As you probably know from the movie and if you don’t you should go watch it, Norma Desmond used to be the biggest star in Hollywood, the most important and greatest face in silent films, but then she stopped having a 1 in front of her age and everyone was like bye Felicia, you gross and old, like not just for this movie, like for the earth. So she did what most celebrities do when they lose their status but still have lots of money – she became a recluse in her enormous, gaudy mansh on Sunset Boulevard (get it, that’s the title, and it’s where she lives), with only her creepy AF manservant Max tending to her day and night. When young screenwriter Joe Gillis lands at the house trying to flee from old-timey gangstas (fedoras, suits, and all), Norma is ecstatic that this handsome man can a) help her with her behemoth script for her comeback film ‘Salome’ (though she spits on the word comeback, hates it!) and b) be her kept boy for all kinds of gross things. Let’s talk about Joe for a minute. Joe sucks. Joe wears terrible pants but thinks he’s hot shit. He’s apparently behind on bills, and that’s why the gangstas are after him and his car, but like, are they so wrong? Does he really owe them money? What kind of business did he get himself into? What kind of man flees from his responsibilities and shacks up with a strange (both meanings) lady just because it’s super comfortable and he likes fancy things and doesn’t care about dignity? Such a weak-willed diddadoof. You’re like, who’s supposed to care that he gets shot? Me? Oh you’re serious? No. Oh, not a spoiler p.s., even if you haven’t seen the movie it’s not, because before a word of the play is spoken there is a body floating (hanging from wires) in the pool (over the very coolly lit orchestra pit), dressed in the clothes Joe is wearing. So you’re like, oh cool at least it ends well.
Glenn is in such control that she actually makes you understand Norma. Instead of playing her at full-tilt psycho like she easily could be, she vacillates between batty and harmless to delusional to dangerous and psychotic and all things in between with expert restraint. You easily see the changes that Joe’s company brings to her and in turn the changes she undergoes when threatened with his departure, so that at the end, when she is lost in her delusions (with her famous “I’m ready for my close-up” line) you are there with her, accepting her lunacy completely and not in a detached way that a lesser actress might leave you. She effectively shows that some roles are meant to be played by an actress that sings and not a singer who acts. Fully the former, Glenn’s acting is indeed beyond wonderful, but her singing is pretty wrecked. And this is actually so powerful that it seems impossible that the character could be performed any other way. Several years ago, when “Next to Normal” came out, reviewers said Alice Ripley’s raw and ragged vocal performance was like a razor’s edge that cut you to the core. (Alice Ripley has a fantastic voice; the raggedness was a mixture of acting choice and the role tearing her apart emotionally and physically. And it was spectacular.) Glenn’s voice here is like that but 100x more pronounced. It’s frayed and uneven and reminded me of woven baskets for unidentifiable reasons, but at times it is that same blade cutting through everything else. Somehow, oddly, her quieter, seemingly easier parts were where she faltered most, and then on the big numbers with huge belted high notes, she delivered on those! The exact opposite of what you would expect from a normal person. In a role like this, all of this totally worked because she is supposed to be very damaged but strong in her delusions. And, it showed that she was acting the songs above all, which is most important. Given that her two big numbers, “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye” are also the most famous and most important songs of the show, it’s pretty wonderful that those are the ones she fully delivered on. No matter the reasons why they stood apart, as long as they did.
I am saying repeatedly that Glenn’s acting is what makes this show worth seeing (not that you can get tickets really; it’s sold out and ending in a month). That’s because it’s a crap show otherwise. This production is done exceedingly well, but it’s a crap show underneath. With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics and book by people who aren’t peculiar billionaires, “Sunset” has 3 strong songs and then a WHOLE BUNCH of terrible, mind-numbing recitative repeated. You get the schmoozy “Let’s Have Lunch” at the beginning, which does establish the era and the schmooziness of makin’ pictures back then, but I don’t see how that demonstration is worth the sacrifice of art, enjoyment, pleasure, musicality, anything else. What about hooking the audience and building excitement? It’s just bleh. Who cares if it tells you what decade we’re in – costumes can do that better, and oh yeah, everyone seeing this already knows. This past week, my showtune rotation has been stuck on “Ragtime” and “In The Heights”, two great shows with impressive, blood-pumping, heart-racing openings. I love a good opening number. “Sunset” doesn’t have one, and so it becomes incredibly easy not to care about the story. And then immediately we go into “Every Movie’s A Circus”, which introduces us to Betty (a fine-voiced Siobhan Dillon) and the melody that will be repeated 1000000 times before the curtain falls. See, at first, you hear the melody of “Every (beat) movie’s a circus” and think, whatever, not exactly inspired music or lyrics but let’s move on to better things. But no, you never get to move on to better things because this melody is repeated for Every. Single. Book Scene. That and one other motif are repeated ad nauseam, and I mean nauseam. Someone decided that it would be a good idea if all the dialogue were sung to the same shitty melody over and over again, so much so that people (cough husband cough) were ready to cut off their ears if it meant being spared yet another tortuous go-round. Sometimes repeated recitative melody works, like for example in “Hamilton”, you get the melody from “Daddy said to be home by sundown” “Daddy doesn’t need to know” repeated several times throughout the show, as well as other core motifs. But they have purpose and meaning in their repetition, and they don’t beat you over the head with it so consistently that you want to beat your own head. It got physically painful to hear towards the end, when things are supposed to be dramatic and changing and you’re feeling the climax build and then like a sad clown coming back for a lame joke you get that same bullshit “every (beat) something’s a something” and it takes all your might not to F-ING SCREAM from the front of the dress circle to JUST STOP IT. 80% of this score is the stuff that gets played on the Sirius XM Broadway channel that makes my dad yell “Who do they think wants to listen to this schlock! Play the good stuff!” And sure, you could be arguing, ‘hey you even said there were 3 really strong songs and a few fine ones, so why complain about the recitative parts or say this isn’t a great show’ and I will answer because those repetitious sung book scenes were completely unnecessary, and unnecessary bullshit garbage makes me angry. There was no reason the book scenes couldn’t have been spoken instead of repeating the 2 motifs over and over beyond all semblance of purpose.
The opening of Act II, Joe’s big title number, is so much stronger than every other non-Glenn moment, thank goodness for that (although some of the lyrics are super cringe-worthy). Right before this number, to start the act, Joe emerges from the ‘pool’ in only a skimpy bathing suit, and someone in the balcony started applauding (he’s quite ripped) and then others joined in. It was hilarious. Joe is played by Michael Xavier, and he did a fine job with a terrible character. He really showed us Joe’s grappling with his own pitifulness and desperation and, by the end, self-loathing. Another very strong non-Glenn aspect was Fred Johanson as Max, Norma’s steadfast butler/servant/assistant and, we find out, former director and first husband. I feel like in the movie this latter revelation felt much more revelatory, but here it was stated and then completely glossed over, robbing it of all dramatic potential. Very odd. But great news, Johanson has a terrifically booming operatic voice and actually sang a non-annoying song very well. When we finally got to his solo number, husband actually sighed in relief and said at least someone up there can sing. No but seriously it was nice to hear. His voice in this cacophony of whatever was 100% in “Love Actually” when the little girls ask Hugh Grant to sing a carol and he starts singing “Old King Wenceslas” and then his driver joins in and has this enormous strong baritone and Hugh’s like whaaaat! That’s what Max is to this production. I mean, Glenn Close is still Hugh Grant and that’s why you’re watching, but it’s nice to hear a strong voice cut in.
Siobhan Dillon as Betty also has a beautiful voice, but by the time she gets to show off, it’s late in Act II and you’ve learned by now that Betty is a thankless character with no chemistry with Joe, and thank goodness for it, because as we established earlier, Joe sucks, and Betty has a good life ahead of her and is better off without him. So they have this big love-song duet that is supposed to be very emotional, but you feel absolutely zero anythings for them and just want them to stop so the story can get back on track.
But none of this matters because Glenn Close is giving a tour de force performance, a masterclass in acting, a role for the ages, and every other cliché you can think of. But it’s true. It was incredible to see her in such a defining role for the first time in so many years. All around, it’s just special. This production is staged more like a concert, extremely pared down with the sets just composed of dark industrial metal staircases going this way and that, a stray sofa or table brought in for various scenes, and an extravagant, almost ghastly Phantom-style chandelier coming down to represent the mansion. At first, I was upset not to get a garishly lavish set, but then I realized it was so much better this way, for two reasons: 1) No set could really live up to how extravagant the house is supposed to be; it would just be a underdeveloped attempt at showing it. This way, our imaginations more easily filled in the blanks. 2) The bare bones set let Glenn shine through even brighter. There were no distractions from her performance, and her performance is really all that matters here. Along with the rest of the audiences this month, I’m lucky to have seen her in this role.
Several phones lit up, especially from the big wigs in tuxes with buckets of champagne on ice in the private boxes. I mean, there is something about the entitlement of the upper class. Otherwise, the audience was extra attentive and extra vehement in its praise, with boisterous shouts of “Bravo!” from many members every time Glenn did something. It felt almost too much but she was great, so, there you go.
It was a mess. The guards had no idea what they were doing and after 45 minutes realized that they had to move the enormous crowd to make room for Glenn’s car right up front. They need to set up much longer barricades and hire a guard that has any clue what to do. I waited an hour and then gave up; the crowd was too pushy to deal with. Other cast members came out but walked right away, assuming no one was waiting for them. An hour I would like back please.