THE NEWEST STAR OF ALL
Yes, one more Norma Desmond has joined the alumnae of distinguished divas assaying the role in Sunset Boulevard when composer Andrew Lloyd Webber announced in January that Linda Balgord would head the national tour of the mega-musical, which begins in Denver at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts on June 28, 1996.
The announcement took much of the theatre community by surprise insofar as few had ever heard of Linda Balgord, but Lloyd Webber was quick to establish her credentials. "[She] has been known to me since her outstanding portrayal of Rose in the national tour of Aspects of Love," he stated in the press release. "I'm thrilled that audiences across America will discover, as I have, a true star in-the-making."
Given the tempestuous offstage drama that has accompanied the casting of Norma, one would think that Balgord might be intimidated to take on a role heretofore played only by bonafide stars. "Obviously, I'm aware of the backstage drama, and any intelligent person would think, 'Boy, I'm stepping into the heavyweight prize-fighting ring,' " she said. "But I wouldn't say I'm intimidated. The ladies who have played Norma are incredible company to be in. But it's not productive to spend time thinking about it."
Balgord actually had first auditioned in September of 1993 after finishing a two-year run on the road with Aspects of Love. Lloyd Webber, who was then looking for a standby for Glenn Close in the L.A. production, was so impressed with her audition of Norma's two big songs, he flew her to London to perform at a benefit gala. There, he announced that she would soon be playing Norma "somewhere in the world," as Balgord recalls. But nothing developed; still, she never lost hope that she would one day play the role, and she got another chance when her agent called in December of last year to say, "It looks like you're going to get another crack. They're considering not using a star."
Two days after her audition, she finally snagged one of the juiciest parts in B'way musical history, which she has contracted to play for at least a year. Having seen Patti LuPone and Betty Buckley in the role, she avers from offering how her interpretation might differ from theirs. "It's really apples and oranges," says the Wisconsin-born actress who spent three years in Chicago theatre before moving to New York. "I was very moved by Patti's performance, but as far as imitating her or Betty Buckley, I'd say no. I have very definite ideas about who this woman is, although it's still early in the game for me."
These opinions include the conviction that while Norma may be insulated from how her place in the world has been changed, she is not crazy until she shoots Joe Gillis, the screenwriter whose life becomes tragically enmeshed with hers. "She's incredibly eccentric," says Balgord. "But she's admirable and passionate, too. She was a great pioneer who taught the world 'new ways to dream,' but her life is frozen in that moment of glory. I've known people like that. . . who are very attached in a point in their personal history."
Noting that she is in her "thirties," Balgord responds that playing a 50-year-old is "not an issue." "The key to this woman is her desperation and loneliness," she says. "When you see her finally come home to Paramount, it's so touching that I think, 'Oh my God, when it's me up there, how am I ever going to control myself?' "
-- By Patrick Pacheco