What better way is there to celebrate the 67th birthday of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber than to explore two recordings of one of his most hypnotic and intriguing musicals: Sunset Boulevard? The original London production starred the mighty Patti LuPone as draconian silent film star Norma Desmond, who crawled like a prehistoric spider down her grand staircase to reclaim the spotlight, ready for her "close-up." When the production blew across the Atlantic Ocean, so did a lot of controversy, as LuPone was dropped in lieu of the Hollywood "name" Glenn Close. A parade of "Normas" then marched through the London and Broadway productions to the tune of Betty Buckley, Elaine Paige and Rita Moreno. Diahann Carroll donned the iconic turban with great acclaim for the Toronto production.
There is something about this compelling character, the gravitas of the Billy Wilder film starring Gloria Swanson and William Holden on which it is based, and the heightened drama of Webber's music that enticed many a Broadway diva to clamor for an opportunity to embody "Ms. Desmond."
The idea of creating a musical out of Billy Wilder's award-winning film "Sunset Boulevard" had been bandied about for years before Andrew Lloyd Webber finally brought the idea to fruition with the aide of Don Black and Christopher Hampton (providing book and lyrics). The story of an aging silent film star, who beguiles and then intimidates a down-on-his luck screenwriter to write her a comeback for the "talkies" is rife with theatrical possibility.
In fact, Stephen Sondheim, who shares his birthday with Mr. Webber, had his eye on adapting "Sunset Boulevard" for the musical stage in the early 60s. It is not hard to see why. The themes of performers reliving their glory days, the tangible fears of aging, and the urgency of establishing one's legacy are present in many of Sondheim's works, particularly Follies. It is interesting to muse over what a Sondheim Sunset Boulevard would have looked like. Others have speculated over what an adaptation with Webber's music married to Sondheim lyrics could have been. In the end, however, we have the Sunset Boulevard that was given to us in the West End in 1993 and that then came to Broadway in 1994. For many, the musical is perfect just the way it is. A variety of partial and full recordings of Sunset Boulevard have been made, many of which are beloved for their own reasons (such as Betty Buckley's glorious, four-track recording "New Ways to Dream: Songs from Sunset Boulevard"). For our purposes, we will examine the musical's inceptions on both sides of the ocean, comparing and contrasting the original London cast recording (featuring LuPone), and the original Los Angeles cast recording (which would mostly feature performers who would end up on Broadway, minus a then-with-child Judy Kuhn, who was replaced by Alice Ripley in New York for the supporting role of Betty Schaefer). The London recording is composed of 29 tracks, while the L.A. documentation ups the ante slightly with 32. Both recordings feature elaborate liner-notes in the form of mini booklets that include lyrics and production photos. The differences between these recordings have less to do with content or length than with the capabilities and very different interpretations of two compelling diva performers. In both cases, the majesty and grandeur of Webber's music is the catalyst for these diverse renditions.
The original London cast recording was released in 1993 by Polydor Records, and it genuinely captures the musical for all of its inherent theatricality and its dark, psychotic undertones. As Patti LuPone was an obvious choice for the role of the over-the-top Norma Desmond, it should come as no surprise that she is boldly severe and magnetically maniacal on this recording. Her Norma isn't just dreaming of her cinematic comeback, she is demanding it. Though the fragile "With One Look" softens her a little and helps us see how important her dream is, she shows her true colors in "As If We Never Said Goodbye," when she commands the lyric "And this time will be bigger and brighter than we knew it!" She believes that she has been summoned back to the studio for her big return, and quickly dials up her diva personae. LuPone sings it with a fierce sense of entitlement, and we become frightened of what might happen if she doesn't get her way.
As the unemployed screenwriter Joe Gillis, Kevin Anderson is every bit the perfect stand-in for William Holden, who brought an edgy, on the verge of snapping tone to the film role. He is not as overloaded with machismo as Holden, but when he sings the musical's title song, Anderson rages with the fear of the caged animal that Joe Gillis has become. It's a vocally attractive sound, bursting here and there with musical thrusts of a man poised to escape, but then pulling back into a frustrated resolve.
Individually, LuPone and Anderson are perfection and when they come together for duets like "Salome" and "The Perfect Year," their singing is (as always) more-than-capable, but their chemistry on the recording is disjointed. It is hard to hear how these two characters are drawn to each other, or at least understand how they are tied together by fate. Anderson pairs much more connectedly when singing with Meredith Braun as screenwriter Betty Schaefer, particularly in the conflicted "Too Much Love to Care." Their romantic attraction is palpable, but also conveyed smartly as tentative. As former film director, and Norma's first husband and current butler Max von Myerling, Daniel Benzali creaks and moans in a manner appropriate to his mysterious character, bringing a spooky gravitas to numbers such as "Greatest Star of All" and a reprise of "New Ways to Dream."
By the time Sunset Boulevard made its way to the United States, certain changes had been made in the production for L.A. and eventually interpolated in London when Betty Buckley took over for LuPone. These changes are found on the L.A. recording by Decca Records and carried on to the New York production. The most obvious was the addition of the song "Every Movie's a Circus" for Betty and Joe, better establishing both his financial/career predicaments, and setting her up as his confidant and possible love interest. The song isn't all that exciting, but it efficiently accomplishes a lot of expository and character development business in a short period of time, something the original London production had been lacking. The song cleared up some important points, making it a wise addition.
There are few things in this world that are lovelier than Judy Kuhn's voice, and her rich and heavenly tones combined with her tense vibrato instill Betty Schaefer with a musical urgency that makes one believe she, too, is somehow a puppet of fate in this tragedy. George Hearn lends his ghostly baritone to the character of Max, and being a consummate musical theatre actor who can bend his vocal timbre to evoke character, he is a welcome addition to this recording. Musically, he is the better Max, and he implies a much more knowing subtext to the piece that isn't there in the London inception. His Max is a driving force behind Norma's delusions, his own obsessions and secrets leaked to us in this riveting, tempered performance.
Of course, the real question is how Glenn Close's Norma compares to Patti LuPone's Norma. One of the best things about great works of musical theatre is that they lend themselves to diverse interpretations. Mama Rose in Gypsy is one example of how clever words and colorful characters on paper can be twisted and pulled in many different directions, dependent upon a talented performer to breathe a unique life into them. There is no denying that Glenn Close is one such talented performer and that, from an acting standpoint, she found her own Norma Desmond. Close's Norma is more nuanced. Though she can sting like a viper, her Norma bites out of fragility, insecurity and a descent into madness. Listening to her on this recording, it becomes very clear that she intends people to be manipulated by her well-acted, carefully planned breakdowns and emotional outbursts. Where Lupone let the madness "fly," Close vocally projects a Norma who is teetering on the brink.
What makes this recording less appealing than the original is that Close, despite summoning a fascinating and intricate characterization apparent in the recitative and spoken moments, is not as comfortable with the vocals as LuPone. Dramatic (and sometimes climactic) moments in the show are undercut by strained high notes. In some ways, this works with her characterization, and it certainly doesn't ruin the recording. However, if you are looking for a cleaner, stronger vocal performance, this recording is less likely to appeal to you.
It's been a long time since I last listened to either recording of Sunset Boulevard, and comparing and contrasting helped remind me that, Andrew Lloyd Webber weaves together resplendent melodies and deeply felt emotions with larger-than-life characters in a way that few other musical theatre composers have achieved or dared. Sunset Boulevard, through both of these recordings, invites us to celebrate his audacity and talent. On the eve of his 67th birthday, let us lift a glass to his artistry and longevity.
(Mark Robinson in a theatre, television, and film historian who writes the blog "The Music That Makes Me Dance" found at markrobinsonwrites.com. Mark is the author of three books: The Disney Song Encyclopedia, The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs and the two-volume The World of Musicals.)