“Sunset Boulevard” made Glenn Close an icon of musical theater. Twenty-three years later, at age 69, she returns to a part that, she claims, has “haunted” her ever since — former screen icon Norma Desmond, hidden away in her hilltop mansion and pining for her old star status. The extra years change Desmond, and make Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical less credible, but more creepy and more poignant, than the original Billy Wilder film.
In space, stars take a million years to burn out; in Hollywood, little more than a decade. Written as a faded fiftysomething, Norma Desmond was the embodiment of that: A woman slung out on the scrap heap, old before her time. Here, pushing 70 (though the script still insists otherwise), she becomes something else: a mad woman in the attic of the Hollywood Hills. Her self-delusion about the possibility of a return, with a self-penned star vehicle, becomes inescapable; her romantic advances on Joe Gillis (Michael Xavier), the writer she’s hired to sort out her script, borderline unpalatable. He is, after all, half her age.
Ideas of icons and immortality, celluloid as an elixir of youth, fall into focus. Close gives you the sense that, deep down, Norma knows. When she returns to her old studio, there’s a brief flicker of recognition that the world has moved on, even a marvel at its modernity. Tracy Christensen’s black and white outfit splits her in two: one side, still glam; the other, a post-lobotomy patient.
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To start, Close teases us with an impression of madness, eyes rolling back, hands fluttering, laying her pet chimpanzee to rest. Her skill is to fill in the foundations afterwards. She can be prickly and regal, brittle and shrill, but we also get glimpses of her younger self in the odd smile or moment of tenderness. It’s enough to raise the possibility that, despite the age gap, Joe might just see something in her — something more than the clothes and cocktails and days by the pool. That he forgets about his art — and, with it, his attractive writing partner Betty (Siobhan Dillon) — is a mark of the way money corrupts. A knot of chandeliers hang from the ceiling in James Noone’s design, suggesting excess can breed eccentricity.
This is a semi-staged production, played on a vast sound stage with a full orchestra on show. A huge wrought-iron staircase spiders over their heads and director Lonny Price goes all-out gothic, with Mark Henderson delivering the noirish lighting and plenty of shadows for Fred Johanson’s Lurch-like butler to lurk in. At first, you feel short-changed — rather too aware of English National Opera’s financial problems — but in time, what starts as a concert in costume slowly begins to exert itself.
The bare-stage simplicity lets your imagination do the work and leaves all the ambiguity intact. Without a grand gothic mansion imposing itself, it can be both sweet and sour, macabre and romantic. Close’s Norma is both endearing and deranged; Xavier’s Joe, cowardly, exploitative and kind. Played this simply, the story starts to shimmer.
It’s Lloyd Webber’s score that really benefits, sumptuously arranged for a full orchestra and sung with real expression throughout. You hear the thinking behind his compositions: the silkiness set against shrillness; sincere strings that knock into suave saxophones. He evokes sweeping silent movie scores and lets characters pick up one another’s themes. Freed of the need to cohere onstage, with a nimble staging to match the darts of Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s book, you get to hear “Sunset Boulevard” for what it is — not for what usually gets in its way.