Review: Sunset Boulevard by: Zak Hait
Rating: Theatre: Palace Theatre Show Runtime: 2 hrs. and 45 min.
The curtain was drawn when I had gotten to my seat and it remained closed until showtime. When the forty person orchestra was revealed on stage, taking up the majority of the space, I was instantly in awe. The set involved staircases climbing above and around the orchestra, making sure they were a part of the performance and not something to hide away. A projector displayed a black and white reel, which established our time period, and when Joe came out on stage, his first line used the word, “murder.” Glenn Close descended from the top of the staircase, bestowed upon us from the theatre heavens (read: firmament of stars), as Norma, the beyond wealthy celebrity who has faded away from the spotlight. The applause that occurred when Close first appeared was reminiscent to when Alexander Hamilton first appears on stage in Hamilton, that is to say, uproarious.
Joe was a scriptwriter who had been following his heart, but in doing so, he wound up as broke as could be, begging for money from various people. He meets Betty, a girl entering the world of writing with nothing but optimism and talent, believing that she would be able to follow her dreams and still be able to pay the rent. A theme that ran through the show was the concept of giving people new ways to dream. The energy someone had when they were passionate enough about something would rub off on those around them. Joe had been beaten up by the industry and felt low, so he gave Betty the story he was working on, allowing her to attack it with the fiery determination he once saw in himself. As the performance continued, the energy of Betty was impossible for Joe to ignore and he truly was given a new way to dream. He got more and more involved in writing his passion project again, this time with her, and eventually fell in love.
This is paralleled later in the second act as Max, Norma’s servant, remarked, “If you would have seen her at 17 when dreams were new.” He was recalling a time when Norma was entering the industry with this same heightened drive that Joe used to have and that Betty currently did. And where did it get her? Her energy rubbed off on those around her and she became the biggest star there was, complete with a seemingly endless amount of money.
‘Webber’s use of these long bass tones complement the mood entirely. The ensemble performing all of this music brought it to a new level. Everything felt so full, regardless of whether it was full of life or full of dread, it was full.’
“The Lady’s Paying” shows the strength Andrew Lloyd Webber has with his music. So many different aspects show off emotion, which became apparent to me during this song because it is one of the most light-hearted pieces of the performance. The rhythm for each part was subdivided much smaller, giving space for the upbeat feelings that come with getting a free tuxedo, with the attention of numerous tailors, all just for Joe.
There was a focus in the treble clef, especially the piano, offering a higher pitched tone for this climax of positivity. The polar opposite of these choices was showcased during the dramatic final moments between Norma and Joe. The room was filled with interminable long tones, all from the bass register. The movie Irréversible by Gaspar Noé plays around with the same dynamic of drawn out low frequencies being used for the emotionally lowest part of the story. The reasoning behind Noé’s use was a physical one, as low frequencies have the ability to induce nausea in the listener. The moment where Norma shot Joe dead was absolutely one that rendered a physical response from the audience, and Lloyd Webber’s use of these long bass tones complement the mood entirely. The ensemble performing all of this music brought it to a new level. Everything felt so full, regardless of whether it was full of life or full of dread, it was full. Sunset Boulevard is easily separated from other musicals by means of this sizable orchestra being featured in the center: of the stage and of the performance.
Beauty and youth came up as being paired to stardom. “A Little Suffering” showed what Norma was willing to endure for the sake of beauty, for the sake of youth, and for the sake of being a star. In The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Dorian is presented with this immortal version of his beauty, the painting of himself. His desire of eternal youth is taunted by the fact that the picture will never age, yet he still will. I would not be surprised if Norma felt the pressures of society; that a return to the spotlight couldn’t be made if it seemed like she had aged. In fact, after Norma went to Paramount studios to discuss her script, one of the workers there stated how she looks “a million years old”. Norma is taunted by the movies she had previously made in a similar manner to the way Dorian Gray was taunted by the picture – in both, their youth and beauty had been immortalized. The public will watch a movie Norma starred in twenty years earlier and still only know her as the twenty-years-earlier Norma. Joe tackled this issue head on by the end of the performance, yelling, “Nothing’s wrong with being 50, unless you’re acting 20.”
Another film about the movie industry, and one which curiously also had a lead character named Betty, was David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. In this film, Betty’s reality was so disturbed and uncomfortable that she fabricated an entirely new reality to get lost in. Her new reality consisted of the industry caring about her, which seemed to be in line with Norma in Sunset Boulevard. Norma’s true reality was that she was no longer a star anybody cared about, but that truth was too difficult to face. Max was sending her thousands of letters just to feed the delusion, and the thought of anyone breaking this delusion was felt to have grave consequences (in Mulholland Drive, the gun was turned on herself when the delusion was broken; in Sunset Boulevard, the gun was turned on the one breaking the delusion).
While we’re talking about films relating to the film industry, I’ll throw in the recent academy award favorite La La Land from Damien Chazelle. The ending sequence of that movie, where we see the actual la la land, was made distinct by the color purple, and we saw the wonderful life that could have been for the two lead characters. As Joe and Betty were falling in love, walking down the famous streets of Los Angeles, the entire stage coloration was purple. Ultimately, their romance was unable to happily resolve, the happy ending being left out in la la land. The West End production of this revival came out before La La Land was released, and the movie is still brand new, so I’m under no delusions that the parallel is more than likely coincidental, but it was still an interesting one to notice.
‘The allusion to Romeo and Juliet is made clear and helps to accentuate the forbidden aspect of their affair from both sides.’
The romance between Joe and Betty is well crafted. At the beginning, when Joe first meets Norma, Joe informs her to not let another writer read a script she wrote, as they might just steal it. Joe gave his script to Betty, another writer, but the thing that was stolen was not the writing, but rather, his heart. Betty is engaged to another man, but it was not a wedding between her and her fiancé that we saw. During the New Year’s Eve party, everyone gathers around for a picture, and at the very top stands Betty and Joe together, just like the top of a wedding cake. Joe is even in his brand new tuxedo! When the two of them finally confess their love for each other, Joe descends a staircase and continues the conversation looking up at Betty on a balcony. The allusion to Romeo and Juliet is made clear and helps to accentuate the forbidden aspect of their affair from both sides. Yes, Betty is engaged to another man, but Joe is living with a woman whom he’s having an intimate affair with as well.
Norma is repeatedly hailed as the biggest star, which is just the beginning for how much weight is behind the word “star”. Being as consumed by stardom as she is, Norma is very into astrology (which stars play a large role in). Not only is she a believer in astrology, but everything the stars said turned out to be true.
For instance, Norma mentioned how because Joe was a Sagittarius, he would be trustworthy. Time and time again Joe displayed that trustworthiness, from when Joe promised to be at Norma’s New Year’s Eve party when she needed him there, to when Betty asked for his help with continuing his script. Betty even said, “I guess I’ll have to trust you,” painting a clear message for when Joe followed through and helped out. However, the line involving stardom that held the most emotion was, “No one leaves a star.” There are two ways to interpret this sentence, one being that Norma would not allow for Joe to leave her, a star, because leaving her would mean she actually wasn’t a star. The other way to interpret this would be the relationship between Norma and the film industry. Why was she no longer being featured in movies anymore? If nobody leaves a star, then she must have left when she wasn’t a star, which is what led to the distortion of her reality so that she wouldn’t have to acknowledge that series of events.
As the musical concludes, the performance that Close put on is able to sink in. She proved how on top of her game she is with her performance of the compelling “As If We Never Said Goodbye”. The theatre must have applauded for a full minute after that song ended, and during the final bows, Close came out at least 2 extra times because the standing ovation would not stop. Truly a star! If you are a fan of Glenn Close or the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, this is not one to miss out on, as it is a limited engagement run set to go through June. Even if you aren’t familiar with Glenn Close or Andrew Lloyd-Webber, if you are someone who appreciates the music of musicals, being able to see a forty person orchestra take up the stage is awe-inspiring. In fact, it’s given me a new way to dream.
Show runtime: 2 hrs. and 45 min.
1564 7th Avenue
New York, NY
Sunset Boulevard Star Cast Members:
Glenn Close, Michael Xavier,Siobhan Dilon & Fred Johanson
Sunset Boulevard Creative Team:
Director: Lonny Price
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
If you enjoyed this article, check out our review of The Glass Menagerie.