David Burnham and Valerie Perri in “Sunset Boulevard.” Photo by Ken Jacques.
Here in the City of Angels, tales of long-forgotten actresses desperate for a comeback and down-and-out screenwriters are fairly common. So it wasn’t surprising that the American premiere of the musical Sunset Boulevard, which has two such characters, occurred in LA, the city where it’s set — at the since-demolished Shubert Theatre in Century City, in December 1993.
That production erupted in controversy in June 1994, when the scheduled replacement of Glenn Close by Faye Dunaway, in the starring role of Norma Desmond, was suddenly canceled — and so was the entire LA production. Dunaway went on to sue, and Close went on to star in the Broadway production, which opened on Nov. 17, 1994. But since that production’s affiliated tours closed, the show hasn’t been fully produced in LA.
Now, however, Musical Theatre West is reviving Sunset Boulevard, which is based on the classic 1950 Billy Wilder film, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. And it just so happens that the opening tonight of this new production (running through July 28 only) celebrates the 20th anniversary, to the day, of the show’s world premiere at the Adelphi Theatre in London.
Getting the cast and crew of this production ready for their close-ups is Ovation-winning director Larry Raben. He’s wary of the broader or perhaps more cartoonish portrayals of the iconic Norma Desmond that have cropped up in some other productions., Raben’s approach is to strive for a more honest interpretation of the story.
“It really is a chamber musical,” he says. “It’s a wonderfully small, complex story. In approaching the piece this time, we really went for the truth of the situation — an older Hollywood actress who has dreams of making a comeback, who still believes that she’s viable when the industry has moved on from her, and how this infusion of young blood into her home from this desperate but talented young writer changes her life. Ultimately it plays out like a Greek tragedy. It’s an easy show to approach tongue-in-cheek, and there are a lot of missteps that you could make because the lines are so iconic from the film. At its core, it really is just a tragic love story — a tragic love triangle, actually.”
The pieces of this doomed love triangle are Joe Gillis — played by Broadway leading man David Burnham (Wicked, Light in the Piazza), his young ingenue Betty Schaefer (Ashley Fox Linton in her Los Angeles debut), and Valerie Perri, who is donning the signature Norma Desmond turban. Though onstage it may be all tears and misfortune, it’s a different story among this trio offstage.
For Perri and Burnham, doing this show is something of a fulfilled prophecy. “David and I have worked together in concert arenas in the past, and we’ve always wanted to do a show together,” says Perri. “As a matter of fact, we said to each other about a year ago, ‘You know what would be a great show for us? Sunset Boulevard. I wish somebody would do it.’ And lo and behold, Musical Theatre West comes up with that on the roster and both of us immediately called our agents. I’m thrilled, I couldn’t ask for a better co-star.”
David Burnham, Valerie Perri and Ashley Fox Linton
Ashley Fox Linton echoes the sentiment. “I cannot imagine a better leading man, and you can quote me on that.” As Linton tells it, the chemistry between her and Burnham was evident before they even auditioned. While in the audition waiting room, the two struck up a friendship. During callbacks, they were brought in to read together, but Raben never asked them to sing together, prompting them to both think that they did not book the job. “Afterwards, in the parking lot, we were talking about how sad it was that we didn’t think we’d be working together. When we started rehearsals, we told Larry that we didn’t think we got it because he didn’t have us sing together, but he just said ‘Yeah, I’d already seen what I needed to see without that’.”
Raben, in turn, predicts that “Valerie Perri is probably going to be the best-sung Norma Desmond ever. She has crazy pipes and she is a gorgeous woman. She looks like a movie star.
“And with David Burnham,” Raben continues, “he could sing it just about better than anyone. And they both are wonderful actors. ”
For Raben, Perri, and Burnham, the dark side of show business is something that they all believe will resonate strongly with Los Angeles audiences. “I really hope that audiences are moved,” says Raben, “especially because in LA, we live in this Hollywood machinery. We watch it happen every day. We have our favorite stars of yesteryear who become ‘has-beens’, who become obsolete, and we watch their tragic attempts to remain relevant.”
Perri notes that Norma is such a large character (it’s the pictures that got small!), but her story is such a familiar one. “It’s really quite incredible to go on Norma’s journey throughout the show, because she’s so damaged. As an actress, you have to ride that silver lining when you’re young. Meryl Streep was able to keep going, but in some cases — in Norma’s case actually — having been a product of the silent film era and then moving into the talkies where she couldn’t get a foot in the door, she really was discarded from the industry. They exploited her as much as they could, and then she became reclusive. It’s amazing what that does. We see it today with some of the younger stars who end up on drugs. It’s really such a statement about this industry and everything that goes along with it.”
Perri cites the life of the film’s Norma, Gloria Swanson, as an additional source of inspiration for her. While Swanson always denied that the character of Norma was based on her, Hollywood lore dictates that it was indeed the case. As Perri tells it, “Gloria wasn’t even the first choice for the part. The story goes that Billy Wilder had lunch with George Cukor, and it was George Cukor who said ‘What about Gloria Swanson? She really is that character.’ It’s funny how people can take such a huge swing in a mental direction. In all of her final interviews that I watched, she was always so impeccably dressed and kept herself very classy.”
The character of Joe Gillis represents an equally sad, but truthful plight in the underside of the business — the struggling artist who compromises his creative and moral values for a taste of fame. According to Raben, Joe’s attraction to Norma makes sense because despite the age difference and stature, they both crave the same thing. “Things that used to come easily to this talented, good-looking writer are no longer in his grasp. So it’s also his desperation that keeps him in this house and in this relationship with Norma, because he’s desperate for a better, easier life.”
But not everything is all doom and gloom here in Hollywoodland. Linton, who has performed across the country with the national tours of Les Misérables and Wicked, hasn’t taken long to find her footing on the West Coast after moving here from New York last year. “This is my first LA gig,” she says. “Coming from New York, everyone has been so welcoming. I think that Musical Theatre West is a true testament that LA has great musical theater.”
For Burnham, who has worked on Broadway, toured nationally, and travels often between New York, events across the country, and LA, this engagement is a welcome homecoming. “I’m just so, so thrilled to be back,” he gushes.
Ashley Fox Linton and David Burnham
When asked about what elements of this production audiences should be excited about, the foursome of Raben, Burnham, Perri, and Linton are unanimous about two things, the first of which is veteran actor Norman Large as the butler Max von Mayerling. “He’s such an incredible character actor,” says Perri. “He has such polish. He’s worked everywhere and his characters are always so full. To have to play a character like this where you’re in the shadows most of the time but your presence is so known… and then he gets to sing that glorious song ‘The Greatest Star of All’, and he nails it every time.”
The group also was quick to cite the work of musical director David Lamoureux and his 20-plus-piece piece orchestra. “I will absolutely go on the record as saying that this is the best-sounding show that I have ever had the privilege to work on,” proclaims Burnham.
Raben says he hopes LA audiences will re-discover or newly experience this challenging musical. “I want people to fall in love with the show again. It has been out of circulation for a good chunk of time, and I think it’s Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best writing. Every last moment of this evening is underscored. I think it’s very smart.”
Perri, who is familiar with Lloyd Webber passages thanks to her renowned performances of Evita, says “I said to my husband that the last time that I felt this kind of lust going into a role was when I did Evita, which was 30 years ago. And this show is dark, just like Evita was dark. And in this case it’s a wild ride and such an experience. It’s Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride!” She laughs.
Sunset Boulevard, Carpenter Performing Arts Center, Cal State Long Beach campus, 6200 Atherton Ave., Long Beach. Opens tonight 8 pm. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Also Sat 2 pm on July 20 and 27, Sun 7 pm on July 21 and 28, Thu 8 pm on July 25. Closes July 28. Tickets: $17-$90. www.musical.org. 562-856-1999 x4.
**All Sunset Boulevard production photos by Ken Jacques.