Friday, December 14, 2012

Multi-Media, December 14, 2012

Sunset Boulevard: From Screen to Stage
We move in for a close-up (beware of spoilers!)
by Stuart Munro

I was quite young the first time I sat and listened to Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s musical adaptation of Sunset Boulevard. I confess, I didn’t get it – by the time the finale came around and Glenn Close proclaimed “And now, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close up!,” all I could think was “Man, how clichéd is this?!” What I’d failed to realize (at 15 years old) was that this classic line had its origins in the film on which the musical is based (which, in my own defense, I’d never heard of). In the intervening 16 years, Webber’s music has grown on me, easily becoming one of my favourite scores by him; and I’ve also seen the film a handful of times, it too becoming a favourite. But it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to see the film on the big screen a few months ago that I really began to consider the strengths and peculiarities of its stage adaptation.

Sunset Boulevard tells the story of Norma Desmond, a once famous silent film star who has since faded into obscurity. After a young, handsome screenwriter (Joe Gillis) mistakenly wanders into her home, she reveals her plan to make a “return” to the screen via her own adaptation of the story of Salomé. She falls in love with Joe and (spoilers), in the film’s dramatic climax, shoots him in a jealous rage as he walks out on her. The musical follows the film almost exactly with no significant plot changes. Webber is not the first person to have attempted transforming Sunset into a musical – the film’s original star, Gloria Swanson, spearheaded a musical entitled Sunset! That gave Joe a happy ending, and even Stephen Sondheim tried his hand at it, until Billy Wilder, the film’s director, told Sondheim it should be an opera.

Where, on screen, Gloria Swanson can tear apart the talking-film industry with just a few words and a fierce intensity in her eyes, on stage, Norma has to sing about it.

For some reason it had never occurred to me, before seeing it on the big screen, just how odd it is to have a silent film star singing on stage. Where, on screen, Gloria Swanson can tear apart the talking-film industry with just a few words and a fierce intensity in her eyes, on stage, Norma has to sing about it: “With one look I can break your heart/ With one look I play every part/ I can make your sad heart sing/ With one look you’ll know all you need to know.” There is an intense irony here – an actor describing in great detail how all she needs is one look to break your heart – but it would, of course, be next to impossible to have any actor convey that wealth of emotion and information with a single look and have it carry to 1,500 plus people in a modern mega-musical. And so Norma has to sing about it. Webber, Black and Hampton take a number of these key moments and transform them into moments of pathos. Sometimes they take inspiration from the dialogue in the film, such as in “The greatest star of all,” and sometimes they are brilliantly constructed from nearly silent parts of the film. Nowhere is this clearer than with Act II’s momentous “As if we never said goodbye.” Returning to the Paramount lot for the first time in years, Norma is swarmed by a crowd of admirers. In the film, the expression of pure joy on Ms. Swanson’s face is unmistakable, but once again, the musical demands that this point in time be expressed musically. Webber and his lyricists have created a near-perfect moment here:
“I don’t know why I’m frightened, I know my way around here
The cardboard trees, the painted seas, the sound here
Yes, a world to rediscover, but I’m not in any hurry
And I need a moment . . .
Could I stop my hand from shaking?
Has there ever been a moment with so much to live for? . . .
We’ll have early morning madness, we’ll have magic in the making
Yes, everything’s as if we never said goodbye!”

All the passion, desire and pain, shown in a single look on screen, are crafted into a stirring tour de force, and one of the very best songs I’ve ever heard. 

Perhaps the best decision (and biggest change) the writers of the musical made was to take the love story between Joe and the young ingénue, Betty Schaefer, and spread it throughout the entire play instead of just the second half, as in the film. Betty, already well thought out in the film, has even more of a presence on stage, making her love story with Joe all the more believable, and tragic, in the end. In addition, Webber has taken enough of a cue from the mood of the film’s original score to give the musical a similar tone, without ever copying it outright (at least not that I’ve been able to hear), and the idea of “Hollywood” itself becomes a bigger motivator at times, as is clearly seen in the show’s opening number, “Let’s have lunch,” and the repeats of “Every movie’s a circus,” a melody added in after the show’s London premiere. Joe retains his role of narrator on stage, and Wilder praised the adaptation, saying “The best thing they did was leave the script alone.”

There are other elements of the show that work less well, however, namely the Salomé sequence early on in Act I, which is too long and a tad directionless. Several friends have complained to me about the song “The lady’s paying,” a large production number based on a short scene in the film (though I admit I love this song). Also omitted is a brief line which clarifies how Norma is able to finance not only the (half-hearted) upkeep of her house, but also all her lavish gifts for Joe. On stage we’re meant to assume she’s simply wealthy from a long and healthy career, but on film we learn that Norma “owns three blocks downtown,” and that she has “oil in Bakersfield – pumping, pumping, pumping.” In fact, Norma on screen seems to be a bit more “with it” than Norma on stage (at least in Glenn Close’s portrayal of her on CD). Where Close’s Norma is always teetering on the verge of collapse, Swanson’s Norma seems to break completely in one moment, until we realize, of course, that the entire film has been building up to it.

Something that could never be adapted is the genuine “Hollywood” element of the film, beyond the mere fact of it being a movie about movies. Norma Desmond was played by Gloria Swanson, herself a once famous silent film star who had faded into obscurity. Her Butler/ex-husband/former director was played by Erich von Stroheim, who also happened to be Swanson’s former director. (In fact, in one scene they sit and watch an old film of Swanson’s that had been directed by von Stroheim). Cecille B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, and many other Hollywood personalities all appear as themselves, adding a dose of realism that could never be duplicated.

But despite these issues, Sunset Boulevard works incredibly well as a musical, in part because it’s starting with a very strong story and script. Webber, Black and Hampton carefully examined that script and identified what moments needed to be transformed, and what moments needed to be left alone. The result is, in this writer’s opinion, Webber’s strongest score since Phantom, and a gripping, emotional drama that I never tire of listening to. Sunset Boulevard was a great flop/hit, running for over two years in New York (and four in London), yet losing millions of dollars due to lawsuits and high running costs. Only in the last few years have people begun to revisit this show and place it in more intimate venues, something I think it can benefit from. Whether Sunset needed to have been adapted is a question I’ll not attempt to answer, but the adaptation we have is a fantastic one. And as discussion of its adaptation back to the screen continues on and off, we may yet see Sunset come full circle.

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