossess his car, Joe briefly meets script reader Betty Schaefer (Judy Kuhn), who will become his love interest only after he’s fallen well beyond moral redemption. A car chase ensues (crudely represented here, as in London, with film footage). Joe finds refuge in the spooky mansion inhabited by the actress-recluse and her even spookier Teutonic servant, Max von Mayerling (George Hearn, fine in the Erich von Stroheim role).
Recognized by Joe, Norma recalls for him the power of silent film in “With One Look.” The song begins as homage but the singer goes quickly off the deep end, as the overwrought star demonstrates right from the get-go that she’s long since lost her marbles.
Joe stays on in pampered luxury to help Norma with the screenplay she’s convinced will set the stage for her return, and she soon grows mad about the boy, too. The boy, however, sneaks off at night to work with Betty on their own screenplay and to party with his struggling friends. The first-act climax is set on New Year’s Eve in Norma’s rococo living room, the gilded pipe organ and banisters burnished by candelabra to an eerie glow.
As Joe leaves to join his friends, the whole enormous structure levitates and recedes — the audience gasps — to hover above a party scene at the considerably more austere digs of Betty’s fiance, Artie (the likable Vincent Tumeo). Like so many Lloyd Webber Big Moments, the technical coup de theater is more breathtaking than anything going on between the characters within.
The show isn’t without its moments. Norma’s poignant return to Par sets up the resonant “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” wherein she imagines a world still in thrall to her film image. And to Betty, undeveloped in both the film and the musical, Kuhn brings an appealing full-bloodedness that almost makes Joe’s rejection of her actually moving.
Close often conveys Norma’s desperation with her hands: As Joe embraces her for the first time, her arms fly up, curled fingers and blood-red nails stabbing the sky like Carrie reaching up through the grave, and there are many similar gestures. Norma’s mad scenes are too weird for words, but there’s great fun in the parade of ensembles Anthony Powell provides her, from gorgeous beaded, sequined gowns and wraps to a daffy leopard-skin number.
Bob Avian’s effusive dances for the youthful ensemble recall the work of Gower Champion, and Andrew Bridge’s lighting lends a remarkable sense of flow to scene changes that are awkward in London but here come off effortlessly.
While the lyrics have their share of clinkers — rhyming “kosher” and “brochure,” for example — they can also be witty, even when being undermined by the music. Joe and Betty’s two big songs, “Girl Meets Boy” and “Too Much in Love to Care,” are model musical-comedy numbers. So is “Eternal Youth Is Worth a Little Suffering,” wherein a femme cadre kneads, slaps and pounds Norma’s 50 -year-old body into shape in preparation for the return that is never to be.
Of course, “Sunset Boulevard” isn’t a musical comedy, no matter how much cheesecake, chitchat and glitter Lloyd Webber kneads, slaps and pounds into it. Hollywood is likely to be a tough audience for a show that brazenly messes with a hometown legend — especially one that humiliates Norma Desmond so campily but utterly fails to redeem her with the summoning of an audience’s pity.