“You can’t write a musical about Sunset Boulevard,” Billy Wilder is said to have told Stephen Sondheim. “It has to be an opera. After all, it’s about a dethroned queen” (We’re not going to insult your intelligence with links to SB, BW or SS – you know what/who they are).
Sondheim got the message but if Andrew Lloyd Webber had any qualms he overcame them and – unhappily – another hit was born, Patti LuPone, Glenn Close, Betty Buckley, Petula Clark and Rita Moreno (ditto) being among the luminaries who have given their close-up, Mr De Mille.
Now, cards on the table. The Whingers have never been struck by Mr Lloyd Webber’s work and they tend to steer well-clear of sung-through musicals. They also believe that Sunset Boulevard is a classic film that no-one has any right to mess with (for heaven’s sake; at this rate they’ll be staging All About Eve next!) but they gallantly overcame all these prejudices and more in order to take a trip down Sunset Boulevard at the Comedy Theatre.
Why? Well, this horse is from the Watermill stable where John Doyle and Sarah Travis (the first woman to win a Tony Award for Orchestration, incidentally) developed the idea of musicals without an orchestra in which the actors play the instruments. It worked so well with Sweeney Todd that it transferred to the West End and on to Broadway. Travis has arranged Sunset Boulevard too (and very well, especially “Perfect Year”) but the director, strangely, is Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig Revel Horwood*.
Now the Whingers always think there’s something very fascinating, charming and alive about having actors play the musical instruments on stage. How do they do it without sheet music? Do they get paid twice? How do the understudies cope? Isn’t it awfully difficult to do both well?
The answer to the last question is “yes” in this case. The acting is fine and the musicianship fine but what a palaver to do both at the same time. Poor Alexander Evans (as the studio head Sheldrake) valiantly attempts to look nonchalant as he holds a conversation with Joe Gillis (Ben Goddard) while playing the double bass at the same time but he might as well have been tossing pancakes on a unicycle.
The instruments simply get in the way. Later, when the orchestra gets the chance to sit down and the principals sing, some magic asserts itself but for the most part it is just too frantic, not helped by the ALW’s grating recetative (to be operatic about it).
With CRH directing one might expect a lot of dancing but there’s practically none apart from a couple of tangos (sadly neither of which feature John Sergeant) which are quite charming. There are also some interesting sections in which the cast slow-mo which should be awful but is actually quite effective.
But it’s the staging which drags the whole thing down. It’s one thing having an intimate and minimal set for a barbers shop but quite another when you have to suggest the palatial mansion of a rich and glamorous Hollywood star, especially if you only have an unstable metal spiral staircase to work with. Plus the whole thing is delivered in monochrome (presumably because the film was) which isn’t really what you want from a musical.
The opening “shot” of the film was reproduced very effectively in the original production (indeed, it’s the only thing Andrew can remember about that; certainly not any of the songs) but here it is ineffective – in fact it’s invisible from the front stalls. Luckily the Whingers had planted a spy in the circle who reported back that the swimming pool was projected onto the stage and was visible from the circle.
That was of little consolation to one in their party who had never seen the film (yes, that’s what we said; amazing, but true) and who was rather confused as to what had just happened, if anything.
Story-wise, somewhere along the line Sunset Boulevard has turned into Sunset Cul-de-Sac. Whereas William Holden’s Joe under Billy Wilder was disgusted with his descent into toyboy, here he’s rather smug about it so it’s hardly tragic when Norma shoots Gillis in the rear of the stalls. At this point there is a splash from the back of the auditorium and a pause during which, sadly, no-one blurted out, “He’s fallen in the water!” in a Goon voice which would have provided some welcome relief from the relentlessly humourless tone of the book and lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black**; Sunset Boulevard (the movie) may not be packed with gags but it is playful.
Never mind, just at the crucial moment when Kathryn Evans was about to launch into her big final scene on the staircase some dickhead’s mobile phone went off which did introduce a welcome frisson into the proceedings.
Sometimes the production pushes too far towards Gothic camp (yes, there is such a thing). Even Dave Willetts as Max, who is very good, comes across as a bit Bela Lugosi every now and then and there’s some manic activity on the keyboards which put several in the party in mind of Vincent Price as Dr Phibes.
So what about Norma Desmond? Well, Kathryn Evans (aka Mrs Peter Purves) makes an odd artistic choice foregoing an American accent in favour of something altogether more English. Sometimes it’s difficult to see her Norma for Margot Leadbetter. But she packs a punch and gives a commanding final staircase scene and some very good singing. “Just One Look”** got enthusiastic applause.
Indeed, the big numbers are well sung: “As If We Never Said Goodbye” got a very good reception and if “Too Much in Love to Care” seemed to have far too much acting going on in it, it was bold and quite brilliant. Laura Pitt-Pulford as Betty Schaefer is very lively.
And the verdict? Well, it’s no one’s fault really so we’ll put it down to misadventure.
* In case you – like Andrew – are a bit hazy about the existence of Craig Revel Horwood you can read more about him than you would ever want to know in this article in the Standard.
** Don Black wrote the lyrics to some WEW favourites:”Born Free”, “To Sir With Love” (“but how do you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume?”) and “Diamonds Are Forever” but disappointingly did not prove himself equal to finding a rhyme for “vicuña”, a Peruvian mammal which receives several mentions in the show.
*** Strangely, two in the Whingers’ party were suffering from eye complaints; one was on his first outing since a retinal detachment and another had a cyst on one eyeball so Norma’s song “With One Look” took on a special significance. Phil dissuaded Andrew, who was feeling a tad left out, from coming dressed as Bette Davis in The Anniversary.