DIVA TALK: A History of Great Ladies in Sunset

DIVA TALK: A History of Great Ladies in Sunset It's a black-letter day for theatre fans in two countries, as news was announced that Sunset Boulevard will close in both London and New York in the next few months.

It's a black-letter day for theatre fans in two countries, as news was announced that Sunset Boulevard will close in both London and New York in the next few months.

The first closing will occur in the Big Apple on March 22, when Elaine Paige will don her turban for the last time as Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical. Only a few weeks later, on April 5, Petula Clark will make her last journey down the grand staircase of 10086 Sunset Boulevard. About the London closing, Really Useful Theatre Company's Managing Director, James Thane, said, "The public expect a certain stature of artist in this role and to continue beyond Petula's contract would risk compromising an extraordinary series of bravura performances."

With this announcement I thought it would be a great time to look back at the wonderful ladies who have portrayed both the physically and emotionally demanding role of Norma Desmond in the past few years. Sunset Boulevard, which is based on Billy Wilder's famed movie starring Gloria Swanson and William Holden, took its first baby steps toward the stage at Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sydmonton Estate in 1991.

A half-hour version with lyrics by Amy Powers starred Ria Jones as Norma, Michael Ball as Joe, Frances Ruffelle as Betty and Kevin Colson as Max. At this time only a few songs were written, although Norma's two big numbers, "Just One Look" (which later became "With One Look") and "As If We Never Said Goodbye" were included, with major lyric alterations to come. Powers was eventually let go from her lyricist duties, and Webber later commented, "She was not untalented, but young and a little overawed by the whole thing."

Two veteran theatre artists were brought into the mix as co-lyricist/book writers, Christopher (Les Liaison Dangereuses) Hampton and Don (Tell Me On a Sunday) Black. Together the three (Webber, Black and Hampton) reworked the material and staged another workshop at Sydmonton. For this workshop, held in September 1992, Patti LuPone and Kevin Anderson were invited to portray the lead roles of Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis, although neither was assured the lead in the world premiere production in London that was to follow. In the audience that night were theatre producers, critics, and other actors and actresses, including Meryl Streep who was also up for the role of Norma. Supposedly, after LuPone entranced the audience with "With One Look" 20 minutes into the workshop, Webber knew that he was going to cast his Broadway Evita in the role.

The London opening, with Trevor Nunn directing, was set for June 29, 1993, at the Adelphi Theatre (home for eight years to Me and My Girl). John Napier was hired to design the stunning sets, namely Norma Desmond's rising mansion, where the bulk of the musical would take place, and Anthony Powell would design the costumes. In May 1993 the London cast assembled for the first time, just after an announcement was made that Glenn Close would open the American premiere production in Los Angeles six months after the London opening.

Before onstage rehearsals began, it was discovered that cellular telephones created signals that would move the scenery onstage at any given time. Correcting this problem delayed the official opening (originally set for June 29) until July 12. Technical problems continued to plague the production, even on the night of the show's dress rehearsal when many props had to be carried onstage manually.

However, opening night in London did finally arrive, and London critics, though mixed about the show, were mostly unanimous about their praise for London's Norma D, Patti LuPone. Some of LuPone's London reviews included:

€Sheridan Morley, Spectator: "What LuPone gives us is the traditional ruined diva, halfway from Callas to Garland and at her best in the final mad scene..."

€Maureen Paton, Daily Express: "The petite, indomitable LuPone has all the frightening, restless voraciousness of Gloria Swanson in the movie version. She is every tiny inch a superstar. . . "

€Jack Tinker, Daily Mail: "All this said, the show resurrects itself to heights of genuine triumph, not least when Miss Patti LuPone is flinging out Norma's deepest delusions. . .Give her a song to belt out--such as "With One Look" or "As If We Never Said Goodbye"--and she shows us exactly the quality it takes for a star to be born."

€Michael Billington in The Guardian: "With [LuPone's] svelte gold and silver turbans, her prehensile talons and her ability to slither down her baroque staircase like a voracious pantheress, she is a remarkable sight. She sings with a naked emotional directness that seems to be bred into the Broadway bone. Her final batty parody of Salome's dance to the cameras is a consummate piece of acting."

€Charles Spencer in Daily Telegraph: "And as the ageing actress, Patti LuPone has the right raddled glamour and drop-dead insolence as she delivers such immortal lines as "I am big--it's the pictures that got small."

€Malcom Rutherford in Financial Times: "In Patti LuPone, there is also a star. Ms LuPone played Evita on Broadway in what has always seemed to me Lloyd Webber's best work. As the faded movie idol, she is no less glittering now. It must be deliberate: the show does not effectively get under way until she appears, which is 20 minutes in the first act. Then Sunset Boulevard takes off."

It was a few New York critics, who flew over to catch the London premiere of the show, who asserted that LuPone was miscast. At that time Frank Rich was chief theatre critic forThe New York Times--and probably held the most weight of any theatre critic then or since--and called LuPone "unmoving and miscast." This was the first sign that LuPone might not re-create her role on Broadway, even though it was part of her London contract.

Because the London production had received mixed reviews, many changes were made in the show before the Los Angeles production opened starring Glenn Close, Alan Campbell (Joe), George Hearn (Max) and Judy Kuhn (Betty). Scenes were tightened, a new song--"Every Movie's A Circus"--was given to the chorus, and additional musical underscoring was added to many scenes. The L.A. production opened to favorable reviews, and its Norma, despite a limited vocal range, received unanimous praise.

After months of speculation and a plethora of items in the gossip columns, it was finally announced that Glenn Close would indeed open the Broadway production, and New York audiences were denied the chance to witness LuPone's highly moving portrayal. It was then decided that the London production would be shut down for a few weeks when LuPone's London contract ended, to incorporate the changes that had been made in Los Angeles to the London show. Betty Buckley, who had won a Tony Award for her performance as Grizabella, in another Lloyd Webber hit, Cats, was hired to reopen the London production with John Barrowman as her Joe Gillis. Buckley and the new production received mostly raves from the critics:

€ Louise Doughty Mail on Sunday: "...But the night belonged to Betty Buckley, rivetingly pitiful as Norma Desmond. . .Her big number, "With One Look," is delivered with a razor edge that hints that underneath her make up Norma's self-delusion is pretty fragile."

€ Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard: "Miss Betty Buckley strode into town last night, brandishing her million dollar voice, and gave Andrew Lloyd Webber's romantic Hollywood melodrama the kiss of life. . .I cannot remember a single performer so transforming and making a show."

€ Roger Foss in What's On: "Betty Buckley makes Norma Desmond an entirely believable femme fatale. It's a hell of part and with her unique quavering voice she makes it her own. At first she spits out her venom of a raddled Bette Davis. But as the twisted Beauty and the Beast affair with Gillis develops, this strange rejected figure, draped in a glittering array of gowns, becomes far more sympathetic by the minute."

On May 5, 1994, it was revealed that Oscar winner Faye Dunaway, who had never before appeared in a musical, would replace Glenn Close in the L.A. production after Close left the show on June 26. However, Dunaway as Desmond was never to be. During Dunaway's rehearsals, Andrew Lloyd Webber announced that he was going to close the L.A. show before she began previews because he felt her singing had not reached an acceptable level. Dunaway threatened to sue, and like Patti LuPone, a settlement was reached with Dunaway out-of-court.

The Broadway opening of Sunset Boulevard came next on November 17, 1994, and its leading lady received raves from the critics. Jeremy Gerard in Variety, wrote that "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." It was not long after Close's Broadway opening that the next Sunset snafu occurred. Betty Buckley suffered a severe case of appendicitis and was forced to withdraw from the London production for a few months to recuperate. Who would take over the lead in the show during this time?. . . Enter Elaine Paige, who had played the leads in two other Webber shows, Evita and Cats. Paige, who Webber was skeptical about in this very American role, turned out to be an extraordinary Norma Desmond, combining her outstanding vocalisms with an eerily Gloria Swanson-like performance. For true Sunset fans, it's interesting to note that Paige was the first actress to hold the word "home" in the "I've come home at last" section of "As If We Never Said Goodbye," which sent the song soaring. This addition to the song has been used by many other Normas to date.

Buckley did return to the London production and was then named as Glenn Close's successor in New York (and Paige would replace Buckley again in London). One of the oddest bits of Sunset trivia concerns the events that took place when Glenn Close took her first vacation from the show and Karen Mason, Close's understudy, portrayed Norma. Box-office figures were inflated, and Close had a tantrum over the fact that one of Webber's employees tried to make it seem that Close's week-long departure from the show had no effect on the box office. Close even penned and faxed a letter to Lloyd Webber, which wound up on the front page of a New York daily. Close later apologized for her outburst and her remarks about Mason and all was back to normal at the Minskoff.

When it was announced that Buckley would replace Close, speculation began as to whether Buckley had the box-office power to keep the show running. Buckley proved that she not only had a big box-office draw, but wildly enthusiastic fans as well. It had been seven years since this musical powerhouse was last on Broadway (in the ill-fated musical Carrie), and Buckley fans could not have been more excited for her arrival. In fact, her first preview and her opening night were legendary experiences. Buckley even admitted after the first preview that "I'm so grateful, I can't tell you. . .It was the most incredible night I've ever experienced in the theater. . .I've never, ever been bathed in so much love."

And as far as critics and the box office were concerned, there was no reason to worry: Buckley brought her more human version of Norma to Broadway, received hosannahs from both critics and audiences and kept the show playing to brisk business. In fact, critics fell in love with her interpretation:

€Clive Barnes in The New York Post: "Yes, yes, of course, yes! She puts on the turban, walks down the staircase, murmuring distractedly of a dead pet chimp--and she has Broadway flattened adoringly at her disdainful feet. Betty Buckley's debut last night on Broadway...will make her a superstar here..."

€Howard Kissel in Daily News: "Buckley, by contrast, brings a poignance to the role. There is occasionally even a sense of humor in her eyes that undercuts the notion of camp diva."

€David Patrick Stearns in USA Today: "Buckley has created the most fascinating Norma so far, a creature for whom fame was an addictive drug that stunted her emotional and artistic growth. . .Buckley is convincingly girlish, tender and someone who calls your protective instincts so sincerely you can't imagine why the young screenwriter she loves is so hesitant."

€John Simon in New York Magazine: "[Buckley] appears to have rewritten, recast, redirected the entire show. Unlike previous Normas, she abounds in childlikeness, girlishness, womanliness, and age-old humanity‹the whole spectrum. Whereas other Normas made me laugh and shudder, this one also made me smile and cry. Moreover, she brings attractiveness and sexiness to the role"

Before Buckley finished her acclaimed run in New York, it was announced that Elaine Paige would succeed her in the role in New York, just as she had done in London. However, this would be Paige's Broadway debut, 20 years after her London stage debut as Eva Peron. Her New York debut was one that many American Paige fans had been waiting years for, and they were not disappointed. Even the New York critics were impressed:

€Howard Kissel in Daily News: "When an old-timer operating a spotlight recognizes her and focuses it on her, Paige does not preen. She indicates, if only briefly, that she regards it as her enemy. She locks eyes with her antagonist and rises to the occasion defiantly. . .A powerhouse singer. Her voice has great range, remarkable clarity and enormous emotional force."

€Aileen Jacobson in Newsday: "Paige commands the stage whenever she sings the anthems that Andrew Lloyd Webber composed. . .Her "With One Look" and "As If We Never Said Goodbye" electrify the theater."

€Ben Brantley in The New York Times: "And Ms. Paige milks ["As If We Never Said Goodbye"] with a voice and a desperation-edged star presence that are large enough to fill Times Square and at least temporarily erase memories of Normas past."

€Clive Barnes in New York Post: "Paige has probably the most remarkable voice in the popular musical theater today. It is pure, expressive, powerful and beautifully phrased. . .And her acting is even more florid, more archly grotesque, than her predecessors."

When Paige left the London production, Petula Clark took over for her there. Since then, a Toronto production (which now is playing in Vancouver) opened with Diahann Carroll in the lead, a German production continues with Helen Schneider as Norma, an Australian production boasts Deborah Byrne (who played Fantine in the Australian Les Miz) as Norma and the road tour features Linda Balgord as the faded silent screen star. Rita Moreno even got a turn as Norma, when Petula Clark took a vacation from the role a few months back.

It's been an extraordinary few years for diva fans, who have been able to see some of the greatest performers in musical theatre history tackle the challenging role of Norma Desmond. I was lucky enough to catch five Norma Desmonds (in chronological order: Patti LuPone, Glenn Close, Elaine Paige, Betty Buckley, Karen Mason) in the past few years and even follow one (Betty Buckley) backstage through a performance of the show.

As far as who is best, all I can say is that each lady has brought something wonderful to the role, and I have been moved by each performance. Whether it's Patti LuPone's slow descent into madness and her high and thrilling belting, Betty Buckley's amazing vocalisms and extremely moving portrayal of Norma, or Elaine Paige's roof-raising "As If We Never Said Goodbye" and humorous line readings, Sunset Boulevard has been a wonderful road to travel upon. Perhaps Betty Buckley put it best, when she slightly altered the lyric in "As If" for her final Broadway performance: "You can't know how I'll miss you."

That's all for now. Happy diva-watching!

-- By Andrew Gans
e-mail me at andrew_gans@playbill.com