Billy Wilder who co-wrote and directed the original film version of Sunset Boulevard said it best: “You can’t write a musical about Sunset Boulevard,” he insisted, “it has to be an opera. After all, it’s about a dethroned queen.” It was the early 60′s and Wilder was talking to – of all people – Stephen Sondheim who had just outlined his own version of a musical based on the classic story of a faded Hollywood legend. After talking with Wilder, Sondheim dropped the idea. He may have also sensed the intense possessiveness that Hollywood had for this picture. After decades of the film industry stealing creative ideas and talent from Broadway, the idea that Broadway (and London’s West End) would eventually scour old movies for new ideas was anathema. But the trend began nevertheless. Today, for better or worse, most Broadway musicals are now based on former films. Sometimes even with their screen music intact, as with Lion King. The famous Disney composer, Alan Menken is right up there in the top pantheon of musical composers. Much of his work has transferred to Broadway brilliantly. And much of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music has made it to film. They really are two sides of the same coin.
Anrew Lloyd Webber was used to purloining old ideas for his musicals, as with Phantom of the Opera. So while Sunset Boulevard had a variety of writers and composers take a whack at it, he was successful in clearing all the hurdles, both creative and legal. But not without hitting some pretty big walls and writing some pretty big checks first. It’s been a long and rocky trek to finally get Sunset Boulevard to Cohoes, New York. And for Jim Charles, artistic director to sew up the rights to perform it is no small achievement. There’s been a lot of struggle before it got to be staged here.
As is recounted in Wikipedia, Patti LuPone had initially been promised the Broadway run, but it went to Glenn CLose and so LuPone sued Lloyd Webber and received a settlement reported to be $1 million; Faye Dunaway, set to replace Close in L.A., was let go because Lloyd Webber felt her singing voice was not up to the role. She also sued Lloyd Webber. Frank Rich, in his book The Hot Seat, noted that these lawsuits contributed to Sunset Boulevard setting the record for the most money lost by a theatrical endeavor in the history of the United States. According to The New York Times, operating costs soared far beyond the budget, and the “Broadway production has earned back, at best, 80 percent of the initial $13 million”. The road companies also generated large financial losses. Rich puts the figure near $20 million, calling the show a “flop-hit,” as it ran more than two years and sold over a million tickets on Broadway.
It has taken almost two decades for Sunset Boulevard to make its way to America’s regional theatres after opening in London in 1993 and New York in 1994. International productions and various road companies set out in 1995 and 1996 and while there were sporadic revivals it pretty much fell from sight. Finally, two years ago, it was decided to finally let the regional theatres have a go at it. The lawsuits have been settled, and the work was mostly gathering dust.In the pantheon of ALW musicals, Sunset Boulevard is a curiosity for a number of reasons, as the production in Cohoes amply demonstrates. It has no real dance numbers though other companies have found ways to provide some dance action in the backlot and nightclub scenes.
As with most musicals today, it is not a musical comedy, but more of a musical melodrama as Jim Charles has directed it. Still the music is some of the most demanding for actors in terms of its range and intensity. When choosing performers for the musical stage, unless you are very lucky, you have to opt for strong singers and adequate actors, or the reverse, great actors who can sing adequately.
The singing is superb, even spectacular at times. However, the acting suffered from a lack of depth. Not for a lack of trying, but for the paucity of a really good dramatic script. There are more cliches than insights, and it would take a truly gifted actor to deliver a lot of the lines convincingly. This Sunset Boulevard opted for a broad interpretation rather than a more subtle, tension filled encounter with a fading and flakey movie star on the verge of a nervous breakdown and a lover who is transparently opportunistic.
So the book of the show is still its weakest link, though others would argue the recycled music was too repetitious. Several of his tunes are borrowed from his 1986 mini musical Cricket which was written with Tim Rice. His first lyricist was Amy Powers, a lawyer from New York with no professional song writing experience. Perhaps he was looking out for the coming lawsuits and preparing the best defense possible.
After many hands had shaped the raw clay, the show we see in Cohoes is close to the final version with book and lyrics by Don Black and Chistopher Hampton, and music by ALW. Only recently available to regional companies, C-R Productions at Cohoes is the first to mount a production in this area.
Among the huge demands this show makes is a lavish set to replicate the grandiose yet gloomy home of Norma Desmond, and then to be able to travel to the studio back lot, offices and nightclubs. The magnificent set is the work of Jen Price Fick, Christina Williams and Kristin J. Kreho (and likely others who go unsung). The attention to detail is impressive, and when the magic of the lighting by Matthew J. Fick is turned on, it is clear that the technical details are in great hands.As Norma Desmond, Catherine Fries Vaughn knows the Hollywood scene first hand, coming from a theatrical family with lots of film connections. She carries off the role with a regal bearing befitting a film queen, and wears the gorgeous costumes created by Jimm Halliday (the most spectacular yet!) as if born to them. Though someone might reconsider the hemline – Vaughn almost tripped on the grand stairway which must be a challenge to negotiate in any case.
As Norma, Ms. Vaughn is given the signature song “With One Look,” the leitmotiv of the show, to sing and with it establishes her right as a great star. Her other character-advancing song is “As If We Never Said Goodbye” which signals her arrival at the Paramount Studios lot. Of course, Desmond is not alone, having retained the destitute and out of work writer Joe Gilles as her live-in writer and, eventually, lover.
As Joe, Michael Turay is the worker bee of the production, holding the key to the relationships, and providing the glue that holds the plot toether. He gets a brief solo at the beginning of each act, as well as duets with his girlfriend Betty Schaefer (Christina King) but,as written, his character is one that gets the buffeting throughout the musical, there really is no place for him to strut his stuff, it’s all about Norma.
Happily the character Betty does have a chance to shine, in the song “Too Much in Love to Care,” and “Girl Meets Boy” and the audience responds to her lovely voice with enthusiasm. Christina King is clearly headed upward in the theatre world. As Cecil B. DeMille, John Noble is the pivot upon which the entire plot spins, which is the embarrassing question of whether Norma Desmond will ever act in film again. He meets with Norma, sings a few lines and soon is gone on to other things.In addition to Norma Desmond, the other character with real staying power is Max, the butler, who protects the actress from intrusion, and from reality. Max sings the most heartbreaking song in the show “Greatest Star of All,” revealing his deep felt devotion to her, and in time Joe figures out who he really is. (No spoiler here.) As Max, the ubiquitous Jerry Christakos invents another delightful role, and delivers what has to be a bass solo that ends with impossible tenor notes. That his singing is carried off with such apparent ease makes it twice as impressive. Some think the “Greatest Star of All” should be renamed the “Greatest Range of All”. Of all the music in Sunset Boulevard, this is the most operatic.
Supporting the whole production and adding color to everything on stage is a wonderful assembly of local musicians who comprise the largest pit band in recent memory, led by Joshua Zecher-Ross. It boasted a rich and warm string section, without which the music would not be half as touching. At the matinee I attended, either the brass was having an off day or a substitute who did not know the score was called in, the blotched notes and slightly off-key trumpet was a jarring note to the overall balance of the band. I did not hear the usual pre-tuning A to be sure all was in order before beginning. Perhaps in the world of synthesizer dominance, being sure everyone is in tune is not common practice among young musicians.
At the performance I attended there was a rough spot at the end of the first act. It is after Norma attempts suicide by cutting her wrists, when Joe rushes back from a New Year’s Eve party to see her. The scene was replete with Norma’s sobs, Joe’s feeble attempts to reassure her, more sobs, more words, more sobs, well, you get the idea. Enough with the bathos already. Here I think the acting could have been more physical, more visceral, subtler and more dramatic. Sometimes people cry silently, but their bodies quake. Or after being so distraught so as to cut themselves, perhaps they will hyperventilate. Trying to offer comfort and the right words to such a person in distress calls for the actors to really feed off of each other.
Especially memorable is the final scene of the second act which is played with near perfect precision. Norma Desmond’s glittering entrance in her Hollywood suit of lights as Max sings “New Ways to Dream,” and the police wait to arrest her is nothing short of dazzling. Catherine Fries Vaughn’s delivery of the most famous line in all of movie-making hits you right in the heart. The scene itself is the sum of all the hard work that went into replicating this fascinating portrayal of Tinsel Town where everything is nothing more than an illusion.
Cohoes Music Hall presents Sunset Blvd. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Book and Lyrics by Don Black & Christopher Hampton, Based on the Billy Wilder film, Directed by Jim Charles. Managing Director – Tony Rivera, Production Manager – Cathy Black, Production Stage Manager – Thomas J. Coppola, Technical Director – Jeff West, Scenic Designer – Jen Price Fick, Costume Designer – Jimm Halliday, Costume Shop Manager – Kate DeShazo, Wig Designer – Michael Dunn, Master Electrician – Christopher Staebell, Master Carpenter – Matthew Borysewicz. Running Time about 2 Hours 35 Minutes with one 15 minute intermission. At Cohoes Music Hall April 5-15, 2012, 58 Remsen Street, Cohoes, New York. www.cohoesmusichall.com