T'eyla Minh (teylaminh) wrote,
T'eyla Minh

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"Sunset Boulevard" Write-Up, Part 1

Okay, let's get this show on the road.

I am going to break this down scene by scene as per the title tracks on the libretto, because otherwise I am liable to just ramble in a nonsensical fashion until my head explodes, and am also very likely to forget something important. I am going to reference my headcanon(s) quite a lot also, so I'm going to include explanations of those at relevant points - I should point out these headcanons have mostly arisen out of that period in 2002-2003 where I was writing a lot of fanfiction in the wake of "Tango Up On Sunset", elements of which have become so ingrained into my understanding of the show that I often forget that other people are not privy to them. :)

Anyway, now that I've dragged myself away from Tumblr, without further ado...

Act One

Before I start, a note on casting. Alongside Glenn Close we had Michael Xavier as Joe and Siobhan Dillon as Betty. Michael Xavier is old hat at West End and has done plenty, including Raoul in Phantom of the Opera. Siobhan Dillon came third (I think) in Andrew Lloyd Webber's talent show to find a new Maria for his production of The Sound of Music and I always thought she should have won - it seems since then she has gone on to achieve a lot more than the actual winner, so that says a lot. :D

That being said, I could definitely hear a bit of Raoul in Michael Xavier's voice (notwithstanding certain similarities between the two scores) and I really want Siobhan Dillon to play Christine now - her voice was amazing.

Right, onward!

Overture / I Guess It Was 5 AM

I shall start at this point by mentioning the staging. This was a semi-staged (almost non-staged) version of the show, with the English National Opera's 48-piece orchestra taking up most of the Coliseum's stage on a platform in the corner. This was vastly different to the last time we saw the show, which played in a much smaller theatre, where the majority of the cast doubled as the show's "orchestra". It was lovely to hear the lush score played once again by a full-scale ensemble, particularly for moments such as the Overture and the Car Chase where a depth of sound is needed.

Other than the orchestra, the set mostly comprised two gantries / staircases criss-crossing across the stage and some minimal furniture - a sofa, desk and chair, cameras, etc. Norma's staircase, as I suppose we can refer to it, was wider at the base and did circle around from a gantry running from right to left, with a smaller balcony halfway up. There was then another, smaller set of staircases going in the other direction, with a platform at the top which doubled as Betty's office. Various spaces underneath were used as De Mille's soundstage, the Paramount gates, etc., and the background was mostly black with "Stage 27" and "Stage 30-something" (I couldn't see which one) to the left and right. Also the floor was (obviously) made to look like Norma's terrazzo.

Basically it left a lot of the staging to the imagination. I admit, I am a sucker for a more fully staged version of Sunset after the UK tour and its impressive staircase, but for a very limited five-week run I can see how that would not have been possible. And actually, it probably would have detracted from the main reason most people were there, i.e. Glenn Close owning every inch of the stage. :P The gantries and staircases were used to pretty good effect, to be honest, so despite the sparseness of the production, the director obviously put a lot of thought into how best to utilise what they had.

Also, the unused orchestra pit doubled as Norma's pool, with clever blue lighting and smoke creating the effect of the water.

At curtain up, there was a translucent screen in front of the stage with an old-fashioned movie-style countdown, followed by some stock footage of Hollywood which I believe was taken directly from the movie, whilst the overture was playing.

The show then opened with a dead Joe Gillis floating in the "pool", emulating the same position seen in the movie at the beginning. The body then rose up to literally hang over the entire production - admittedly, I only know this because of reading a review, because we couldn't actually see it from our perspective. This reminds me a lot of the original, canned opening of the movie, which opened in a morgue where Joe was relating his story to some other corpses (apparently audiences found it too funny and were expecting a comedy, so it was dropped in the re-edit) - it was a nice nod to the show's origins, which is always a good thing considering how closely the musical follows its source material. In fact, there were lots of other little references to the movie throughout, but I will get to those later. ;)

Let's Have Lunch / Every Movie's A Circus

The semi-staged nature of the show actually paid off pretty well here in recreating the chaos and activity of Joe's trip to see Sheldrake at Paramount - you got a real sense of people rushing about thanks to the way, for example, Sheldrake and his desk were literally pushed on and off stage, or the manner in which the ensemble moved from one "conversation" to another.

You also got a good sense of Joe's character here; Michael Xavier brought some new interpretations to the role (as each show always does!) and the first one, for me, occurred during this part. Following his snarky, "I just love Hollywood!" line, the ensemble broke into a big dance routine, including Joe front and centre. During the pause on "Paramount is paradise", he just kind of threw his arms in the air and gave up, abandoning the routine and slinking off. It was a really great way of showing his complete frustration with how his morning had turned out and the fact that he was caught in the same trap as everyone else, struggling to hit the big time against all the odds.

Oh, yeah - I forgot to mention - in the lead up to Joe's meeting with Sheldrake there was an extra dressed as a secretary, carefully making her way down one of the gantries with two mugs of coffee which she was precariously balancing and trying not to spill. She got them literally all the way to the main floor of the stage before bumping into someone and dropping both of them - it was a little comic moment which fit perfectly: amongst all that chaos was Sheldrake's long-suffering assistant just attempting to do her day job.

We also got to see a little of Siobhan Dillon's take on Betty here. We had an adorably nerdy Betty this time around, all glasses and sensible hair and enthusiasm for stories that "say a little something". I also loved her muttered correction of her surname just before leaving (after Sheldrake got it wrong) because you really got a sense that she was 400% done with him never bothering to remember it.

During Joe and Betty's later conversation, the onset of "Blind Windows", there was a sense already of a little pinprick of mutual attraction. I realise this goes against my entire ethos, but if I've learned one thing after nearly 15 years in this fandom (OMG WHAT?) it's that nothing is as simple as I first thought. Yes, Norma/Joe is my endgame, and my priority, but I cannot deny Joe/Betty as a concept. I think in this case it arose out of their very different personalities and approaches: Betty is a fresh-faced, enthusiastic young thing not yet broken down by Hollywood, and Joe has already hit that point of world-weary cynicism, so even though she grates on his nerves initially, I imagine even Joe cannot deny that there is still some excitement to be found within the mire of daily struggles. I think he's drawn to the concept of Betty at first more than to the girl herself, in much the same way Betty is drawn to the concept of him: Betty sees a successful screenwriter, Joe sees ambition, traits they each find admirable in each other. Latterly, I also believe there is a sense, from Joe at least, of wanting her all the more because he can't have her - which ironically reflects precisely Norma's logic towards the end of the show. But I'm getting ahead of myself. :P

There is, of course, also the point that Joe is quick-thinking enough to use Betty's help in escaping the car sharks even if it means having to meet up and discuss a story he thought long-dead.

That, Joe Gillis, was your first mistake. ;)

Car Chase

Okay, so this has always been my favourite bit of the score and it was so lovely to hear it with a full orchestra again. Those swooping violins get me every.single.time. It's spinechilling. This is a part where, if they ever do make a movie version of the musical, I would love to see how they tie together the visuals with the music - sweeping vistas of the Hollywood hills and lovely vintage cars speeding madly through the palms, and Norma's lonely mansion emerging at the end of the driveway...

It has literally only just occurred to me that my favourite bit of the car chase music - which I generally consider a second "overture" because of its placement directly before Joe limps his car into Norma's garage and thus entraps himself - is a variation on the title song's melody. Quite how I hadn't noticed that before now I do not know, but it probably explains a lot. :P

They created the car chase itself in a fairly standard fashion: headlamps attached to hand-held contraptions being run around the stage. Joe's flat tire was emulated by the lights starting to judder, one set (i.e. Joe) veering off towards the left and disappearing whilst the other (the car sharks) went offstage in the opposite direction. There's probably no better way to achieve the scene, though I still have a soft spot for the UK tour reusing the film footage. :)

At the House on Sunset / Surrender

Okay, here we go. At this point the anticipation was through the roof, for obvious reasons. With that first line from Norma - "You there! Why are you so late?" - there was no mistaking it was Glenn Close. In fact, the majority of her performance was identical to that of the soundtrack, even perhaps better in some places.

In this sequence, it would be very easy to allow the part with the monkey to be played for laughs. It is, after all, sublimely ridiculous. And yes, there was a ripple of minor amusement as the cloth was pulled back, but Glenn pulled it back into pathos seamlessly with "Surrender". It was actually the case for a lot of the show that some of the Joe/Norma interactions were played to be funny rather than serious, which always grates on me a little - nobody is ever quite brave enough to approach the older-woman/younger-man dynamic with the seriousness it probably deserves, notwithstanding that half of the pairing is a cynic and the other is delusional - but at the same time I also enjoy a Norma who is at least a little self-aware in the beginning. It's a difficult balance, I think, and the two leads did well with it.

I think "Surrender" is more important than perhaps I had given it credit for. I did not get as much of a sense, in this production, of Joe becoming caught in Norma's trap when the dark glasses come off, but I think his curiosity was piqued at this point nonetheless. Like the audience, finding out that the body is that of a chimpanzee is initially amusing, but he finds himself drawn in by Norma's sheer presence, long before he actually recognises her.

With One Look

Right, at this point we head into headcanon territory, so brace yourself.

Headcanon: I theorise that Joe's mother was something of a movie fan when he was a boy, with albums and albums of magazine cuttings / reviews / photographs of all her idols, with her tastes changing as the years go by from the old stars (like Norma) to the newer ones (like Marilyn), and resulting in all of her collections being stored away in a box in the attic somewhere. His mother's fascination with movies is also what prompts his own desire to be a screenwriter, from exposure to the medium at a very young age and subsequently sneaking out to picture houses as a teenager.

I have a theory that Joe recognises Norma not just because of who she is, but because of a moment in his earlier years (on the cusp of puberty) when he becomes obsessed by an old publicity shot of a young Norma Desmond during the prime of her career. I don't think he would remember this into adulthood or really give it any kind of importance later on, but on a deeply subconscious level he can still recall being fascinated by a 20-year-old Norma Desmond, staring into middle distance - his first boyhood crush. It's that memory which surfaces when they make eye contact, or when he notices her collection of memorabilia, even if he doesn't quite acknowledge it yet. :)

This arose out of my first story, "Tango Up On Sunset" and has stuck around as a trope ever since, but interestingly enough has seemed to crop up actually within the show itself. (Or I might be mad; it's likely.) For example, each time I saw the UK tour there were slightly different nuances; that production did in fact utilise Norma's own collection of memorabilia, and I have a vague recollection (possibly from the final night in Manchester) where Norma thrust a photograph at Joe and he was staring at it with a sort of wistful expression.

So, this time around, they did something very, very interesting: in several scenes between Joe and Norma, or where Max was talking about Norma, the proceedings were overseen by a ghost of her younger self, dressed in a subtle black Flapper outfit. I had already read about this in the same review where I learned about the floating body, and at first I was ambivalent about it... but seeing it in the context of the show, I actually really, really liked it as a directorial choice.

Quite aside from the fact that it slots into my above headcanon more perfectly than I could ever have dreamed, it was a very interesting decision to make. Eni and I had so many theories about "Young Norma" at the time, and I still can't figure out which one I prefer; I think TBH they are all intertwined:

Does this demonstrate how Norma still sees herself - the Bright Young Thing of her heyday in the 1920s? Is this how Max still sees her, or how he pictures her when he speaks to Joe about her glory days? Is this how Joe sees her during those heady moments when he forgets himself, when Norma turns the seduction up to eleven and draws him in? Or is it merely an embodiment of the atmosphere of the House, so full of photographs that even the building itself cannot produce reality?

It is, perhaps, all of these things. I wanted to dislike it on principle - because I want Joe/Norma as a thing regardless / in spite of the age difference - and found instead that I loved it. It brought so much more to my favourite pairing than I could ever have hoped for, and now I will never be able to unsee it.

That being said, obviously I mentioned it at this point because the first appearance of Young Norma was during "With One Look" - overseeing the proceedings but not yet participating (more on that later). This was also Glenn's first ovation of the evening, a definite taster of what was yet to come... and her comedy timing on "Now go!" was JUST PERFECT after all the rapturous applause.


This is another scene which can too easily fall into comedy, and again they played it pretty well. It would be impossible to pull off the "How old is Salome?" / "Sixteen." exchange without some level of self-awareness from Norma and an unspoken, "What of it?" and it definitely raised a laugh this time around. Joe's cynicism and snark whilst directing his narrative towards the audience were also amazing, as well as the audience's reaction to the 8-inch-thick tome that constituted Norma's script.

The Greatest Star of All

Another appearance of Young Norma for this part. I think. I am actually quite confused as to when she first appeared now that I think about it some more...

Anyway, it doesn't matter - I have mentioned her now and she was definitely there throughout. I forgot to mention that our Max was Fred Johansen, who also has a list of West End credits as long as your arm. I am always impressed by the range of the part more than anything else and anyone who can pull it off.

This song formed the opening line for TUOS (the above-mentioned fic wherein my headcanon originated) so I have a soft spot for it in any case. Unfortunately, as a result of seeing this production and the intervening 15 odd years of fandom introspection, I basically want to take that story and it's epic (unfinished) sequel and re-write it so it reads better. I was proud of it at the time but ah! the frivolity of youth. ;) It deserves a greater understanding, at the very least...

At the end of this scene is the sequence with the monkey's funeral. The bit of the set which doubled as Betty's office later on was also the room above the garage, on the opposite side of the stage to the balcony above "Norma's Staircase", where the funeral took place. There was a really interesting bit here, where Norma draped herself over the coffin in anguish and Max went to comfort her (hands poised to touch her shoulders), before hesitating and backing off again. This gesture makes more sense in the context of his later revelation, obviously, about being her first husband: it's a throwback to an instinctive need to offer physical comfort which, as her butler, he now cannot indulge in.

For Joe's part, observing this scene from above, it probably appeared just as odd as it would to any audience members unaware of the story's twists. It was a nice touch: the first hint that there is something at play you're not yet aware of...

I also need to mention here that Joe came across as more manipulative and aware of the situation (at least at this point) than in other productions: very much aware of Norma's status and indeed her wealth, and how he could use that to his own advantage. I mean, obviously that's always the case, but this time I noticed it more.

That was your second mistake, Joe. :P

Every Movie's A Circus (Reprise) / Girl Meets Boy

Moving on, from sombre to Schwab's.

The manner in which the set indicated Schwab's was via some funky blue neon lighting. This bit emulated the same sense of chaos as the earlier scene at Paramount and the ensemble did well with it.

We got to see a bit more of the Artie/Betty/Joe dynamic in this scene, most notably after "Girl Meets Boy" when Joe was watching Artie and Betty walking away, arm in arm. This was the first sense I got of the whole "wanting her because he can't have her thing", which is interesting at this point in particular because it's before New Year's Eve and all the subsequent mess, and indicates a certain level of loneliness on Joe's part.

I mean, before this, I'd never really had any sense of Joe being particularly unhappy with his lot in life, at least in terms of his single status. Perhaps that's mostly because he has enough else to worry about with his career - "falling foul" at 20th Century Fox and having to start over at Paramount - and his stagnant writing abilities, to even think about finding himself a nice girl. That's part of the reason the situation with Norma kind of sneaks up on him; he's not looking for it, wanders into it unwittingly and finds himself trapped, then his burgeoning friendship with Betty makes him realise what he's been missing.

So yeah, that was an interesting take, that little pining look at Schwab's, and I suspect it may have come about in part due to their brainstorming ideas for a typical "romance" story... "Boy meets girl", indeed...

Back at the House on Sunset / New Ways to Dream

Again, pretty sure we had more of Young Norma here during Max's reminiscence. My memory is telling me she appeared in basically every important scene involving Norma and/or her delusions of youth but I might have misremembered...

I'm sure I had more to say about this scene but apparently it's fallen out of my head.

Scratch that, I remembered it! Can't believe I forgot it, in fact, because it was one of the main "I will definitely remember that for later" moments for me!

In pretty much every other version of this I have seen, there is a point during Norma's rendition of NWTD where she reaches for Joe's hand and he either discretely pulls away or just faces the opposite direction when she gets up from the sofa (it happens in the movie, too, which I guess is the reason why). However, if you listen to Joe's lyrics here, he admits, "It made me sad to watch her" - so despite him being uncomfortable with the situation, nonetheless he has a measure of sympathy for Norma's situation.

This time around, it was not Norma who first reached out, but Joe himself - after she sat back down, he just carefully reached over to clasp her hand - his gaze never leaving her as he regarded her sadly, whilst Norma remained focused on the overhead screen. IT WAS AMAZING OKAY?

So, look - in the grand scheme of things, when you talk about shipping, hand-holding is pretty low down the list of exciting things that can happen... but in this case, IMHO, it completely changes the way things subsequently pan out. Usually, there is a sense that Joe wanders into Norma's trap without fully realising what's happening until it's too late, and without really doing anything to encourage her - she just falls for him of her own accord, out of her own interpretation of their situation and perhaps because she has been so long without other human company than Max that any attention from Joe is better than nothing... but when that moment is reversed, it actually triggers something. It's a moment of weakness, I suppose, for Joe - he can't go on pretending not to care about this fragile woman any more, and the facade temporarily drops away to reveal the caring, non-cynical man underneath the jaded exterior: a man who despite his faults, and despite his worldview, has a perfectly reasonable reaction to witnessing the pain of a fellow human being, particularly one whom he considers a friend. (On which, more in a moment.)

Norma may not notice or properly register it at first, but afterwards, there is every likelihood she would mull it over constantly in her mind, trying to work out what it means. Lost in her own world, she is naturally oblivious to Joe's own conflict at that point, and it's likely she would read more into it than there actually is, reading it not as the comforting gesture of a friend, but a measure of affection from a man she is growing increasingly fond of.

And that's why it's important, and why I was so insanely happy to see it happen.

Completion of the Script

Okay, so this was a tiny little scene but SO IMPORTANT, and I think one of my favourite moments of the entire production. Firstly, there's the exchange about Norma's astrologer:

NORMA: She read De Mille's horoscope; she read mine.
JOE: Did she read the script?

Also before that, Joe exasperatedly querying if she's really going to send the script to De Mille.

For this entire sequence, I really got a sense that they had formed a proper friendship: Joe's snark initially came off as a bit disrespectful, but then it occurred to me that it actually came more from a place of feeling comfortable in Norma's presence - no longer star struck but having cohabited for long enough that they'd formed a basis of communication (regardless of him still living in the garage room at this point; for all intents and purposes he has spent the majority of his days within the actual house).

Norma certainly did not react negatively to his comments - and whilst you could read that she's mostly oblivious, it didn't come across that way. It was more just brushing off his sarcasm and continuing regardless, hence his resigned, "Well, that's all right, then."

I dunno, I just really liked it, because again it gave their relationship some kind of a basis. I have no doubt whatsoever that Joe does have respect for her (at least for now!), but you can't live in the same house as someone and not actually get to know them properly. Remember, Joe has just spend however-many weeks working on Norma's screenplay, reaching a point where he's actually managed to edit it down from her initial "fragmented ramblings" into something more coherent - there's no way he could have achieved that without first finding some common ground with her on which to communicate, to make her willing to listen to reason about certain aspects of it. From a working relationship like that, I imagine a level of healthy snark would actually arise, to the point where Norma brushes it off.

Quite aside from that, though, there was another outstanding moment at the point where Joe tells Norma he's going to return to his apartment.

Basically, Norma's panic over Joe potentially leaving reached a point where she began hyperventilating / having an anxiety attack, unable to form words... and not only did this result in Joe changing his mind, but he managed to bring her back out of it again with just a simple touch of his hand to both of hers where they were clasped in front of her in anguish. One touch, almost instinctual, resulting in immediate calm.

ISTG, that part nearly killed me. It was so subtle but so brilliant. When you take this alongside the moment I mentioned earlier at the funeral, with Max wanting to offer comfort but not being able to, it creates this whole extra level to their dynamic. I don't know if it's something which has happened before, unseen by the audience, to provide Joe with that prior knowledge of how to bring Norma back down from panic, or whether it's just something he knows instinctively will help... but it's a really beautiful moment. And after the previous scene where he takes her hand out of sadness for her plight, perhaps it's the repetition that starts those wheels turning for Norma. It's like... it's a thing now. It's their thing. And there's no going back from that.

The Lady's Paying

Endlessly amusing, this sequence - it's very much something of its time, high camp and very silly, but mostly inoffensive. It had a lot of the standard visual jokes (inside leg measurements, etc) which I've come to expect, and certainly did not disappoint in bringing some lightness to the proceedings.

However, what I really want to talk about (again) is the dynamic between Norma and Joe, based on the above observations regarding their friendship. The entire sequence is essentially about Norma eventually wearing him down into compliance, that much is true, but her "Please don't be so mean to me" came off less manipulative here, and more scolding - like it's something she's always reprimanding him for. When taken with his comments about the script earlier, it really does make me believe in them forming a genuine friendship above and beyond anything else.

Because, you know, who's to say that wouldn't happen? It's not beyond the realm of possibility.

I imagine this would also be a spanner in the works for Max, observing all of this, because Joe is not following the pattern expected of him - rather than turning and running in the first instance, he sticks around long enough to see what happens; then he seems to actually like Norma, to grow fond of her, beyond either of their expectations. Max is always undoubtedly waiting for Joe to fall at the first hurdle, but perhaps it's this basis of friendship which makes him draw Joe into that "inner world" of secrets being kept from Norma - perhaps it's not so much about making Joe stay out of misplaced guilt, but attempting to gain his trust in Norma's best interests - to maintain that facade for her happiness, and to protect her from her own self-harm. Because yeah, there's no way Max doesn't see Norma's infatuation coming, and it's probably safer to encourage it than not.

Anyway, the lyrics would seem also to bear out the theory, in particular, "He always takes forever making up his mind," and "Don't be unkind", both of which seem to stem from a place of familiarity. Quite aside from the fact that she knows full well he will eventually give in.

Basically I want lots of fic about them becoming friends and how this came about and all the snark that happens before this point. NOW PLZ.

New Year's Eve / The Perfect Year

Holy crap, okay. This bit is always a bloody nightmare - this post is already over 5000 words long and there's probably going to be at least another 5000 just on this scene. SERIOUSLY, HAVE YOU NOT MET ME?

As ever, with Norma/Joe, there is a danger of playing it all for laughs above everything else. It grates on me, but I have learned to accept it... This version was no exception to that rule. I can't think of any specific examples, but the kiss after Norma's confession was one I really wish they hadn't tried to make into a comedy moment as much as they did...

Anyway, a few little moments stood out for me here - Joe's exasperated, "Maaa-ax" when trying to wheedle the other guests out of him, in particular, because it (again!) demonstrated an element of comfort in his environment - the way he kind of beat his hands against the sofa. Glenn's outfit here was awesome - lots of sparkly diamante as we have come to expect, plus the requisite feathers in her hair.

For some reason, I had forgotten that the musical used that bit where she discards said feathers after Joe complains about them, and had remembered it only being in the movie. I'm not complaining though; it's one of my favourite moments - she will literally do anything she can to get closer. (Because yeah, picking a tango out of all the potential other dances she could choose... it's not exactly subtle.)

Young Norma made an appearance in this scene again, this time stepping in halfway through the tango to replace Present Norma as Joe's dance partner. On an entirely practical level, this is obviously to give Glenn a few minutes' pause during what can be an energetic scene, but that aside I also really loved that they chose to do it that way... Notwithstanding my headcanon and how well the Young Norma concept fits into it, the best part of the tango scene for me is that sense of Joe struggling not to fall for her - caught up in the moment, under the influence of too much champagne and Norma's infectious happiness. By using Young Norma here, there's a definite sense that he momentarily forgets exactly who he's with and where he is; the big movie cliché he's fighting against actually insinuates itself into his own head - just a guy and a girl and a terrazzo and a lot of emotional music sweeping everything into an inevitable conclusion.

Even his voice of logic surrenders; I think he believes it himself, for a second or two, but then he gets caught up in Norma's hopes again and it all dissolves. He can see what's going to happen - watches it approach like a runaway train - but he can't fight it, and there's a part of him that almost doesn't want to.

Their first kiss, immediately after the dance, is surprising and sweet - a moment where Joe has finally realised what's happening but is too late to stop it. From that point everything deteriorates, Norma's confession suddenly making everything realer; hence my irritation at the next kiss being played as more amusing than it perhaps should have been. For a sequence that is deliberately choreographed to eke as much emotion out of the scene as possible, it definitely felt like the screech of a broken record. In some respects, I guess that makes sense - it's the point where Joe is in far too deep to just talk his way out of it (not for want of trying), but there are better ways of doing it. Like, I would love to have it played where the kiss starts out sweet before he realises what's happening, rather than just being an unwilling recipient of Norma's assumed affection: something where he tries to stop that runaway train, but comes up against her oblivious stubbornness anyway.

I think perhaps I might be a little hung up on this, but it's such an important scene for me and quite often the reality does not live up to the expectations I set in my head. :P

Apparently, this is just one of those scenes which I can never quite boil down to any one thing, no matter how many times I try to analyse it. Simply put, Norma summarises it more succinctly herself than I have ever managed in all these years:

"You don't want me to love you."

That's it exactly, in a nutshell; I hadn't even realised before how it's a rare moment of clarity for Norma, being able to recognise that - maybe part of her wants to make things simpler for Joe, and for herself. When I consider this in light of the friendship angle, it actually makes more sense. She never intended to fall in love with him, but on New Year's Eve she decides to take the plunge anyway on the off-chance it might come to something, even at the risk of their friendship. Except of course, by then she can no longer see the wood for the trees, and any objectivity has completely vanished; I honestly believe Joe does not help himself in this scene at all when he decides to humour her. Especially after the cigarette case, because how on earth he doesn't see it coming after that I will never know!

This Time Next Year

By contrast, of course, the action then segues into Artie's very different get-together. I do wonder at which point Joe remembers that there's this other party going on: is it merely a reaction to his anger towards Norma and his desire to be elsewhere, or has he been secretly hoping to slink away at some point just in order to make an appearance, presumably after Norma's other (non-existent) guests have arrived. The latter would make sense to me as a concept: that he would be keeping her company just up until the arrival of everyone else before maybe trying to convince her to let him out for a couple of hours. Then obviously, when the events take the turn that they do, it's the first location that springs to mind: somewhere noisy and raucous where he can try to forget what's happened.

Except, of course, he can't; even when he tries to escape, and does so by cutting Norma out entirely by communicating only with Max, he finds himself running back to that House on Sunset.

Actually, it's worth remembering that Max has already revealed to Joe about Norma's previous suicide attempts, so he already has the requisite information about her background which might, we hope, preclude him from causing her any unnecessary heartache... except over the course of their relationship he manages to forget because Norma appears, outwardly, to be stable and happy. So as soon as Max mentions it over the telephone, a number of elements come into play.

Firstly, a heart-stopping combination of realisation and remembrance that Norma would be entirely capable of what Max has suggested, i.e. that it's not just an exaggeration or an act to try and make Joe return. Secondly, a slower-burning recognition of the implement she has used to perform the deed, i.e. his own razor, which he's probably kicking himself about leaving on display (and making a mental note to hide it in the future). Thirdly, panic, because this person he considered a friend, regardless of how angry he's been, could potentially have hurt herself significantly. And fourthly, gnawing guilt that all of the night's events have spiralled so far beyond his control that he couldn't stop to think about how Norma was feeling, because he was so caught up in his own selfish emotions that he felt the need to run away from the problem rather than face it.

In that moment of frozen silence, he replays everything that's happened and tries to work out how he could have prevented it. And fails. Instead, all of these elements come together to send him running back without a second thought for Artie, Betty, any of the accumulated houseguests, or himself, because his first thought is that he wants to make things right. I don't think he really plans how, and maybe in his own head he only wanted to set the record straight and possibly reconcile their friendship, but his rush to return to her is rooted in something that perhaps he's not quite ready to admit just yet - that he has a fondness for Norma, and never wanted to hurt her.

That being said...

New Year's Eve (Back at the House on Sunset

Okay, so, first of all: I really loved Joe's entrance at the start of this scene. Max had already escorted Norma to the sofa, bandaged wrists and all, before making himself scarce; when Joe arrived he immediately headed for the stairs before stopping halfway, on the little balcony, when he noticed her on the lower floor. His line, "What kind of a silly thing was that to do?" was directed from up there, with infinite frustration, before heading back down the stairs again.

Latterly, his next complaint: "Attractive headline: Great Star Kills Herself for Unknown Writer", was delivered with a similar level of snark as earlier in the show (e.g. the astrologer comment). Maybe it's a way of reminding both Norma and himself about what they had before all this mess ensued, or he just automatically falls back into that mode out of relief that she's relatively unharmed.

I really love that final moment of indecision on Joe's part after Norma tells him to go. You cannot argue that Joe is a self-serving cynic when he goes against his every instinct, purely out of some protective feeling for Norma which is as yet unacknowledged. Underneath all that cynical bluster, there beats the heart of a thoroughly decent man, who is willing to put aside his own plans, for that moment, just so he doesn't ruin Norma's new year. Of course, he must realise what will become of him; it would be naive to assume otherwise. I just think he kind of gives up in trying to make the situation work in his favour any more, because Norma's needs become greater than both of them.

I also truly believe that he has a complete understanding of how Norma will interpret his next few words and actions, and that he approaches the situation in a carefully calculated way. The kiss is to surprise her, to rectify the situation, to communicate on a level Norma understands implicitly, where words are not needed. He waits until she's worked it out and until he has her full attention, before he tells her "Happy New Year"; and Norma hears it as a reciprocation of her feelings. It's the beginning of the end, and absolutely glorious.

...aaaand then they played the final kiss for laughs again and I kind of wanted to cry in frustration. :(

Actually, I'm not sure that really matters, because for me it's the stuff leading up to it which is important. I should also point out that Young Norma did not make an appearance in this scene, which is very important if we come at it from the angle of Joe's earlier fuzzy-headed confusion: there is no blurring of the edges at this point.

Norma's grabby hands were quite amusing, though I hate to admit it, but I have seen it done in a serious way and much preferred that as a means of breaking the tension. I see why they did it; it's an intense act finale; I'd just prefer it the other way.

Okay, this took far longer than expected, and I still have the whole second Act to get through. Hopefully by the time I get to that, I won't forget all the other things I wanted to say.

Watch this space!
Tags: fandom: sunset boulevard, reviews: theatre, shippiness, write-ups
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