“They’ll never turn ‘Sunset Boulevard’ into a musical,” predicts a cynic to Laurie Franks, playing Gloria Swanson playing Norma Desmond, in “Swanson on Sunset.” Actually, Billy Wilder’s searing Hollywood satire has been turned into three musicals: The Andrew Lloyd Webber extravaganza now on Broadway for the next century or so, a version planned by Gloria Swanson herself in 1955, with the help of songwriter and lyricist Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley, and the current production, now in workshop at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and projected for a local opening at the Tiffany Theater sometime next year.
The new version uses the songs created in 1955 (when Lloyd Webber was all of 7 years old) around the story of how that project glowed brightly and then fizzled.
The new show opens with footage from Swanson’s appearance on Steve Allen’s “The Tonight Show” in 1957 in which she performed a production number from the aborted show.
Most of “Swanson on Sunset” is staged with Hughes at the piano, stepping downstage to play himself in dramatic scenes, and with Richard Leibell as his lover/collaborator Richard Stapley. (“Swanson” director Luke Yankee left the production a week before opening to head the Long Beach Civic Light Opera.)
Parallels between the saga of the failed production (which was to be called “Starring Norma Desmond”) and the movie original are unmistakable: Both tell the story of a self-deluding, self-destructive fading star with the ambition to create one last great show. Both tell of her ensnaring young creative men to help with that show, and of her insane jealousies that bring the projects down.
As Gloria/Norma, veteran singing actress Franks (Gloria Upson in the 1962 Broadway “Mame”) runs through as many costumes as she has songs — a considerable number.
Given the backbreaking job of carrying on as not one but two spellbinding superstars, she maintains her own neurotic edge and delivers a luminous performance. Even on opening night, with lines not yet firmly in place, she legitimizes the production’s hopes.
Hughes’ script peters out into excess talkiness near the end, where one more strong song might help. Already, however, there is promise.