Gloria Swanson, who was born March 27, 1899, only appeared on Broadway five times, but her shadow is a long one on the Great White Way.
The legendary silent film star—who basically disappeared from films after her heyday ended in the early 1930s—returned to the silver screen in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard as a legendary silent film star who basically disappeared from view after her heyday. But Swanson was no Norma Desmond, preening alone in a shadowy mansion in Los Angeles. She was a businesswoman, entrepreneur, and adventurer who tackled each new phase of her life with gusto.
And in addition to helping turn Sunset Boulevard into the kind of unforgettable film that cries out to be brought to the stage (Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical adaptation eventually won Glenn Close a Tony Award for her performance as Norma), Swanson also inadvertently helped in the creation of another musical masterpiece.
Flipping through an issue of Life Magazine from 1960, director Hal Prince came across an Eliot Elisofon photo of Swanson in the ruins of the razed Roxy movie theatre in Times Square. Her film The Love of Sunya had opened the massive movie house in 1927, and she was there at its final moment of immortality, standing defiant in a feather boa amid the rubble.
That image prompted the creation of Follies, the Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical about chorus girls returning for one last reunion at their old theatre before it’s torn down, confronting the ghosts of their former selves and their broken dreams. As Sondheim once put it, “Hal said that's what this show had to be about—rubble in the daylight.''
Scroll through photos of Swanson’s final appearance on Broadway, as part of the replacement cast of Butterflies Are Free.