According to the posters outside the Coliseum, it’s THE THEATRICAL EVENT OF 2016. That might be a little premature given that it’s still only April, but this is certainly one of those productions that sends the West End’s publicity machine into a frenzied overdrive. As you can tell from the poster, the big news here is the STAR: Glenn Close‘s name gets (much) bigger print than the show’s title, and she’s the reason we all paid (through the nose) for tickets to a show that frankly, as writing, is patchy at best.
The reason for this
blatant cash-grab revival, though, is not quite what it appears. I doubt the impetus was a sincere desire on the part of the English National Opera to put this particular Andrew Lloyd Webber musical into their repertoire, and most (though not all) of the ladies who played Norma Desmond in the musical the first time around sing the role better than Ms. Close. There has been, though, an undeniable curiosity on this side of the Atlantic about Ms. Close’s Norma, in no small part because of the tabloid slugfest which erupted in London after Close opened in the role in Los Angeles: Close’s reviews were far better than the ones Patti LuPone, the London production’s original star, received at the show’s premiere. Ms. LuPone was contracted to take the show to Broadway, but after weeks of speculation following the Los Angeles opening it was announced that Ms. Close would open it on Broadway in her place. Ms. LuPone, to put it mildly, did not take the news well; the whole sorry saga was all over the papers for weeks, and Ms. Close’s performance, as a result, has achieved something of a mythical status in this country, despite the fact that (until now) she has never played the role here.
More importantly – or rather, more pragmatically – the ENO is in a deep financial hole, thanks to a combination of a significant cut to their Arts Council subsidy, mediocre ticket sales for their regular programming over the past three or four years, and the spiralling costs associated with owning and operating a large, century-old theatre in the middle of the West End. It doesn’t matter that they’d be unlikely, in other circumstances, to programme this material: they need a hit, quick, and there isn’t much in either the opera or the musical theatre repertoire with the potential to sell in London on the level that five weeks of THIS star in THIS role has done. There are still a few seats available, but only a few, which means that over a five-week run they’ll have sold roughly one hundred thousand tickets, with a top ticket price of £150. This isn’t about art, necessarily – it’s about the bottom line, and it’s very clever producing.
And the star, fortunately, delivers. As Norma Desmond, the washed-up silent movie star whose slow descent into madness and mania is the show’s main focus, Close is simply mesmerising. This is a great big old-fashioned star turn of a kind you rarely expect to see in a Lloyd Webber show; Close commands the stage, and you can’t take your eyes off her. Every word, every gesture, every raised eyebrow demands attention, and she plays the audience like a violin. She eerily captures the larger-than-life mannerisms of silent film acting, and she isn’t afraid to go for BIG gestures, but she never crosses the line into camp mugging. In the show’s biggest moments, she is genuinely moving, and she does more than anyone else I’ve seen in the role to compensate for the (several) instances in which the show’s book and lyrics – by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, who should know better – are laughably bathetic.
As for her singing, it is what it is. In an interview in the run up to this revival’s opening night, Ms. Close claimed she was singing the role better now than the first time around. She isn’t, at least on the evidence of her cast recording, but there’s very little difference between her singing of the role then and the performance she’s giving now. There’s still a great big yawning chasm between her strong, forceful middle voice and her rather reedy soprano, and she still has to husband her resources in the score’s more demanding passages. If she lacks the powerhouse voice of some of the other ladies who have played the role, though, she more than compensates in other areas, and her delivery of Norma’s two biggest numbers, ‘With One Look’ and ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’, raises goosebumps. In each case, she is rewarded with the kind of sustained ovation you rarely see in the West End, and she deserves it.
Given that we’re all here to see Ms. Close, the production surrounding her is stronger than it needs to be. Director Lonny Price, who is becoming the go-to hired hand for this kind of semi-staged star-driven extravaganza, turns in a bare-bones (albeit on a huge stage) staging which in a couple of key moments is more effective than the much more complex production Trevor Nunn (over)staged around the corner at the Adelphi in 1993. “Semi-staged”, in this instance, is basically a get-out-of-jail-free card; the production is fully staged and choreographed (by Stephen Mear), there’s a Hollywood soundstage set (by James Noone, with appropriately eerie lighting by Mark Henderson) complete with metal catwalks and staircases, and there’s even a car, borrowed from a production at the Gothenburg Opera a few years ago, for the drive to Paramount Studios, and a drowned-corpse dummy rising on a wire out of the orchestra pit to recreate a version of the film’s famous opening shot. There isn’t an equivalent of the original production’s magnificent floating mansion, but the show, imperfect as it is, works fine without it. In a couple of places, the production’s simplicity is actually an advantage: the car chase sequence, which in Nunn’s too-complicated staging was unintentionally hilarious, is delivered here via the simple but effective means of having actors carry headlights in near-darkness across the catwalks and staircases above the orchestra platform. And in the second act, when Joe and Betty walk out onto a Hollywood backlot, the rear backdrop rises to reveal the full depth (about ninety feet) of the Coliseum’s enormous stage and the theatre’s back wall. That scene is almost the only time the plot moves outside enclosed spaces, and the effect is quite striking.
There’s also a terrific supporting cast. Michael Xavier, as Joe, is better in the second act than the first, but he (of course) sings well throughout, and his forcefully sardonic rendition of the title song almost, nearly manages to make sense of some of Black and Hampton’s more infelicitously misaccented lyrics. Siobhan Dillon is a charming Betty Schaefer, and their ‘Too Much In Love To Care’ is one of the production’s musical highlights. The other is Fred Johanson’s sublimely creepy ‘The Greatest Star of All’; again, the lyrics are terrible, but he makes more sense of them than most of his predecessors in the role did. The song has the single best melody in the show, but in context, because of the lyrics sit so uncomfortably on the music, it often just sits there; in Johanson’s hands, it’s surprisingly touching. The smaller roles are almost all perfectly filled, and the ENO orchestra does a ravishing job of the music. The overture and the orchestral interlude leading into the final scene, in particular, are both quite thrilling. The single misstep is Fenton Gray’s Manfred, a mincing, flaming-queen caricature who makes John Inman in ‘Are You Being Served?’ look like Heath Ledger in ‘Brokeback Mountain’. He’s saddled with ‘The Lady’s Paying’, which is the worst song in the score, so you can’t blame the actor for pushing too hard, but the number is basically just three minutes of your life that you’ll never get back.
Other quibbles? Not many. Price’s one directorial innovation is to have a Young Norma Desmond shadow Close in some of her key scenes, and this doesn’t really work. It wouldn’t be a terrible idea if you were writing a new adaptation of Billy Wilder’s screenplay from scratch, but there’s simply nothing in this adaptation’s script or score to support it.
Then there’s the programme, which costs £5.00, and is rather special; I think the highlight is an awful synopsis (“Meanwhile the pressures of Norma’s impending project has made her increasingly paranoid”) written by someone who apparently can’t spell the word ‘delusion’, although the breathtakingly defensive article by Michael Coveney, who used to be a good theatre critic, about how “Andrew Lloyd Webber is no less serious an artist than his birth-date fellow composer Stephen Sondheim” – really, that’s the first sentence – runs it a close second. The foreword Michael Grade and Michael Linnit, the production’s commercial co-producers, presumably dictated to an underling while a taxi was waiting outside is almost as amusing; it claims, inaccurately, that this is Ms. Close’s “London debut” – nope – and also informs us that “no great music written for the popular theatre has ever demanded a symphony-sized orchestra to achieve its richest effect quite like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s luscious and filmic score for his smash hit stage version of Sunset Boulevard”. Sometimes it’s better just not to say anything at all. Entertainingly, the programme’s editor, a gentleman named Philip Reed, includes his telephone number next to his credit, so if you’d like to hire someone who can’t be bothered to proofread to put together a programme for your next show, you know who to call.
In the end, though, with all due credit to the supporting cast, the ensemble, the director and designers, and the orchestra, the show belongs to Glenn Close. Sure, the production itself is a blatant cash-grab and the show, as a piece of writing, is (to be kind) less than a complete triumph, but while the material isn’t always magical, the star certainly is. The production as a whole, given the pressure under which it must have been put together, makes surprisingly few missteps. And it’s heartening, for once, for most of the electricity emanating from the stage to come from the leading lady and the string section.