Andrew Lloyd Webber shows are like Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. If they're properly hyped and merchandised, reviews are beside the point.
If, for example, you were to look at "Sunset Boulevard" as a musical, you might be disappointed. I hope I can avoid such narrowmindedness.
"Sunset Boulevard," which opened last night at The Minskoff, is a retelling of "Beauty and the Beast." The beast is Norma Desmond, an aging movie star who lives in a fantasy world she and Paramount's publicists created for her. The beauty who stumbles into her lair is a handsome young screenwriter whose kiss briefly rejuvenates her. When he threatens to leave she reverts to beast status and kills him.
Judging the show by conventional standards, you might wonder why a story Billy Wilder told with sardonic wit is here narrated in a style that is verbally obtuse and musically syrupy.
You might find it annoying that much of the music is recitative, repetitive singsong that distorts the turgid, largely informational lyrics. You might sneer at the effort to give the work the aura of an opera. Sneer not. This patina of pretension helps explain the show's appeal.
You might find the musical numbers themselves bloated. Even the ones you already know - "With One Look" and "As If We Never Said Goodbye" - attractive as they are on record, are static in the context of the show. They tell us things we already know. Long accused of borrowing from others, Webber is now imitating himself - a lot of the musical effects remind you of "Phantom."
As for the book by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, you might wonder what it adds to the dazzling screen play. The answer, of course, is nothing. Generally, it coarsens the material.
There is, for example, a number in which Norma brings a team of smarmy Beverly Hills haberdashers to dress her young lover. A long and vulgar leer, it takes five minutes to tell us what Wilder told us, literally, in a wink.
But all this is irrelevant; "Sunset Boulevard" is less a musical than it is an artifact, a product. You know this the moment it starts, with an overture so grandiosely orchestrated and amplified it sounds like movie music. This is certainly appropriate - in fact it's my favorite number - but it is symptomatic of the creators' tendency, when unable to translate the movie into theater, simply to use the huge stage as a screen, projecting film onto it.
Much of what transpires might as well be on film since the way it is directed and choreographed leaves little room for spontaneity. Almost everything seems calculated and mechanical.
Since she opened the show in L.A. last year, Glenn Close has become more mannered, more campy - but that, too, is part of the package. Norma Desmond, after all, is not a human being. She's a star, a sacred monster, and this Close conveys powerfully.
Her voice shows a year of wear. It has little support and a lot of breaks. But she husbands it carefully and sings the two big numbers with an actress' resourcefulness.
As her lover, Alan Campbell has little to do but sings beautifully. George Hearn is a suitably forbidding presence as Norma's chauffeur and caretaker.
But the performers are less important than the true star of the show, John Napier's set, Norma's living room, which has the grandeur of a Loew's movie palace lobby. The score may be static, but the way the set moves up and down is thrilling.
Salome, more Wilder than Wilde, dripping with jewels, feral and crazy-eyed, staggers down her ornate staircase, with a posse of cops and a coven of press looking on with every variation of appalled fascination and delight.
On the landing she pauses, pulls herself into a kind of poised pose, and says with some last plume of pride: "I'm ready for my close-up now, Mr. DeMille." And yes, Broadway, too, is ready!
Already picked as Broadway's musical-most-likely-to-succeed, stately, elaborate and, happiest of all, critic-proof, "Sunset Boulevard" rose last night at the Minskoff Theater, resplendent with its resident diva, Glenn Close.
And rest assured, the sun will not set on "Sunset" for many a season.
Its qualities are sometimes strange but always real, and while it may, for a time, become fashionable to bash the popular appeal of Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest musical brainchild, its glamour and its gloss will conquer all. Or, at least, enough for a hit.
This Broadway arrival - I must admit I had seen it coming, watching it first in London and later, with much this same Broadway cast, in Los Angeles - produced for me a number of heroes, including the redoubtable, very properly scene-champing champion, Miss Close.
But my first hero must be Billy Wilder, with certainly a heroic mention to Lloyd Webber himself for even thinking that Wilder's original, and now legendary, movie could ever be transmuted into a Broadway musical.
Wilder's extraordinary 1950 Hollywood baroque saga of a silent-screen siren, Norma Desmond, her reluctant boy-toy screenwriter, and her ill-fated attempt to stage a come-back as Salome in a film written by herself and her young lover, is one of the great movies.
Lloyd Webber and his book writers and lyricists, Don Black and Christopher Hampton, carefully handled the original script by Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr.
They have not merely retained such Gothic gems as the bizarre burial of Norma's pet chimp, but also captured much of the flavor and even kept some of the lines - it's still "the movies that got small," for example - of the screenplay.
Another hero is the director, Trevor Nunn. It is not easy to stage a musical that, for the most part, takes place on a cavernous set dominated by architecture, while using only two or three characters. It's like placing a string quartet in St. Peter's, Rome.
And, of course, there is more hero stuff from the designer, John Napier, whose settings, while necessarily and intentionally missing that dangerous seediness of the movie (this is a musical, after all), do grandeur on a big scale. A very fond word also for Anthony Powell's costumes - perfect in period and character both.
Then there are elegantly chosen performances - all excellent, all well-tuned. The whole show is better, darker and tighter, more dramatic, even more cinematic than it was at the London opening, and the cast, notably Close's Norma and George Hearn as her Von Stroheim-style butler/protector Max, have sunk more fully into their roles.
Close is not afraid to mug, camp, scream, do anything necessary to project the image of a Hollywood sacre monstre, but where necessary she underscores the characterization with a tenderness and subtlety that permits Norma to be a woman.
The William Holden role of Joe Gillis has, unfortunately, been lost in the transition - it depended on close-ups - offering shadows of complexity unavailable on the musical stage. Alan Campbell does his best, as does Alice Ripley (the one newcomer to the cast) as the nice girl in the unequal triangle.
But how about the music? This is, after all, a musical - or pop opera or whatever you want to call it - and I haven't yet mentioned the music, have I?
Well, you see (or hear), it's not really very mentionable. A surprising amount sounds like singsong recitative, a sort of patter-like accompaniment to the text, while the main-stem score, although lushly orchestrated by David Cullen and Lloyd Webber is a little like soaking in a warm bath. Not unpleasant, but not exactly memorable.
In fact, you'll likely go out humming Close, Hearn, Nunn, Napier, but if you're humming music, it will probably be rather mail-order Lloyd Webber, much like "Phantom," or Puccini or something or someone like that. It is nothing to be compared with Lloyd Webber's finest score, "Aspects of Love."
But music, shmusic! Who goes to a musical to hear music anymore. This is the 1990s, and we've gotten over all that. So take what's offered, go and enjoy. It's extravagant. It's spectactular. And it's expensive.
It's here and it's a stunner. If you have to ask what "it" is, you haven't been paying attention. It's "Sunset Boulevard," Andrew Lloyd Webber's grand, sometimes to the point of grandiose, musical reincarnation of Billy Wilder's comparatively spare, satiric 1950 melodrama about a titanic Hollywood legend. She's Norma Desmond, the epitome of camp, a forgotten but not gone silent-film star. As played and sung by Glenn Close, the Dracula-like Norma is now shaking the I-beams and testing the acoustics at the Minskoff Theater on Broadway in a manner to set precedents. Never has someone undead been so alluring, so entertaining and, finally, so crazily tragic.
Yet "Sunset Boulevard" is something more than a bizarre Broadway spectacle scored with some of Mr. Lloyd Webber's loveliest melodies and designed with an extravagance of mind more usually evident at a theme park. In adapting the classic film for the stage, the composer and his collaborators haven't only pumped up and inflated the Wilder work. They have also created something original.
"Sunset Boulevard" doesn't change the course of the musical theater. However, as a meditation on movies, and on the way that movies have altered our perceptions of ourselves, it explores territory touched only in passing (if touched at all) in earlier literature inspired by movies. I'm thinking of everything from F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Last Tycoon" and Nathanael West's "Day of the Locust" to Buster Keaton's "Sherlock, Jr.," the Gene-Kelly-Stanley-Donen "Singin' in the Rain" and, of course, the still monstrously funny Wilder film.
There's little in Mr. Lloyd Webber's musical that doesn't come directly from the film. Virtually everything in the Don Black and Christopher Hampton book and lyrics has its origins in the screenplay written by Mr. Wilder, Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshman Jr. Yet in its sardonically romantic music and lyrics this "Sunset Boulevard" makes palpable the curious gift bestowed by movies: the power to freeze time, to re-enter not a vaguely remembered past but a perfect replication of what once was. They blur the lines between past and present. Do we learn from them? Not Norma Desmond. Her old movies, which she watches nightly in her great, gilded Roxy Theater of a palazzo, are a mesmerizing mirror. Having passed through the mirror to the other side, her youth, beauty and fame remain as larger-than-life reflections to bewitch the aging Norma, who has become her own most lethal fan.
The scene is set in the first act when Ms. Close sings the haunting "With One Look (I Can Break Your Heart)," in which Norma evokes the particular (to us today, almost Kabuki) gestures of silent-film acting, which has become a dead language. The song is both a lament for what once was in the teens and 1920's and a reminder of what now is, at least for Norma in 1949, when the years have left her emotionally bereft, with no one to talk to.
This isn't a problem most of us face, but "Sunset Boulevard" turns it into a sly consideration of the cult-of-youth: the denial of time's passage that sends bank clerks and auto body mechanics, as well as society figures and movie stars, off for small nips and tucks, skin abrasions and perhaps a little liposuction. It may not be too much of a stretch to credit this obsession with attempts to deny that the political and economic world we inhabit is vastly different from -- not just older than -- that of our idealized past.
Norma is a volcanic character, and Ms. Close clearly appreciates it. She can belt in the lower registers and sing angelically in the upper ones. If she doesn't have the ease of range of Patti LuPone, who originated the role in the London production (and whose cast album is still the one to listen to), she has the effortless authority to dominate a huge production in a huge theater. Ms. Close also has the insinuating power to convince an audience that once she really was a great star. In the year since she opened in "Sunset Boulevard" in Los Angeles, she seems also to have come to look increasingly like Gloria Swanson, the former star of silents who played Norma in the film.
The sensational Swanson "return" performance in the film was helped, at least in part, by the fact that the audience (wrongly) identified her with the role she was playing. Ms. Close, with the immense help of the Lloyd Webber songs that define Norma, creates the character out of sheer talent.
The show's other remarkable performance is that of George Hearn as Max Von Mayerling, the butler and keeper of Norma's flame, the role Erich Von Stroheim played for Mr. Wilder. Mr. Hearn's fluid baritone, coupled with his Von Stroheim severity, nearly brings the show to a halt with two numbers: the elegiacal and mordant "Greatest Star of All," when he remembers, among other things, how a maharajah once hanged himself with Norma's stocking, and a reprise of "New Ways to Dream" (first sung by Norma), in which the birth of movies is equated with nothing less than the dawn of time. Modest Hollywood.
It's a measure of the wit of the show's best lyrics that even as they express Norma's enduring passion for herself and for movies in terms that are unexpectedly moving, they also stand at a slight remove to serve as a sarcastic commentary. In "Surrender," the show's most ruthlessly caustic number and one of its sweetest, Norma is at the makeshift bier of her beloved chimpanzee, seeing the chimp and herself as figures on a World War I battlefield. It's as if she were a doughboy dressed in gold lame drag. "Let them send their armies," she sings with loopy feeling. "I will never bend." That takes chutzpah, but it also expresses Norma's scary tenacity. Tenacity is all she has left.
Alan Campbell repeats the role he had in the Los Angeles production: Joe Gillis, the young, down-on-his-luck screenwriter who lands at Norma's Sunset Boulevard mansion trying to escape a pair of repo men who are after his car. First mistaken for an undertaker, Joe stays on. Norma hires him to polish her Proust-size script of "Salome," which she expects Cecil B. DeMille to direct. Soon Joe is her gigolo. Mr. Campbell's performance has grown considerably tougher since California, but he's no William Holden, who was the memorably panicked and opportunistic Joe in the film.
Mr. Campbell, a big, forceful singer, is partially undone by his blond preppy good looks, which are those of a musical-comedy juvenile, not of a character lead. The performance comes together when he's playing directly with Ms. Close, catering to Norma's whims, wrestling with his own conscience and, near the end of the first act, in a lilting number titled "The Perfect Year," when he is briefly carried away by Norma's adoration of him.
The show doesn't just seem to stop when Norma is offstage. It's a beached whale. It's as if everybody had lost their senses, including Trevor Nunn, the otherwise knowing, rational, wizardly director. The subplot, involving Joe and Betty Schaefer (Alice Ripley), the studio secretary he loves, is scored with relentlessly monotonous recitative and a third-rate song ("Too Much in Love to Care"), staged in a faux-naif style not seen on Broadway in possibly 40 years. Ms. Ripley also has a fine voice, but the air around her is dead.
Norma is never offstage for very long, and when she's on, the fur, with which Anthony Powell has expensively decked her, flies in all directions. Watch Norma as she tears up and down the baroque staircase that is the centerpiece of John Napier's gorgeous double-decker set. Or, as she sits in her gold mausoleum responding to herself playing Joan of Arc. Or, as she makes her (she thinks triumphant) return to the Paramount studio where DeMille (Alan Oppenheimer) is shooting "Samson and Delilah." Though "As if We Never Said Goodbye" is not the climax of the show, the number is its big, all-out, heartbreaking center. There shouldn't be a dry eye even in the lobby.
"Sunset Boulevard" is nothing if not eclectic: a Gothic tale distantly related to "The Castle of Otranto," a pop opera that recalls the prettiness of Puccini, a sound-and-light show topped by a mad scene that in its ferocity makes Lucia di Lammermoor's seem understated.
Mostly, though, "Sunset Boulevard" is about the way movies beguile their audiences, the people who make them and time itself.
"Sunset Boulevard" has finally opened in New York, and the town belongs, at least for a while, to Glenn Close. Those expecting a new "Phantom of the Opera" from that show's composer are likely to be satisfied, but Close is as much the draw as Andrew Lloyd Webber, and she doesn't disappoint in the Gloria Swanson role: Her Norma Desmond is a memorable display of the shattered hauteur of a fabled star whom time and technology have long since passed by.
Close has a fair, if colorless, contralto that goes tight or raspy outside a fairly restricted range. But she's temperamentally suited to the role -- more cracked than raging, more feral than frightened -- and she muscles her way through the vocal tight spots with admirable persuasiveness. That's a good thing, because her singing already is noticeably strained and she has difficulty with modulation and pitch.
While Trevor Nunn has tightened the show since Close opened in Los Angeles in December, it still seems frequently underdirected -- leaving actors at key moments with nothing to do -- while Bob Avian's tight dances now seem even more essential to the flow.
And while John Napier's outsize sets are as impressive as ever -- the centerpiece being the rococo riot of gilt and marble that comprise the living room and central stairway of Norma's mansion -- the effect finally grows wearying.
And then there's the musical itself. Lloyd Webber embellishes "Sunset" without improving it, steamrolling the Billy Wilder satire with a lowbrow sensibility that owes more to burlesque than to film noir.
Alan Campbell repeats from the L.A. cast as Joe Gillis, the luckless young screenwriter who stumbles into Norma's life and stays on as her (well) kept man. Campbell is, unfortunately, no match for Close: He's a sexless gigolo.
Like the movie, "Sunset" opens with a fish-eye view of Joe's lifeless body being pulled from Norma's pool, followed by the entrance of the anti-hero himself to narrate. Scene fluidly shifts to the Par lot (Par co-produced the show's London and L.A. stands, but opted out of Broadway), where Cecil B. DeMille ("Murphy Brown" semiregular and DeMille ringer Alan Oppenheimer) is helming "Samson and Delilah," the first of several excuses Lloyd Webber uses to trot out a bevy of beauties in spangles and pasties.
Unable to find work and on the run from goons who want to repossess his car, Joe briefly meets script reader Betty Schaefer (Alice Ripley, a vivacious replacement for Judy Kuhn), destined to become his love interest when it's too late.
Joe finds refuge in the rambling mansion inhabited by the reclusive actress and her strange Teutonic servant, Max von Mayerling (a stentorian George Hearn, creepily wonderful in the Erich von Stroheim role).
When Joe recognizes Norma ("You used to be big," etc.), she pounces, singing "With One Look." The song begins as a paean to the power of silent films, but Norma quickly goes over the deep end, the overwrought star demonstrating right from the get-go that she's nuts.
Joe stays on in pampered luxury to help Norma with the 9-pound screenplay --"Salome," no less -- she's convinced will provide her "return" (don't say comeback), and she soon grows not only mad, but mad about the boy. The boy, however, sneaks off at night to work with Betty on their own screenplay.
The first-act climax is set on New Year's Eve in the show's big theatrical coup: After tangoing with Norma, alone in that big living room but for a trio of musicians and Max, Joe leaves to join his struggling friends, and as he does, the whole enormous structure levitates and recedes -- lots of applause -- only to hover above the party scene in the considerably more austere digs of Betty's fiance, Artie (the likable Vincent Tumeo), as Norma prowls the gloomy expanse above, blackness overcoming her. It's a big moment that is, characteristically, more about stage machinery than people.
The show isn't without its moments, though Lloyd Webber can be counted upon to undermine them with sentiment and to pitch his music loudly regardless of the dramatic requirements.
Norma's poignant return to the studio, for example, sets up the haunting "As If We Never Said Goodbye," wherein she still imagines an audience in her thrall. It should be a quiet moment -- it is, after all, about the return of a deluded silent film star -- but the composer pumps up the volume to a deafening roar that almost kills the scene for Close.
Nevertheless, she's always campy fun, physicalizing Norma's emotional state as much with her arms and hands -- they fly skyward in her first embrace with Joe, curled fingers and blood-red nails stabbing the air, never to return -- as with her face, a spooky, Kabuki mask.
The mad scenes seem to have been toned down somewhat, but they're still too weird for words. And Anthony Powell has provided her with an eye-popping parade of ensembles, from gorgeous beaded sequined gowns to a daffy leopard skin number.
The Lloyd Webber-Don Black-Christopher Hampton score boasts several model musical-comedy songs, including "Eternal Youth is Worth a Little Suffering," wherein a femme cadre kneads, slaps and pounds Norma's 50-year-old body into shape in preparation for the return that is never to be.
But, of course, "Sunset Boulevard" isn't a musical comedy, no matter how much cheesecake, chitchat and glitter Lloyd Webber kneads, slaps and pounds into it.
He's converted a legendary piece of satire into a piece of sentimental kitsch that humiliates Norma Desmond but fails to redeem her with the purchase of an audience's pity.
For now, "Sunset Boulevard" is Glenn Close's show. Whether the audience will keep coming when it reverts to being Norma Desmond's show is anybody's guess.