This essay on the Broadway version of Sunset Blvd. is by UW Cinematheque Programmer and Project Assistant Amanda McQueen. A restored 35mm print of Sunset Blvd. will screen in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Friday, November 7, 7 p.m.
From Wilder to Lloyd Webber: Sunset Boulevard Goes to Broadway
By Amanda McQueen
Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder's reflexive and cynical story of the fall of Old Hollywood, has become one of the undisputed classics of American cinema since its release in 1950. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 3 - for Best Screenplay, Best Black-and-White Art Direction, and Best Score (composed by Franz Waxman). In 1989, the Library of Congress included it in the first batch of films selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, and it has remained a critical and popular favorite for decades. Even people who haven't actually seen the movie probably know its (usually misquoted) final line: "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."
It's probably unsurprising, then, that many saw Sunset Boulevard as ripe for adaptation as a Broadway stage musical. As early as 1952, Gloria Swanson herself, who had played aging actress Norma Desmond to great acclaim in the film, was involved in an attempt to bring the property to Broadway. But although several songs were written and several years were spent on the project - which was given the typically exuberant musical title Boulevard! - Paramount, the movie's distributor, ultimately withdrew its consent and the musical never materialized. In the early 1990s, however, Dickson Hughes developed some of the material he and Richard Stapley had written for Boulevard! into an intimate musical about his experiences working with Swanson, called Swanson on Sunset. Stephen Sondheim also considered adapting Sunset Boulevard on a couple of occasions in the 1960s and 1970s, but taking Wilder's suggestion to heart that any musicalized version of Sunset should be an opera, he decided against it. Finally, in 1993, Andrew Lloyd Webber, master of the international mega-musical, succeeded in bringing Sunset Boulevard from silver screen to the Great White Way.
Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard has a book by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, but much of the original script by Wilder, Charles Brackett, and D.M. Marshman Jr. remains intact. As is typical for a Lloyd Webber show, Sunset Boulevard also sported lavish production values which some critics thought overwhelmed the intimate story. The musical opened to somewhat mixed reviews in London in July 1993, with Patti LuPone as Norma and Kevin Anderson as jaded writer Joe Gillis (played by William Holden in the film). Another stage version opened in Los Angeles in December with Glenn Close as Norma and Alan Campbell as Joe. Both Close and Campbell took the show to Broadway in November 1994. Sunset Boulevard had strong advance sales and long runs both in New York and abroad and the show won several Tony awards including Best Actress in a Musical for Close (although there was only one other musical up for nomination that year).
Here is Close's performance for the 1995 Tony Award broadcast of "As If We Never Said Goodbye," which Norma sings when she returns to Paramount Studios, under the false impression that she is about to relaunch her film career with legendary director Cecil B. DeMille. Though not quite as technically proficient as other actresses who have played Norma on stage, Close's performance is certainly packed with raw emotion and very powerful.
Despite its popularity, Sunset Boulevard did not recoup its exorbitant costs. Not only did Lloyd Webber's emphasis on visual spectacle make each production difficult and expensive to mount, but legal battles upped the show's expenses ever further. Webber was sued by both LuPone and Faye Dunaway for breach of contract; LuPone had been promised the role of Norma on Broadway and Dunaway had been told she would take over for Close in LA, but Lloyd Webber changed his mind on both accounts and was forced to pay large settlements to both actresses.
Sunset Boulevard has not become as well-known as some of Andrew Lloyd Webber's other musicals, but then it's hard to match the international phenomena of Phantom of the Opera and Cats. Nevertheless, the musical was revived in London in 2008 and it's become a staple of regional and touring companies all over the world. It was even featured on an episode of Glee.
For another little taste of Lloyd Webber's show, here's John Barrowman singing the title number on the 2006 BBC special The Sound of Musicals. Though perhaps best known in the US for his supporting role on Arrow and his signature character of Captain Jack Harkness on Doctor Who and Torchwood, Barrowman has a musical theater background and played the role of Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard in the West End after the show was revamped in 1994, making him one of the first actors to play the part. "Sunset Boulevard," which opens the second act of the show, is Joe's reflection on the turn his life has taken since meeting and moving in with Norma, and it nicely captures the cynicism of the original through both lyrics and musical style
So whether on screen or stage, Sunset Boulevard is, and long will be, a cultural touchstone.