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Sunset Boulevard Review / Ramble

I warned you about the LONG, right? Good.

If You Want to Know the Real Facts, You've Come to the Right Party...

Okay. Here we go. *takes a deep breath*

As most people on my f-list probably know, excepting anyone I added post-2003, I saw the UK tour version of Sunset Boulevard back in 2001/2, twice in Birmingham and once in Manchester for its final performance. I think the majority of entries relating to that are now tagged as "fandom: sunset boulevard" if anyone is interested in my (younger, naïve and somewhat infatuated) ramblings on the subject. I only mention this because, aside from the original 1950 film, I already have a pretty massive point of reference for the stage show, and this write-up / review / general squee will probably refer back to how things were in that UK tour production. Because this one was very, very different.

Firstly: the theatre is very small indeed. We were in Row D, which ended up being the third row (!!!) because they'd had to take out the actual first row to accommodate making the stage bigger. There didn't even appear to be any wings to the stage, as anyone exiting stage left/right went down the steps into the auditorium. As a result of the size of the theatre, there were only 11 cast members, all of whom (excepting one) played various instruments - there was a full string quartet, saxophone, flute, a piano-accordian, glokenspiel, guitars, keyboards and a piano simultaneously pretending to be an organ - so one presumes actually a posh electric piano with an organ setting. In that way it was very much like the tour production that Paul and I went to of Sweeney Todd, though with slightly more set.

As for the set - the main focal point was the staircase, which is entirely understandable. The one review I managed to read beforehand commented that perhaps it should have been more grandiose, as it was a simplistic spiral staircase, beneath which was tucked the piano/organ/desk setpiece. Towards the top the steps were rotting away into nothingness, and everything was covered in cobwebs, including the palm trees. As much as the staircase has always been a direct symbol of Norma's richness and flamboyance, the fact that it was a skeleton in reality only served to emphasise how much of the grandeur is purely in her head. And yet despite this, it remained the central point of the entire show, Norma's personal red carpet and podium. It also rotated to reveal the organ/desk contraption beneath when necessary, which also served to make it seem longer than it really was.

As much as I adored the moveable staircase in the tour production (with the six stagehands required to push it around!), it didn't make me think as much as this one did. The sparseness of the set in general - the instruments doubled as props a lot of the time, whether they were in use or otherwise - just meant that there was more focus on the performers, and didn't clutter up the stage with unnecessary decoration. Throughout the show, the proceedings were presided over by a giant photograph of a young Norma Desmond on the back wall; I have now decided it's the same photograph which kicks events off in my original fanfic, "Tango Up On Sunset", but if I start getting into my fic-canon it will confuse matters even further, so that's all I'll say...

(I managed to sneak a photograph of the stage before the stewardess caught me trying to take another one without someone's head in the way, so you can see the staircase for yourself later. ;) Sssshhhh.)

As much as I want this write-up/review to be marginally coherent and linear, I don't think it's going to work as well as I would like, as I'm out of practice at this post-show squee thing. So instead I shall resort to headings. :) Hopefully headings with appropriate quotes, because the script is frelling awesome and I don't generally squee about it enough.

"From their shiny toe-caps, to their hat-bands..." - Costumes

I didn't notice until Norma's first scene, but everyone was dressed in shades of grey, and black and white. There were two red buttons on Betty's dress, but I think that might be because of the harsh lights, just as one of Norma's velvet dresses appeared more dark red instead of black.

I thought this was an interesting decision to make, to refer so literally to the roots of the show by emulating the original black-and-white movie. I've often made the comparison that the musical is the film's Technicolor cousin, purely by the nature of the beast, and because I do think that colour can and has been used to great effect. However, the black/white/grey costuming (and set, in fact) really worked well. The only other colour came from the natural browns of the string instruments, minimal make-up, and some coloured backlighting on the portrait - and the perfomers' natural skintones, obviously. Given the intimacy of the venue and the polished choreography, too much colour would merely have been distracting. Norma stood out in intricate patterns, shimmery fabrics and light-catching sequins, with the rest of the cast in plain dresses, shirts and trousers.

Joe started off looking appropriately scruffy and well-worn, though once I'd realised the colour scheme, his brown shoes were somewhat off-putting. There was, however, a decent enough transition in his later appearance to the more expensive-looking clothing. Norma’s costumes were brilliant – my personal favourite was the pinstripe suit with the leopard-print collar, which was very similar to the get-up Faith Brown wore in the UK tour for the same scene (at Paramount) – each one slightly different than before but all glamorous. I didn’t get the same sense of quick-change as in the tour (I believe one of Faith’s costume changes was something like 10 seconds…), but have now realised also that Joe and Norma were the only characters to change their costumes throughout – everyone else, including Max and Betty, wore the same clothes for the duration.

That’s enough on that.

"I had these tiles put in, you know, because Rudy Valentino said to me, 'It takes tiles to tango'!" - Choreography

This was absolutely seamless. Ordinarily that would be impressive enough, but if you take the instruments into account it's even more astounding. From the programme notes, it sounds like it was a nightmare to put together, but the hard work has definitely paid off. At one point the bassist was carrying his double bass across the stage practically over his head, and the instruments doubled as props on more than one occasion - two specific examples would be using the flute as a measuring tape in "The Lady's Paying" and Max threatening Sheldrake with the actor's viola bow. (More on that in a bit.)

I must also squee about the choreography of the Tango Scene, but that can wait until later. :D

Also, I don’t know if this is technically choreography, but I’ll put it here for a lack of anywhere else: during the final few scenes for New Year’s Eve, they intercut the raucousness of Artie’s apartment shindig to the bleak darkness of Norma’s mansion, with the party freezing to allow Norma to roam the stage in a daze, then later take a drink from Max and run upstairs with sorrowful intention. I’ve never seen it done like that before (if we take the score into account, it definitely doesn’t pause usually) and it really brought home the contrast between the two environments. And, you know, makes Joe out as the bad guy a little more because he’s enjoying himself.

"Right now I'd like to crawl in a hole and pull it in after me..." - Betty (and Artie)

I always forget how few lines Artie actually has in the musical, perhaps even less so than in the film, but his presence is nevertheless quite pronounced. As small as his role is, he is still important to the four main characters' dynamic, being something of a catalyst in Betty/Joe and also, as Eni pointed out, quite possibly the reason it isn't the endgame.

As for Betty, she was also the flautist in the show, which was a nice nod to the range of the part. She had a very pure voice, too, and the performance was full of raw emotion. "Too Much in Love to Care" has always been a favourite song of mine (even though it's not for my 'ship, I'm a sucker for ALW's love duets...) and the conflicted emotion of it was more than apparent. I particularly liked Betty staring at her engagement ring in anguish, and also, as Eni pointed out in her recap, the drawn-out moment of separation where Joe and Betty were on opposite sides of the stage, with the giant Norma Desmond portrait between them. It's one of many triangles of conflict within the story and the symbolism there was brilliant - even though I can shamefully admit to not noticing it originally. ;)

I also liked that Betty was feisty and somewhat playful, which demonstrated her youthfulness compared to Joe, who is at least 10 years her senior. I'll talk properly about the Betty/Joe 'ship later on because I don't want to clump it all together under this section, but that was the first time I really appreciated it properly, aside from his "smart girl" comment.

Even though Betty is not as layered a character as Joe or Norma or even Max, she is interesting nonetheless. She has more in common with Joe than I think she realises; they're both struggling to get somewhere in life, let alone in Hollywood, and are basically thrown together because of Sheldrake and his lack of tact. Throwing Artie into that mix just makes the whole thing more complicated, as he could so easily have ended up as a go-between – and perhaps, if he had been, things might have ended differently for Joe and Betty, or not even started at all.

”I will not allow her to surrender…” - Max

(I can’t find a Max quote which isn’t about Norma.)

So. David Willetts was playing Max, and I can now officially say I’ve seen the Phantom playing a guitar. ;) (David Willetts was playing the Phantom when I saw it in London, aged 6, though obviously I can’t remember it in the slightest…)

He was a brilliant Max. To start with the character was as one would expect – stoic and mostly silent (his only words for a while are “Yes, Madame”) – but towards the end his character really started to come to life. He was the most aggressive Max I’ve ever seen; I’ve already mentioned threatening Sheldrake with the bow, but during the confrontation scene with Joe, he grabbed his face in this vice-like grip and I got a genuine sense of his pent-up anger and hostility. For the first time I actually started to understand what it must have been like for Max all these years, after two more husbands and then the arrival of Joe and everything that brings with it. It takes talent to bring all those emotions to the fore in some very short, brief scenes, and Willetts managed it effortlessly – but then, he’s also played Valjean in Les Miserables, so he’s obviously had lots of practice.

He also still has that same timbre to his voice that reminded me why he would have played the Phantom 12 years ago, and his high notes were absolutely gorgeous. Considering there isn’t much to work with in terms of songs (he has two short songs), he managed to eke the emotion from it in the performance.

There was also a point during the Tango Scene where he was sitting at the bottom of the stairs, and – as amazing as this may sound – I actually tore my eyes away from Norma and Joe because Max’s expression was so evocative. His face was like thunder and his eyes never left them the entire time. The only thing I can compare it to was in The Woman in White, when Maria Friedman wasn’t even the focus of the scene and yet I couldn’t take my eyes off her, because she simply stole every single scene she was in. I am normally completely engrossed by the drama unfolding between Norma and Joe in that scene, but my split-second glimpse at Max – which I think only happened because he was simply not moving in the slightest – brought another level of danger to the scene.

So. Best. Max. Ever. Eni was obviously incredibly pleased about the portrayal, and I think winter_jasmine would have been, too.

"Well, I'm a writer..." - Joe

The normal actor for Joe, Ben Goddard, was apparently ‘indisposed’, so we got his understudy, Tomm Coles. And dude; if the understudy is that damn good, I can only begin to imagine the awesomeness that is the real guy. On briefly looking at some online reviews earlier (nearly all positive and gleaming!) there was a photograph of Ben Goddard’s Joe and I have to admit that he looks the part more than Coles did, but that didn’t really detract from things in the slightest. It seems to have been Coles’s first leading role ever, and his first time playing the lead in Sunset, and I personally didn’t even notice the false start which Eni caught. When we were stage door lurking earlier, Paul ran after Tomm for us to get autographs and he was all “Sorry, nobody usually asks me!” because he normally plays Artie. (So our Artie was played by the generic male understudy, who looked about 12. Aw.)

It is doubly impressive that the understudies are obviously multi-talented with their respective instruments. I’m pretty sure understudy!Artie was playing some kind of brass (can’t really remember properly) and Joe was mostly on the piano / organ in the scenes he wasn’t in, so I can only begin to imagine how frelling complicated rehearsals must have been…

ANYWAY, I’m getting somewhat off the point.

Here is a list of aspects which make up my Perfect Joe Gillis: cynicism, vulnerability, humour, humility, sarcasm, guilty conscience, tortured soul. You can blame a lot of those on Jeremy Finch, (the UK tour Joe – duh!) for obvious reasons, though there are elements of William Holden (movie Joe) in there as well.

Did our Joe have these elements? I would say so. Perhaps he could have been a little more vulnerable, but it’s all down to individual interpretation. Beneath the exterior, I have always believed there’s just a frightened little boy in desperate need of some guidance; I have always believed that’s exactly what Norma sees, right from the beginning. It’s one of many layers of complex emotion that makes up the ‘ship, but I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.

So, yes, all character aspects present and correct, m’lud. He had pretty good comic timing and some rather amusing facial expressions in all the right places, and the delivery of the main song, “Sunset Boulevard”, was as good as it could have been. I already mentioned in the section on Betty how conflicted their duet was, which was a refreshing change from the usual sense of just throwing themselves at each other. I really, really liked how from that scene onwards Joe was basically a broken shell of a man, no longer even remotely sure of his own motives or goals. For such an important scene, it has the potential to seem frivolous and ‘safe’ (as I will mention later), so it was definitely a bonus to have both Joe and Betty clearly torn over their respective loyalties. The transition between that scene and the next (Norma telephoning Betty just before the final showdown) was dragged out longer than usual also, with Joe standing there looking haggard and confused and totally, irrevocably lost, before he hit melting point. Amazing.

(It’s one of my favourite Joe moments, incidentally. I make no secret of the fact that I enjoy emotionally torturing him and always have done, and I think that scene is probably why. I saw Jeremy Finch play it three different ways each time I saw the tour and each one was absolutely stunning in its own way. There a million ways to play it and only one final outcome. It remains the reason he’s one of my favourite literary characters.)

I’m sure there’s a lot more I could say, but it’ll start to blur into ‘ship stuff, and I’m saving that for later. Next!

"I own so many apartments, I've forgotten which is which!" - Norma

(You have no idea how hard it was to come up with a quote that wasn't well-known. :P)

Our Norma was played by Kathryn Evans. My Perfect Norma Desmond comprises various character aspects of the portrayals by Gloria Swanson, Faith Brown and Glenn Close, as those are the three versions I’ve experienced in any proper capacity. Gloria Swanson is obviously the original and definitive Norma, the basis upon which the other character elements are built, and she’s also my Unhinged Norma; Glenn Close is my Angry Norma; Faith Brown is my Fluffy Norma, for want of a better word, purely because of the on-stage chemistry between her and Jeremy Finch in the tour.

So, Kathryn Evans? Oh, where do I start!

When she first appeared I was a little tiny bit dubious, because at that point I hadn’t yet twigged on the black-and-white costume choices and I felt she didn’t stand out enough – Faith, I recall, was radiant in gold. And then she started talking and it turned out that there was no affectation to her accent, and hence she was English. I thought this was going to jar horribly with the other characters, but in fact, because of the mostly sung-through nature of the musical, I’d forgotten my initial gripe with it by the end. In some bizarre way it also made sense, given her (possibly imaginary) status as Hollywood royalty, and also meant that her delivery was more natural and unforced.

The selling point was most definitely “With One Look”, which absolutely blew me away. I mean, I don’t think it’s actually physically possible to play Norma wrong, otherwise the person wouldn’t last in the role for very long, but nevertheless, once WOL had ended and the applause was ringing out, me and Eni just stared at each other in absolute awe and then nodded a nod of great satisfaction before returning to the action. It was actually really bizarre now I come to remember it (given our usual tendency towards random simultaneousness) but at the time it was just… wow. It was pretty much that we were both ready to pass judgement like some Mighty God of Casting, and all doubts immediately dissolved. AWESOME.

“As If We Never Said Goodbye” was equally brilliant. I think by that point I was pretty much braindead, to be honest. I enjoyed her over-dramatic hand-gestures as much as the overall portrayal, though there is still nothing can beat Faith Brown’s manic flailing fingers. :D (I am a total hand geek in my fandoms: Spike, Jack Sparrow, Norma Desmond, Erik – if they had stubby fingers it would simply be WRONG.)

Norma’s interaction with both Max and Joe was also played to perfection, bringing out the nuances of both relationships and taking them to the fore: Max’s protectiveness and loyalty and Joe’s long-suffering and conniving confliction. Norma makes these people what they are and destroys them without realising it; it’s basically a power play which nobody can win. And I’ve mentioned this before, too, in other ruminations on the subject: that it’s basically about who has the most power over someone else, when all it should be about is trust and honesty.

A minor thing which turned out to be synchronistic in the weirdest way was that when we were patiently lurking for Kathryn at the stage door, she emerged carrying a small Pekingnese dog which had been waiting in her dressing room all night. I was sending Eni bits of fanfic last night and there’s this bit where I presumed Norma was most definitely Not A Cat Person, because she would feel they were battling her for superiority. So, the fact that Kathryn had a dog was amusing in its own right.

Oh, and one final thing: the eye make-up was absolutely stunning. When the sunglasses come off those eyes literally pop. That is the moment when Joe is caught in her trap, whether he realises it or not; screenwriter or not, Norma’s point remains solid. “We didn’t need words – we had faces…”

Okay, I’m going to have to split this into three entries, so I’ll put all the ‘ship stuff in the last one. Character introspection took longer than I thought. I’m fully aware that these entries are of interest to about 1% of the population but this fandom produces extreme levels of thought each time I invest in it, and I just want to get it all down for posterity.

More coming. ;)

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Last read: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo; Glamorama, Brett Easton Ellis; The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory (amongst others).

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