Why They Closed ‘Blvd.’ and Rode Into Sunset : News analysis: Box-office sales hinted at a dark future for the Faye Dunaway version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Venture was labeled too risky.


So the show doesn’t always go on, after all.

The sudden announcement Thursday that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Sunset Boulevard” will close Sunday after Glenn Close’s final performance leads inevitably to the question of why the dismissal of Faye Dunaway--the erstwhile-anointed replacement for Close--requires the entire production to shut down.

Close and the rest of the L.A. cast are moving to Broadway, where the show opens in November, and Dunaway had been scheduled to take over the role of Norma Desmond at the Shubert Theatre in Century City on July 5, but was told this week that her singing was not good enough.

Word of mouth about Karen Mason--the standby who filled in for Close during 13 1/2 performances at the Shubert Theatre--was very good. The producers had already agreed to let Mason do the role for a week in between Close’s departure and Dunaway’s arrival. Couldn’t Mason have continued indefinitely while a star of greater magnitude was sought and rehearsed--if one was even necessary?


A star was indeed necessary, says Edgar Dobie, head of American operations for producer-composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production company. Even though the show had stacked up more than $4 million in advance ticket sales, most of it was spread over a 10-week period. This meant the box office was doing approximately $400,000 a week--which doesn’t begin to match the show’s weekly operating costs, estimated at between $650,000 and $675,000. If Dunaway proved to be a bomb, the show’s receipts could have taken a swift dive.

Despite the enormous resources of Lloyd Webber, who has had phenomenal worldwide success with shows like “Phantom of the Opera” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” that loss was not something his company was willing to risk, and paying off ticket holders and Dunaway was preferable.

“It’s more appropriate to leave here on a high,” Dobie said.

How much the sudden cancellation would cost the Shubert Theatre in lost income for the use of the facility was not immediately clear. Repeated calls to Shubert officials were not returned.


Advance ticket sales last December on the eve of the show’s opening were much higher--approximately $10 million. Although there was still widespread interest in “Sunset”--last week’s gross set a record of $948,000 and this week’s probably will go higher--the company feared that interest would not last without a big star playing Norma. When Mason substituted for Close as many as 200 ticket holders at each performance requested refunds, with more asking for exchanges.

Does this mean the show can’t stand on its own? It can in London, Dobie said. The original London star, Patti LuPone, and her successor, Betty Buckley--despite their avid fans--are not movie celebrities at the level of Dunaway or Close. Dobie believes Los Angeles audiences need the draw of a name. “When you go to London, you go to see shows,” Dobie said. When you go to Los Angeles, you go to see stars.

Of course, one big exception comes immediately to mind. During the long L.A. run of Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera,” Davis Gaines played the Phantom the longest, despite the fact that he was unknown to Los Angeles audiences before taking the role.


But Gaines didn’t don the Phantom’s mask until the show’s momentum was set after a two-year run with well-known actors Michael Crawford and Robert Guillaume, Dobie pointed out. By the time Gaines joined the cast, the show had acquired a life of its own--and a cult of devotees who returned to see it dozens of times.

Other huge musicals have enjoyed long runs here without big stars, but they were not musicals about Hollywood. “Norma is a movie star,” Dobie pointed out--indeed, one of the songs about her is called “The Greatest Star of All.” In L.A., he said, “it made a lot of sense” to take that title literally when the show was cast.


Understudy Mason, the non-star who lost what might have been an opportunity to become one when the show was canceled, said she was “very disappointed,” but “they’ve got a business to run. I’m merely a cog.” Mason had hired a publicist to promote her appearances next week and hoped for a turnout from Hollywood casting powers, as well as a visit by her Chicago-based parents, who still haven’t seen her in the show. They might get another chance when she becomes Close’s standby on Broadway, where “Sunset” opens Nov. 17.

Ticket holders who showed up at the Shubert box office for refunds Friday morning sounded angrier than Mason.

“I cannot believe that in the United States they can’t replace Glenn Close. If Michael Crawford can be replaced, Glenn Close can be replaced,” declared Joanne Matute of Los Angeles, who was trying to exchange a ticket she had bought in December for a September performance.

“Andrew Lloyd Webber is crazy,” said Paisley Yankolovich of Sherman Oaks. “Faye Dunaway was my all-time favorite actress. This whole show has had an aura of nastiness around it.” The reference was to the earlier flap in which LuPone was deposed in favor of Close for the Broadway casting.

Managers at the Century Plaza Hotel, across the street from the theater, aren’t happy about the turn of events either. The hotel’s $300 theater packages, which paid for a night at the hotel plus two “Sunset” tickets, were booked through July--700 packages in all.

Jim Petrus, the hotel’s managing director, said he was “shocked by the abruptness of it. The plug has been pulled so quickly.” Hotel staff is now calling those ticket holders and offering complimentary accommodations over the dates of their confirmed reservations if they have non-refundable airline tickets. Petrus also estimated that the hotel restaurant would lose 150 customers per night from the show’s cancellation.

Times staff writer Anne Bergman contributed to this report.

Editor’s Note

The theater listings in Sunday Calendar include an entry for “Sunset Boulevard.” The section was printed before news of the show’s cancellation was announced Thursday.