Tuesday, February 08, 2011

"Sunset Boulevard": Andrew Lloyd Weber's musical on the famous 1950 film is at the Signature Theater in Arlington VA

The Signature Theater in Shirlington in Arlington VA has been running (through Feb. 13) a lavish stage production of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical “Sunset Boulevard.”  The book and lyrics are by Don Black and Christopher Hampton.  The site for the production is (website url) here. The Broadway musical had premiered in 1994.

The story comes from the famous, garish black-and-white Paramount 1950 film directed by Billy Wilder.  A failing screenwriter Joe Gillis, fleeing from repo men, winds up living with failed diva Norma Desmond. The collaboration makes sense as a business, but she demands affection from him while his romantic attentions are elsewhere, another female writer, much younger. Jealousy leads to a tragic ending, and the movie is narrated by Joe’s ghost. Norma imagines she will regain her fame as she goes off to prison.

The story sounds corny, but what you experience from either the musical or movie is important, particularly if you want to get a movie made. Maybe the message is cynical: you have to “sleep” with the right person. To their credit, the movie and musical both present some of the political problems with movie production back then, as documented in Tim Wu’s book “The Master Switch”.  Zukor’s Paramount demanded too much vertical control of everything.

The Signature stage production was arena-like, on 3 sides (the theater has amazing technical facility for stagecraft as demonstrated by this production.  The effect is that of not just a 3-D movie, but a 4-D, as your coordinates in the audience affect what you experience.

Florence Lacey plays Norma, and she could do double drag on the Town DC stage if ever invited. D.B. Bonds plays Joe, and he quickly becomes puzzled by what’s expected to sell his writing. Does it matter how a writer gets dressed?  Well, the dressing room scene is a bit both homo- and hetero-erotic, as Joe is revealed (“thmooth”), to Norma’s delight; she will later tease him on the swimming pool patio (he winds up in the pool gone in the film).  There is a line to the effect that you shouldn’t give away your ideas to other writers (hence Hollywood’s “third party rule” meaning everyone needs an agent to approach a studio or major production company.

The stage production uses the BW “road” scenes from the film, projected behind stage, with a film noir effect.
The music has a wonderful lilt and sweep, and some of the orchestral passages have complex syncopation and changing rapid meters. The very ending crashes down on loud C-minor octaves and terminates abruptly, as Norma must go to her doom, despite her delirium (“I’m ready for my close-up”).
Above: Norma's demise in the movie. 

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