How 'Sunset Boulevard' Got the Whiz-Bang Musical Treatment : The spooky and pathetic Norma Desmond. The creepy mansion on Sunset. The cynical, busted screenwriter. Andrew Lloyd Webber's vision of the classic film about Hollywood makes its U.S. debut in the town that spawned the original

Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer

Less than a mile from 20th Century Fox and not much farther from Paramount Pictures, the Shubert Theatre couldn't be better situated for the U.S. premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical "Sunset Boulevard."

Smack in the Industry's heartland, struggling actors and powerful directors share the stage with mysterious Westside palazzos you can't see from the street.

"It's why I wanted to do this here," Lloyd Webber said one recent afternoon in the living room of his own rented Westside palazzo . "There's something very invigorating about working on a show called 'Sunset Boulevard,' when in fact, you're living 30 yards from it."

The composer has been swaddled in Beverly Hills luxury for weeks now, reworking his musical and readying it for American consumption. The highly promoted, long-anticipated adaptation of Billy Wilder's classic film opens Thursday starring Glenn Close as faded silent screen star Norma Desmond and Alan Campbell as struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis.

As everyone knows, Lloyd Webber is the fabulously successful composer who turned T. S Eliot's poetry about cats into one of the biggest hit musicals ever. And this time around, his raw material would seem even more promising: the reclusive Desmond, the handsome young opportunist Gillis and the Hollywood that destroys them.

"Sunset Boulevard" premiered July 12 at London's Adelphi Theatre with Patti LuPone, Kevin Anderson and a record box-office advance of $8 million. Mixed reviews apparently haven't dampened sales, which still claim the West End's largest advances. Some of the London cast will probably transfer to Broadway next fall, while cities from Australia to Canada are lining up to book future productions.

But first comes Los Angeles. The show set a record in August for opening-day sales at Century City's Shubert, and producers say they expect to open with advances of $8 million to $10 million.

It remains a risky proposition, however. Lloyd Webber and his investors are gambling $12 mil lion on the production here, and the Shubert Organization has thrown in another $5 million by upgrading its Century City theater largely to the composer's specifications. The stakes are high too for actress Close, who has done little public singing since "Barnum" on Broadway in 1980.

If things go as planned, everybody wins. Close adds a new dimension to her career, the Shubert houses a lucrative long run in its newly redone theater, and Lloyd Webber gets another hit.

To better their odds, producers have missed few promotional opportunities. Their advertising budget of $700,000 is considerably higher than the L.A. budget for Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera," which was already a hit in New York before opening at the Ahmanson Theatre in 1989, and includes 20 billboards along with the usual print, radio and TV ads.

Press releases go out on heavyweight, cream-colored stationery with the distinctive "Sunset Blvd." logo, and there are plenty of them. The usually reclusive composer is not only granting interviews but holding press conferences. London-based Lloyd Webber was on hand to unveil his star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame in February, and last month, he even showed up at a record store for two hours to sign autographs and plug his new show.

It took him more than 20 years to get "Sunset Boulevard" onstage, and Lloyd Webber is doing everything he can to capitalize on the film's popularity as well as his own. He and his creative team all refer to their effort as a homage to the film classic.

Such familiar lines as Desmond's "I am big. It's the pictures that got small" have been moved unchanged from film to stage and are nearly always spoken rather than sung. Co-writer Christopher Hampton readily acknowledges that he has "cannibalized the script," and New York Times critic Frank Rich referred to that faithfulness as "arguably to the point of artistic imprisonment."

Now, having read those reviews and watched five months' worth of London audience reactions, Lloyd Webber and team have brought back to Los Angeles what they learned. After considerable tinkering, the show opens here with not just a new cast, but also a new opening, a new song and other changes.

"This is a town where very much you are judged by your rewards," actor Campbell says. "That isn't the same somewhere else, which is why I think the show will have so much resonance for Los Angeles."

*

Written by Wilder, Charles Brackett anM. Marshman Jr., "Sunset Boulevard" marked the beginning of Hollywood noir. Winner of three Oscars, the 1950 film has long been both a mainstream and cult classic and was granted landmark status by the Library of Congress.

"I knew I was in an important film when I read the script," says Nancy Olson Livingston, then a 20-year-old UCLA student who was cast as ingenue Betty Schaefer, Gillis' love interest. "We were going to look at what Hollywood was all about--how it distorts lives and makes people do terrible things."

Down-and-out Gillis is trying to escape car repo-men when he gets a flat tire and pulls into the driveway of Desmond's Sunset Boulevard mansion (scenes were actually shot in a Wilshire Boulevard mansion). He eventually moves in to work on the screenplay Desmond plans as her comeback, and each fuels the other's appetite--hers for love, his for money. She has her illusions, and he has his price.

"What is wonderful about it is its operatic plot," Lloyd Webber says. "There's an inevitability to it, and it's almost a Greek tragedy. You can take the story further with music."

Lloyd Webber was not the first person to try to do just that. Back in the late '70s, for instance, so distinguished a trio as Harold Prince, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler spent a few months on a musical treatment before deciding they couldn't improve on the film.

The film's star, Gloria Swanson, tried to adapt the show herself as a musical in 1955. Though she and her collaborators never produced their "Starring Norma Desmond," they did record it at Swanson's New York apartment a few years later. She reportedly sang the opening number, "Those Wonderful People Out There in the Dark," on Steve Allen's TV show.

Next came "Platinum," a 1978 Broadway show originally called "Sunset" and heavily underwritten by Paramount Pictures; Alexis Smith received a Tony nomination playing a '40s movie star wanting to make a comeback as a contemporary singer. "Platinum" closed after 33 performances, then was reworked and briefly revived Off Broadway in 1983 as "Sunset," starring Tammy Grimes.

Lloyd Webber says he first tried to get the rights to "Sunset Boulevard" in the early '70s but was turned down. In 1979, he and Don Black, who eventually co-wrote the show's lyrics and book, even wrote two tunes for it. "One Star," Norma Desmond's main theme, was later recycled as "Memory" in "Cats."

Meanwhile, playwright Hampton was also interested in musicalizing the Wilder film. He suggested it to English National Opera in 1983, and when the company showed interest, tried unsuccessfully to get the rights. A year later, he was lunching with Lloyd Webber, whom he had known for years, and told him that Paramount had turned him down for someone else. "And Andrew said, 'Well, it was me.' "

Years passed before Lloyd Webber turned to yet another collaborator: Amy Powers, a New York-based lyricist and former real estate lawyer who moved to London to work with him on book and lyrics. Lloyd Webber had written most of the music, Powers says, and for six months, they worked from the original Paramount script.

Black then joined Powers for rewrites before the composer's private arts festival, held each year in the converted church at his Sydmonton Court estate near London. Dozens of Lloyd Webber's friends and associates saw this latest work in progress, and soon after Powers left both England and the project.

(A number of songs Powers co-wrote remain in the show, including the two later recorded on Barbra Streisand's hit album "Barbra: Back to Broadway," on which Powers is credited. Powers and Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group, she says, are currently "in active negotiations over the value of my contributions to the show." Meanwhile, she is working as both a theater and pop lyricist and says, "I'm very glad to have participated in it.")

Lloyd Webber next brought Hampton and Black together to co-write book and lyrics. Given Hampton's schedule--the playwright had three screenplays to write in 1992--Hampton and Black agreed to meet at Lloyd Webber's house in the south of France, the first week of every month.

There, in the composer's guest house, Hampton and Black worked from taped piano versions of Lloyd Webber's music, usually at a big, round table with a view of the sea. Sometimes Hampton and Black would walk on the beach, talking through lyrics. Sometimes they'd meet with Lloyd Webber in the evening.

They finished a first draft by July, and a few months later came a workshop performance at the 1992 Sydmonton Festival. Actress LuPone, who played Norma Desmond, memorized the music in her trailer on the Warners lot while she was here working on ABC's long-running series "Life Goes On." She figured the workshop was "my ultimate audition," she told The Times, and she was apparently right.

*

"Sunset Boulevard" was more prepared and finished than most of Lloyd Webber's workshop performances at that stage, recalls Trevor Nunn, who directed the show in London and is doing so again in Los Angeles.

"It was a very honed and shaped score," Nunn says, "and had a very clear tone of voice."

It was also, he says, a "wonderful choice of material: A young man who sells his soul for whatever reason is recognizable and is the stuff of tragedy. A mismatched couple (offers) what is potentially grotesque and potentially fulfilled about such relationships. And the whole notion of celebrating and satirizing the film industry has a breadth of appeal."

Nunn says that from the start they knew they would be playing to two audiences: "While the show has got to be satisfying for aficionados who know all about Billy Wilder's film, it mustn't rely on there being an entire audience of them. In an audience of 1,500, certainly 1,250 may not have seen it.

"When we did 'Nicholas Nickleby,' every critic went off and reread the book just before seeing it--98% of the audience hadn't read it, but everyone wanted to be an expert. It was exactly the same with 'Les Miserables.'

"Of course we will be judged on the relationship of this musical work to Billy Wilder's film," he continues. "But most people won't care. For them, it will be 'Does it work on its own terms? Does it tell me a story, and do I get involved in that story?' "

Telling that story are people like Tony winner Nunn, one of several award-winning artists, mostly British, who have worked with Lloyd Webber for years. They know what he likes, and he knows what they can do.

Most of the action in "Sunset" takes place inside Desmond's mansion, as in the movie. But one shouldn't forget that Nunn and designer John Napier are the same team who brought us "Starlight Express" and "Les Miserables." The two men have come up with theatrical equivalents of a body floating in a swimming pool, an onstage car chase and other spectacles.

Putting together the London production was essentially smooth sailing, the show's creators say, until just before the cast was about to start technical rehearsals at London's Adelphi Theatre. That's when Lloyd Webber confronted what he calls "the most difficult situation I've ever had in my whole 25 years that I've been in the theater."

The problem: Their high-tech, super-sophisticated new hydraulic equipment seemed to be operating on its own, moving sets randomly, and nobody could figure out the problem. Eventually they discovered that the electronic control panels were susceptible to all sorts of outside radio frequencies, and the whole system had to be replaced.

It's extremely difficult to be in the role of both composer and producer, says Lloyd Webber, who held both jobs in London. "I had something I never had before--writer's block. I knew I needed to take two days away to write something we needed for the first act badly. And I could never get the two days."

So, he implies again and again, in London he and colleagues opened what was essentially a work in progress rather than a finished show. Asked at a press conference here if London had become Los Angeles' tryout town, director Nunn punted: "Mad though it may seem, (each) of Andrew's shows opens after a relatively brief preview period and takes its chances. We take a deep breath . . . and do our very best with the material we have."

Lloyd Webber "has a great eye for what will work in the theater," says co-orchestrator David Cullen, now on his sixth show with the composer. "And if it doesn't work the first time out, it will by the time he's finished with it."

*

Glenn Close was in Denmark doing "The House of the Spirits" last winter when Christopher Hampton called. She had worked with Hampton on his film "Dangerous Liaisons," and the playwright-screenwriter asked if she was interested in playing Norma Desmond in Los Angeles.

The actress hadn't planned to return to the stage so soon after doing "Death and the Maiden" on Broadway (in 1992), but she was clearly intrigued.

"I wanted to not do theater for a while," she says. "It's rough. It's a lot of work. But Norma Desmond is one of the great tragic creations. You're lucky in your lifetime if you get to play a character like her."

Close read the script and was impressed. Lloyd Webber sent Desmond's two big songs on to her in Denmark, and when the actress returned to New York, she worked on them with the show's musical supervisor, David Caddick. She next went to London to sing for Lloyd Webber, Nunn, Black and Hampton at the composer's home. And, she says, "they told me on the spot they wanted me to do it."

The actress, when asked, says she's had no second thoughts about taking on the part but concedes it is an enormous undertaking: "I've never sung a role of this size. It was a huge challenge for me."

It was also a relatively private one. Close was shielded from the press until just before previews started, for instance, and did not join co-stars Campbell and Judy Kuhn for a press sampler of the show a few weeks ago.

"We're in the third week of rehearsals," Nunn told reporters, "which is very early to show the fruits of one's labors. Glenn preferred not to show what she was doing and what she's up to at this very early stage. . . . She wants to show the world what she has to offer when the time comes."

Her absence didn't stop Lloyd Webber from tossing off a little hype himself, however. Comparing the singer's progress to that of Michael Crawford before he skyrocketed to fame with "Phantom of the Opera," the composer told reporters that Close "was progressing in much the same way as Michael did at this point in rehearsals."

Once Close was set, Nunn says, the whole Los Angeles production was organized around her.

New York-based Judy Kuhn, who recently starred in the Roundabout Theatre's Broadway revival of "She Loves Me," had been discussed for the London role of Betty Schaefer, Nunn says, but the timing didn't work out. "We could then go back to her," he says, and say, "We're doing the show in Los Angeles. Why don't you move there?"

But the two male parts were slower going. By mid-September, there was still no Joe Gillis and nobody set for Max von Mayerling, Desmond's faithful servant. Producers announced that casting delays had reached the point where they needed to postpone both the previews and opening night.

"We couldn't find a Max and nobody thought of George Hearn," Lloyd Webber says with some embarrassment. Acknowledging Hearn's long stage career, which includes a Tony for "La Cage aux Folles," Lloyd Webber says Hearn "somehow just slipped through the net."

Casting Gillis was complicated, as it had been for the film. William Holden hadn't been the film's first choice--Montgomery Clift and Fred MacMurray reportedly both turned it down first--but Holden had more than just the requisite cynicism for the role. "He had that vulnerability that Gillis had to have," says former actress Livingston, today a Los Angeles arts leader. "He could play vulnerable, handsome and appealing but kind of weak; you could understand his giving in."

Tall, blond, handsome TV actor Campbell came through the auditions early on, but the creative team kept looking. Lloyd Webber guesses that he personally saw the top 30 and met with Campbell at least three times. Gillis has to look young enough to contrast with an aging Desmond, and Lloyd Webber says he wanted to make sure Campbell, 36, would be believable with Close, 46.

Campbell, he decided, "has an innocence, a slightly lived-in innocence. He won't thank me for that, but I don't know him very well. This is my impression. And it strikes me as very Joe Gillis."

It also seems an on-target observation, based on an hour's visit with Campbell. The performer sang with a rock band while in high school, performed in cabarets during college and worked as a Las Vegas lounge singer before a TV career in such shows as "Another World," "Three's a Crowd" and "Jake and the Fatman." When his voice teacher suggested he try for "Sunset Boulevard," he says, "I was doing TV. I hadn't done musical theater for years, so what did I have to lose?"

At Campbell's final audition with Lloyd Webber at the Shubert Theatre, the composer started talking about the production.

"I was having an out-of-body experience, watching myself talk with him about the show," Campbell said in the living room of his hillside home. "I got in the car and thought I must really be in the running. I must really be close."

Though Campbell has had success in Hollywood, he nevertheless understands Gillis: "There's a certain desperation to Joe Gillis which I identified with at this point in life. At my age, in this town, I'd nibbled at the carrot, had some success but certainly not the degree I would have liked.

"Anyone out here in Hollywood for any length of time experiences a certain amount of rejection and has to struggle to hang on to his idealism against growing cynicism. There's a lot of that in Joe Gillis, and I think there's a lot of that in Alan Campbell."

*

In late October, media packed into assorted rooms of the Hollywood United Methodist Church, a frequent rehearsal site for big musicals coming through town. Every space in the parking lot was filled, and in the rehearsal hall itself, it wasn't easy keeping crunched TV crews behind the white line separating performers and press.

This outing was called a "sneak preview"--a few songs, some interviews, many photo opportunities. Lloyd Webber himself turned pages for the accompanist as Campbell and Kuhn sang a love duet.

Their duet, "Too Much in Love to Care," sounded the same as on the London cast recording, but the composer has been continuously revising his music for the Los Angeles production.

Lloyd Webber is "an inveterate tinkerer," says Hampton, "which I sort of respond to because when one of my plays is revived, I often go in and change little things that have been bothering me. You have some distance from it and you start to see where things might be improved."

Members of the show's creative team started meeting about a month before they all headed to Los Angeles and were still making changes here during previews. They've streamlined the first act, which Hampton says people found "a little sluggish," and added a new, lively song. They've reorganized the opening number to speed up Gillis' arrival at Norma Desmond's house and, Lloyd Webber says, heightened and intensified the finale.

The composer's new song, set in Schwab's drugstore, also finally "cracked the problem" he didn't have time to resolve in London. Used throughout the score now to highlight the Hollywood aspirations of young Gillis' contemporaries, the new music provides "a strand we badly needed, which was a lighter color," Lloyd Webber says, "and having a lighter color meant I could go darker in other places."

Lloyd Webber and colleagues have also now taken advantage of the proximity of 87-year-old Wilder. The Los Angeles-based filmmaker, who has said only good things about the adaptation publicly, was in London for opening night and provided notes, many of which have been incorporated.

They moved the singing of "Auld Lang Syne" from one spot in the show to another at Wilder's suggestion, and it's "much more effective now," the composer says. They figured out a way to get Desmond's old car onstage "because he said we must do that," and, at Wilder's prompting, made Desmond's suicide attempt more visually distressing.

The show's score too has changed considerably in crossing the Atlantic. Whereas Lloyd Webber generally writes scores that are sung from beginning to end, this show was originally written with more of a "book"--music would stop for dialogue, usually from the film. For the Los Angeles production, familiar lines are still spoken, but the music is largely continuous. Only in very few instances are words spoken without some sort of musical underscoring.

Lloyd Webber always re-examines his shows, says co-lyricist Black, now on his third collaboration with the composer:

"One of his great strengths is musical architecture, so that when you do rewrite, it is not on a massive scale. We are changing the show for Los Angeles, but it's a few bars here, a few bars there--honing, fine tuning, whatever you want to call it."

Orchestra members might use other terms. At the orchestra's first rehearsal in early November, musical supervisor Caddick included in his welcome an explanation of the different sorts of music on musicians' stands. And changes have continued on a daily basis, confirms orchestra contractor and trumpet player Stuart Blumberg.

"Sunset" sweeps in a wide range of musical styles, from jazz to what Caddick calls "the standard Lloyd Webber romantic sweep."

"It is one of the most difficult to put together with an orchestra because of all the differing styles. But its demands make it that much more enjoyable for the players."

Blumberg started putting together the orchestra in August, taking more than a month to select and recruit the band's 23 musicians. And, he says, not one person he called--not the seven violinists, the two violists, the three woodwinds or others--turned him down.

*

A week before the first preview, a visitor to the Shubert could only wonder how it could all come together on time. Throughout the auditorium, long tables were loaded with computers setting up sound and light cues, while onstage the crew was making sure sets moved properly.

Costume designer Anthony Powell was off at Brooks Brothers doing last-minute shopping for ties and suspenders, while his staff tied up loose ends in the shop. One prop man was trying to assemble a period door opener as another went through the Yellow Pages calling stores that might carry plastic punch bowl cups.

Around the corner, about 150 wigs on mannequin heads were scattered around a room waiting for final shelving. Taped on each wig are identifications ranging from "Lana Turner," "Hedy Lamarr" and "Victor Mature" to "pet undertaker," "brassy waitress," "astrologer" and "priestess."

It's never easy to do a period piece--even a 1950 period piece--and the crew has been assembling hundreds of items since August. Magazine covers were photographed, duplicated and mounted on foam board to fill the magazine rack at Schwab's. The covers came from a magazine collector in South Dakota, telephones from Wisconsin, cameras from New York flea markets. Flash cameras were custom-made.

*

Detail is very important. When Norma Desmond summons a top haberdasher to the house with fabulous clothing for Joe Gillis, cast members sing "The Lady's Paying" as they plop one elegant box after another at Gillis' feet. The boxes, maroon with yellow lining, were all handmade, covered and lined by a propman in Connecticut.

That's nothing, of course, compared to the set of Desmond's mansion, which weighs 30,000 pounds and is 32 feet high. They started building the Los Angeles set even before "Sunset" opened in London, and did so in chunks all over the country because no one scenic shop could handle it.

"Most shows complete don't weigh what this house alone weighs," says technical supervisor Arthur Siccardi. "I can say without blinking an eyelash that it's the biggest set that's ever been built."

Housing that enormous set is the newly revamped Shubert Theatre. Los Angeles didn't work as a world-premiere venue for the show, Lloyd Webber has said repeatedly, because the Ahmanson Theatre was tied up with "Phantom of the Opera" and planning renovations, and he wasn't happy with the Shubert's seating configuration.

The Shubert Organization has put $5 million into redoing the theater, says Chairman Gerald Schoenfeld, representing the first structural changes to the theater since it opened in 1972. The mezzanine has dropped four rows closer to the stage and gone from conventional center aisles to "continental" seating, which has more legroom but side aisles only, and some box seats have been added.

Lloyd Webber says the theater is now "much more intimate" than when four of his other musicals played there. And although the production is not using some of the balcony's top rows, Edgar Dobie, executive vice president of the Really Useful Co., doesn't seem worried. He figures the show could pay off its capitalization on 1,800 seats at the Shubert in the same 40 weeks it took "The Phantom of the Opera" at the 2,000-seat Ahmanson.

By the time it does so, Lloyd Webber and his creative team will no doubt be doing the same sort of preparations for "Sunset Boulevard's" next incarnation as they have been doing here these past weeks.

*

Lloyd Webber says his "ideal, best scenario" was to have opened on Broadway next March or April and have the show going in three major cities "quickly." But things didn't work out that way. For one thing, director Nunn was unavailable; he starts rehearsals next month for Leos Janacek's "Katya Kabanova" at London's Royal Opera, a commitment he says has been in his diary for four years.

Nunn expects work to begin on the show's New York production next fall, but nothing's carved in stone. Lloyd Webber has continuously declined to commit himself, saying several times that the show's next company could "open anywhere." Reporting interest from such cities as Chicago, Toronto and Sydney, the composer says, "We have to assess the next best place, and I strongly hope it will be New York in autumn."

At both a press conference and during an interview at his home, Lloyd Webber insists that he is happy with LuPone in London and will stick with her in New York. In both settings, he used the verb baffled to express his sentiment about persistent rumors that he wanted to replace her on Broadway.

"Patti LuPone is a very talented performer," he told reporters. "She created the piece in Sydmonton. She gets standing ovations every night. We don't understand what this is all about. As far as I'm concerned, there's no need to change the plans with Patti whatsoever."

Meanwhile, the composer's show is already generating spinoffs. Composer-lyricist Dickson Hughes says Gloria Swanson's "Starring Norma Desmond" tape, which has circulated among collectors for years, will be released as a CD next year. And the creation of that show by Swanson, Hughes and Hughes' partner Richard Stapley is the subject of a musical called "Swanson on Sunset," which Alan Eichler hopes to produce early next year.

Paramount, an investor in both the London and Los Angeles productions of "Sunset," has rights that could lead one day to a film of the musical of the film. And Lloyd Webber has greater interest than in the past, he says, in getting some of his other shows on the big screen.

"Over the years, I've made a lot of friends in the movie community," he says. Then, with a rare smile, he continues, "maybe because I've never done business with them."*

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°