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

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"Sunset Boulevard" Write-Up, Part 2

Right, I will approach this in much the same manner as the previous one by going through the score song by song.

Before that, though, there's something I forgot to mention in the first post - it's more of a general observation anyway so it doesn't really fit any specific scene...

Basically, the whole show was imbued with additional irony by the sheer fact that it was Glenn Close starring as Norma Desmond - not least because she last played the role on Broadway 20 years ago. All of the references to Norma's "return" to Hollywood and her status as a big name at the time were doubly relevant. In particular, this exchange:-

JOE: Norma, they don't want you in every scene.
NORMA: Of course they do - what else would they have come for?

Given that (I assume) quite a lot of the audience were only there to see Glenn Close, or specifically to see her in this show, that part was especially ironic, and there was definitely a murmur of amused acknowledgement from the audience.

Anyway, without further ado, here is the rest of the write-up - hopefully this one will not take me seven hours like the last one did...

Act Two

Entr'acte / Sunset Boulevard

Well, the production made quite a brave choice for the title song by having Joe sing it in some (very tiny) swimming trunks, having just emerged from the pool, which he then subsequently stripped out of (beneath a dressing gown). It was ... I kind of don't even know what to do with it, if I'm honest. :P

There was an amusing moment where Max removed the discarded shorts between finger and thumb, at arm's length; I actually almost missed that and only caught it because I heard Paul sniggering next to me and wondered what he was laughing at. Quite a lot of the humour in this production came from the quiet background moments (like the secretary with her coffee-mugs at the beginning), as well as the intentionally comedic scenes like "The Lady's Paying". Another amusing moment was Norma's ridiculous zebra-print kaftan thing in the same scene.

Actually, the main thing I took from this is that it basically removes any and all ambiguity as to the nature of Joe and Norma's relationship after the indeterminate period of the interval (the movie screenplay indicates it's five months but the events don't follow the exact same timeline; I'll go for about three. :P) I mean, not that it's particularly ambiguous to start with, but it's generally implied in a more subtle way.

Yeah, I still don't really know what to do with it. ;)

There's Been A Call / Journey to Paramount

At this juncture, I have to mention the car.

Given the sparseness of the production, I was definitely not expecting a full-size Isotta-Fraschini to make an appearance, so I was definitely surprised when it did. It seems a really odd decision to make, considering, because the car is literally only on stage for about a minute and it seemed a rather frivolous extra expense for such a short run of shows. But actually, I suppose there needed to be something to demonstrate Norma's wealth, and the old car is a very obvious interpretation of that.

I still have a bit of a soft spot for this scene following the UK tour, because it was a lovely, quiet little moment between Norma and Joe before all of the later mess sets in. (As benchmarks go, that UK tour and its X-Files-esque levels of UST are a pretty hard act to follow! It's almost like they saw me coming...) I've unfortunately never seen it played the same way since, though I enjoy that scene in the movie as well. I like it because Joe is actually being supportive despite his opinions about the script, and despite the situation he finds himself in. He is playing the part as well as he can - possibly just to make his own life easier - but he doesn't seem particularly unwilling to do so.

Maybe there's also a level of morbid curiosity at play, to see how this potentially disastrous meeting with De Mille will pan out. Neither Joe nor Max have the requisite abilities, between them, to break the bad news gently to Norma - although I do believe Joe may have tried during the course of editing the script, given his snark in Act One when she states her continued intentions to send it to the director - so maybe they're hoping De Mille can do it instead, as a voice of more senior reason and someone Norma still has respect for.

Alas, De Mille is just as protective of Norma as the rest of them. Which is lovely, but ultimately harmful.

As If We Never Said Goodbye / Paramount Conversations / Surrender (Reprise)

This was, quite honestly, astounding. I mean, I had pretty high expectations but Glenn's performance blew me away nonetheless. Absolutely stunning. I can't even think of anything to say which can possibly do it justice, but it was as good, if not better, than her rendition for ALW's 50th anniversary (I think you can find it on YouTube). Heart-stoppingly awesome, and I have not heard applause like that in a very, very long time. It just went on forever. The extras making up the scene were also applauding - which makes sense in the context of the scene, I guess.

What was interesting, though, was the decision to place Joe on the balcony just above "Stage 18" (i.e. the floor) - he was obviously not even the focus of the scene, nor even lit, because the spotlight was on Norma, but obviously they had to put him somewhere in order to segue into the bit afterwards with Max. And, okay, it's headcanon time again.

Actually, this isn't technically a headcanon, but a little AU idea I had ages ago and never quite got around to writing. It's based more on the movie version of this sequence than the musical, in particular De Mille's admonishment to Hogeye to "Put that light back where it belongs." I have always wanted to write a version where Joe sneaks into the stage after Norma to watch the proceedings, and for De Mille's comment to drag a previously unprecedented surge of protectiveness out of him. I did in fact half-finish this as a story, and got as far as Joe daydreaming to himself about standing up to De Mille, escorting Norma out of there and then commenting later on that the spotlight was exactly where it belonged, before snapping back to reality and deciding against it, sneaking back out again before he is found.

So, Joe's placement for this scene made me very happy - even though he was shrouded in darkness he was actually watching what was going on below on Stage 18. Obviously, in the next few moments he runs into Betty again and they have their little discussion about "Blind Windows", but I'm fairly sure this took place on the same balcony, and that he was still there whilst De Mille and Norma were saying their goodbyes before heading down to have the exchange with Max about Sheldrake only wanting the car.

And, as ever, I really like that as a little moment between Joe and Max where they're actually on the same page when it comes to Norma's best interests. I like to think that if Joe had been present for the altercation he would also have given Sheldrake (or Gordon Cole's goons as in the movie) a piece of his mind.

...Actually, in musical canon, having that conversation with Sheldrake would probably be reeeeeally awkward. :P

Girl Meets Boy (Reprise)

I'm sure I mentioned after my last Sunset trip how the two separate versions of "Girl Meets Boy" reflect the two main "love stories" of the show; the first is a sort of idealised Norma/Joe whilst the second contains inferences to Joe/Betty. That the focus changes following the interval cannot be coincidental, and is clearly a reflection of Joe's burgeoning emotional turmoil and altering perceptions. It is interesting, however, that the first "version" (for want of a better word), the one which speaks of the "fabulous heiress meets handsome Hollywood heel" and the "wedding in the last reel" occurs mere days after Joe first stumbles into Norma's house, considering its connotations - part of me cannot help but wonder if on some unconscious level he was half-expecting things to turn out that way... that would certainly go a long way to explaining his bitterness as things progress.

Actually, when he gets moved to the "Room of the Husbands", that should trigger a little alarm in his head; it's almost like he spends the first few weeks in denial about where things are heading. I'm not saying that Norma carefully calculated the entire thing from the moment he stepped through the door (though she undoubtedly does pull all the strings later on) but when life starts to imitate art, you'd think that would give him a kick into pausing a moment and re-evaluating.

AND, now that I've pondered that, when the focus of the story changes to reflect his situation with Betty, maybe he's just hoping that the same thing will happen again - maybe that's his get-out clause, a weird semi-hope that if it worked the first time, it might work a second time...

I have literally no idea where any of these thoughts are coming from. It's like every time I see the show it chips another bit of understanding out of my brain.

Eternal Youth Is Worth A Little Suffering / Who's Betty Schaefer?

This bit is always comical, particularly as a counterpoint to Joe's experience in Act One during "The Lady's Paying" (the two songs share a melody), and it does at least demonstrate that he's not the only one to suffer at the hands of Norma's perfectionism.

And, augh, the bit where Norma has found the script he's writing. I just... they both handle this so badly. Norma fails to confront him directly but waits for him to come to her; when that fails she hides it so he has no choice but to come looking for it. Joe fails to tell her in the first place and then shuts down into silence when the opportunity arises. And, like, at this point there's nothing particularly sinister going on (Joe's burgeoning feelings for Betty notwithstanding) that would cause either of them to approach the situation in the way that they do.

Norma talks herself out of her own suspicions ("I haven't done anything." / "Of course you haven't. [I wouldn't let you.]" - the bracketed bit is from the movie, which adds a different spin entirely) but unfortunately, it just spurs Joe to continue sneaking out in order to finish the script. He even acknowledges that he should have stayed at the house, but the invasion of privacy is enough to finally stop him listening to his conscience.

Too Much In Love To Care

I remain conflicted that my favourite song from the show is for my non-favourite pairing. :P Case in point: I can't believe how many words I managed to put into this bit!

A note here about Siobhan Dillon, or rather a reiteration that her voice was frelling amazing. A pure and effortless soprano the likes of which I am incredibly jealous of; one of those rare occurrences of raw, natural talent being used to its full potential.

There were a few sweet little moments in this scene; my favourite was Joe pointing a camera at Betty after she told him about her family and being third generation Hollywood, and her ducking out of the way in self-conscious embarassment. Very cute. Also, they started the scene / song on the balcony bit of the set, then thankfully moved down to the main stage for its emotional conclusion - which is probably for the best, given my tendencies. (I do not need another ridiculously complicated pairing from this show taking over my brain, thank you!)

It's kind of an odd situation for Joe, I guess, being caught between these two very different women. Betty is young and still naive in many respects, at least when it comes to her starry-eyed enthusiasm, and Joe as much as admits that she makes him feel old when she's excited about finishing her first script. Betty's youthfulness inevitably brings some frivolity and childishness out of Joe, in a bizarre reflection of the role he plays himself for Norma, who presents as more youthful in her mannerisms as her feelings for him grow. So basically, he's not only stuck between two worlds - the dark chasm of illusion that is Norma's mansion, and the bright lights and harsh edges of reality - but playing two very different roles, neither of which is particularly a reflection on his character.

I think, actually, at the point where his relationship with Betty comes to a head, Joe has no clue any more who he really is. The frustrated cynic we see at the start has slowly disappeared: his plan to manipulate Norma backfires and results instead in him forming a closer bond than he perhaps wanted, eventually culminating in a show of selflessness (on NYE) which is his ultimate downfall. At the start of Act Two, he's trying to justify it to himself (and to us, the audience) but it's just lip service, because he's already in over his head. The jaded pessimist who was disinterested in Betty's big ideas then finds himself participating in them, pinning his hopes on something good coming out of this impossible situation. Let's face it - so far all of his plans have not exactly turned out how he expected.

Poor Betty really has no idea what's she let herself in for. As I mentioned before, she is drawn to the idea of Joe Gillis, a writer whose work she has enjoyed, and I suspect there is actually an element of denial for her also when she actually meets him and they get off on the wrong foot. She wants to believe that the writer whose work spoke to her is just as interesting in real life as he was in her head; she forces a camaraderie out of their relationship when there really isn't one there, through sheer perseverance and not knowing to leave well enough alone.

I do wish we had more background about her relationship with Artie, because there's very little to go on, and there's a danger that her dalliance with Joe comes across as a "while the cat's away..." situation. Which to some extent I suppose it is, but you have to wonder why she's not thinking about her fiancé as much as he is obviously thinking about her (given he contacts her from Tennessee about the two-dollar-wedding - maybe it's been a long engagement due to financial constraints?), and I don't really buy into the whole concept of her being distracted by Joe's charm and wit.

Betty/Joe has no longevity, IMHO, because I am totally convinced that they would end up hating each other once the spell wears off. They are very different people who are nonetheless alike in their stubbornness. That's not to say that Norma/Joe would have any longevity either, unless a very specific thing were to occur, which leads me nicely on to...

New Ways to Dream (Reprise)

Young Norma made an appearance again for this part, wandering through with a bouquet. This is why I can't really work out whether she's an embodiment of Max's memory or a figment of Joe's imagination, or both at once. For a simple idea, it really has a lot of complex meaning.

Anyway, have another headcanon before I continue. The headcanon is basically my analysis of this bit, TBH.

Okay, so. I've got a theory it could be bunnies that anyone who comes into contact with Norma Desmond - or, more specifically, anyone who decides to embark upon any form of long-term relationship with her - eventually goes crazy. Specifically, in order to love Norma, one has to subscribe to her particular brand of insanity and delusion.

We see this very clearly with Max. He is quite obviously not as crazy as Norma, but after however many years of trying to keep her buoyant and safe, the "game", as he describes it, has begun to affect him as well. It becomes second nature to maintain the facade; we also cannot forget that he gave up a successful directing career to return to Norma after she left him because he loved her too much to stay away.

In the movie, Max reveals that Norma has been married three times, and that he was "the first husband". (That wording in itself takes away any autonomy for Max; the musical is somewhat more sympathetic by having "She was my wife" as a precursor, which at least gives him some ownership back.) I also have a headcanon as to the other two husbands: the second was a medical student (latterly Norma's doctor, in keeping with the idea of that close inner circle around her) and the third was a stagehand or similar whom she fell headfirst in love with, before he left her for a younger woman. Norma was the instigator of each divorce; the only difference is that the third one arose out of getting her heart broken.

It seems unlikely, given their respective careers, that Norma and Max would not run into each other at the studios or indeed remain amicable; I have a suspicion that their wedding was the culmination of a whirlwind romance whereby Norma was swept up in the excitement of making her first movie and Max was enthralled, then they discovered they had nothing in common. After Husband No. 3 being an unmitigated disaster, however, I like to think that Max took that opportunity to return to Norma initially in the capacity of a supportive friend, i.e. looking after her, making sure she's eating, keeping the place clean... Basically, I feel like that could be the trigger for everything that comes after (including her paranoia about Joe, obvs) and that Max's situation kind of derails before he realises what's happening. Then at some point Norma forgets why he came back and they fall into the roles we see at the point where Joe joins the proceedings.

So, in order for Norma/Joe to have any longevity as a pairing, Joe has to fall into that same mode. In another universe, in another time, there is every possibility he could reciprocate her feelings, or even fall for her before she falls for him. But there's absolutely no way he can do that and remain sane.

Essentially, he was doomed from the start.

Yeeeah, my head is basically a massive filing cabinet of random nonsense; it's just terrifying when it plays out in front of me as a result of someone else's interpretation.

The Phone Call

Okay, so, bearing the above in mind... the show did something really interesting in this scene. In the intervening period after Norma making the call and Betty arriving at the mansion, we saw Joe sitting resignedly on the sofa, staring into space, as around him the ensemble ran through a confused cacophony of previous events: the meeting with Sheldrake, working on the script with Betty, a moment in Schwab's as Betty and Artie move off hand in hand... I'm pretty sure said flashbacks also involved Young Norma, because I have a vague recollection (curse my shoddy short-term memory!) of this being the last time we saw her, and her being the last thing Joe imagined during the whirlwind.

Look at this alongside my above theory, that anyone who gets remotely close to Norma inevitably goes crazy, and it makes far too much sense. Young Norma being the crux of it is amazing, because it taps into a notion that some of the delusion has been brought on by Joe himself, at least in part.

Usually, that point in the show is a moment of clarity for Joe - not necessarily a positive one, because it's the point where everything comes crashing down around him. By having the disjointed flashbacks, which are so reminiscent of Norma's own in the next scene, it gives the whole thing a layer of latent insanity and utter brokenness, and if there's one thing I love it's a thoroughly broken Joe Gillis.

I think there's something awfully wrong with me, but meh - it's probably too late to fix it now.

We never see Young Norma again after this, and that's important. Joe's diatribe is spoken to Present Norma; any selflessness which has led to this point has now been obliterated, carried off on the breeze of Betty's hurried departure (you could argue that his diatribe to Betty is his final act of selflessness, trying to save her from himself), and he's run out of energy to play the game. Max is powerless to stop the car crash, and in any event is doubtless thinking fast about how to deal with the inevitable aftermath.

Has Joe forgotten about the revolver? Quite probably, he has - or he has not imbued it with enough importance to believe Norma would ever actually use it, against herself or against him. Because yeah - that first gunshot is always a surprise. I always read a measure of betrayal in Joe's demeanour (notwithstanding he's just been shot in the back!) but Norma is too far gone to realise it. I don't think she meant to kill him, either, only to stop him from leaving, and just turned out to be a good shot. (Or bad, depending on how you look at it.)

The scene ended with Joe falling impressively into the pool (orchestra pit), and the suspended body from the opening slowly descending back to ground level. Very eerie, very effective.

The Final Scene

Like "Surrender" in Act One, this was another of those moments where the initial comedic impact of Norma's ridiculous Salome costume was brought thoroughly down to earth again by Glenn's stunning performance of the descent into madness. Just... wow. No words. I am all. out. of words...

...Well, almost. ;)

Going back to what I said above, that I don't believe Norma intended to kill Joe... her words whilst playing Salome would seem at first glance to imply otherwise. ("When he scorned me, I knew he had to die...") However, there are so many other examples in this show of the two respective scripts (Salome and Blind Windows) echoing its themes, and this is no exception. The story of Salome hangs over Joe's situation like a ghost, foreshadowing his imminent demise, and Norma reciting her lines is actually completely detached from that.

I... I think that's all I can say.

Curtain Calls

There was a fully deserved standing ovation for basically the entire cast. My favourite moment was Glenn rushing off into the wings to drag Michael Xavier back out to enjoy the applause with her.

I think it goes without saying that it was a thoroughly entertaining and absolutely mind-bogglingly brilliant show. I want to do it all over again, but I have no money and it closes in two weeks. Fingers crossed for a West End revival, another UK tour, another London run, or a movie adaptation that is not badly cast and terrible. :P

Afterwards, quite obviously, we went to find the stage door. They were clearly expecting the rush because there were two barriers either side of the stage door and a waiting car with blacked-out windows. :P This did unfortunately mean that we couldn't get the signatures of any of the rest of the cast, because everyone was waiting for Glenn Close to emerge.

We waited maybe 45 minutes to an hour in the rain, everyone's anticipation building as the car was brought closer to the door and security started milling about. To her credit, Glenn signed a number of programmes for people on both sides of the barriers, and then signed some more even though she was ready to get into the car. As ever, I was reduced to a flailing mass of "OMG that was so amazing thank you so much OMG" but she seemed really lovely and down-to-earth. (I remember her matter-of-factly explaining to people that they had to find a dry page of the programme otherwise the autograph would never work; it was quite sweet.)

I even managed to get some pictures of her! Not with her (I think I would probably have spontaneously combusted) but I was within about two feet of her and that was pretty bloody amazing in its own right. Also, here is the proof of the autograph:-

Also pictured: Michael Xavier (Joe) and Fred Johansen (Max).

Thankfully, we just about managed to catch the last Tube so that we could change onto our respective lines and get back. On the walk to find an entrance to Charing Cross Road that was actually still open, Eni and I were basically like, "... did that just happen?" and TBH I still can't quite believe it. I have literally been in the presence of A-list Hollywood royalty, and it's a really surreal thing to be able to say that.

This was, very definitely, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It's something I will forever be grateful I could be a part of, and an experience I will never forget. I am now looking forward the inevitable trapdoor effect that is falling back into this insane, brain-eating fandom, and all the extra thoughts/feels/theories that will undoubtedly arise as a result. :)

Well, this one did not take quite as long as the last one, but I still have no idea where any of it came from.

My next task is to start a complete overhaul of "Tango Up On Sunset" to try and include all of these new feels and theories. I am looking forward to that, in a vaguely masochistic kind of way...
Tags: fandom: sunset boulevard, fangirl missions, reviews: theatre, shippiness, write-ups

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