Thursday, October 3, 2019

Sunset Boulevard

Spoiler Warning: There'sa gonna be lotsa spoilers ahead in this write-up. So if you've never seen this play (or the Billy Wilder film on which it was based), be forewarned.

I've stated here before that Andrew Lloyd Webber is my favorite composer for musicals, based especially on my love of such classics as Jesus Christ, Superstar, Evita and The Phantom of the Opera, and to a lesser degree Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Cats. But these are pretty much his most successful shows. There are quite a number of shows he's composed for that I hadn't seen and that were less successful. One of these was Sunset Boulevard.

Sunset Boulevard opened on London's West End in 1993, and on Broadway in 1994. Webber had had one relatively unsuccessful musical between this show and Phantom, but at the point when SB first came out, it would be fair to say that Webber was still golden. Sunset Boulevard turned out to be more of a mixed bag. It had decent runs in both London and New York, and it won a host of Tony Awards in 1995, including Best Musical and Best Original Score (and Glenn Close also won the Best Leading Actress in a Musical award for her performance as Norma Desmond).

However, it was a tremendously expensive show to produce -- it had a huge advertising budget, and there were lawsuits against it by both Patti Lupone (who had played the role in London and been replaced by Close in New York), and Faye Dunaway (who was supposed to replace Close in a Los Angeles production that had been running pre-Broadway, before that production was closed down altogether). So somehow, in spite of a Broadway run of 977 performances, the damned thing still lost nearly $20 million dollars (at least according to New York Times critic Frank Rich).

And as for its Tony Awards, they came during a down year for musicals. There was only one other show nominated against SB in the Best Musical category (Smokey Joe's Cafe, which I wouldn't sit through even at gunpoint, but some people still insist should have won), and Close only ran against one other actress (Rebecca Luker for Showboat). So even the awards weren't that impressive.

I guess what I'm saying is that this show is only moderately popular, and consequently, it's only performed by Long Island theater companies but just so often. The Gateway Playhouse did a run maybe five years or so ago, and I almost went once or twice to a matinee performance. But something always stopped me (including my own laziness a couple of times.) So when I saw that the John W Engeman Theater in Northport was doing a production this year, I promised myself to catch it.

This is one of those shows that Denise really didn't have an interest in -- let's face it, the show doesn't have a reputation for being a barrel of laughs -- and I knew my daughter would have even less interest in it than Denise -- so I was on my own for this one. Consequently, I bought myself a ticket for a Wednesday night show, when I knew it wouldn't interfere with any possible weekend family plans.

Yesterday was one of those days when I felt like death in the morning. I've been driving my daughter three or four mornings a week to Huntington for the last month or so, for training for her job. And most of those days require her to be there at 9AM, which means we have to leave the house about 7:20 or so to hack our way through the morning rush hour traffic. And my system just doesn't work at that hour of the morning. I'm usually either short of sleep, or dealing with stomach issues, or both. So the day didn't start well for me.

I felt a little better as the day wore on, though, and I managed to catch a power nap in the late afternoon, which also helped. So by the evening, I was as ready as I could be to enjoy the show.

I left my house at about 6PM for an 8 o'clock show. My plan was to drive to Northport, which I figured would take about an hour, then find someplace to grab a light dinner before the show. This plan mostly worked out, although there were some minor bumps along the way.

The first was that the directions on the theater's website kind of sucked. I had been there once before, when Denise and I saw Once a couple of years ago. But Denise had driven that day, so I hadn't fully paid attention. The directions on the website made it seem like three easy steps -- take the LIE to the Sagtikos north, take the Sagtikos to the last exit before the park toll, and make a right at Pumpernickel's restaurant. But they don't give the mileage between steps, and they make it sound as though Route 25A (which is what you get on when you get off the Sagtikos) and Main St. in Northport (where the theater is located) are the same thing. They're not.

The other thing I hadn't really thought about was that it gets dark at about 7 now. So just as I got to the point where I was a little confused, I was also losing the light. And I'm not that great these days when it's dark out and I don't know where I'm going.

It wasn't too bad, though. I did briefly wind up going the wrong way on 25A. But I quickly righted myself, and once I did, everything started to feel vaguely familiar. Before too long, I had found the theater. But by this time it was dark, and I didn't immediately see a good parking spot, so I turned around and took advantage of Engeman's free valet parking.

I asked one of the valets where was the nearest food spot. There was a restaurant across the street, but they looked like they were closing up. I was just looking for a little pizza parlor or something. The valet mentioned a couple of places a few blocks down. But I really didn't feel like wandering around Northport in the dark. (I wasn't afraid of crime or anything, just my own lousy vision.) He also mentioned they had food inside. Now this didn't jibe with what I remembered, nor did it jibe with the theater's website, which said they had $15 cheese platters, but you had to order them 36 hours in advance. But I figured I'd take a chance that he was right. (I wasn't really starving, more looking to kill some time.)

I picked up my tickets at the Box Office (I had a "will call"), and proceeded inside. In the bar area, there was a pianist playing old standards, and a bunch of nicely dressed people milling around. Around the corner was a small food buffet. I asked one of the two servers if this was free for theatergoers, as I didn't see a place to pay. She informed me in a sympathetic manner that the food was for a private party. I must have looked sad -- lack of food makes me do that. Because a moment later, a female voice behind me said, "No, it's OK, he can have some." I turned, and saw a woman with long black hair, wearing a black dress, and, I think, a halo. "I'm the host for the event," she explained, "and we had ten people who didn't show up. So you're welcome to have some."

Now maybe it was because I was wearing my finest Hawaiian shirt, the black one with the deep blue flowers, so I looked like a nice upper class gentleman! Oh, let's face it -- at my best, I barely make the class level for that random pizza parlor I had been hoping to find. But in any event, it was a very kind gesture, which I deeply appreciated. I got myself a nice plate with some steak bits, some chicken, baked ziti and a couple of rolls, bought myself a diet coke from the bar. I then sat down at a small table in the waiting area to enjoy my bounty.

As I ate, there were some speeches going on inside, where I learned that my benefactor's name was Ellen, and that the group holding the event were the people who put together the Huntington Fall Festival, which is scheduled to occur the weekend after this coming one. There will be rides, live music, carnival games and food. They fed me, so here is their link: (What can I say? I'm easily co-opted.)

Before too long, the doors opened up and we theater goers began to file inside. I'd actually remembered to bring my eyeglasses so I could read the program, which made me very happy. Torturous music played over the speakers, music of the 1940s which my dim brain eventually worked out was meant to set a mood (as the play is set in 1949). The house filled up. But not much. I had been curious to see if this playhouse, which normally does great business (it's one of the three Actor's Equity theaters on Long Island) would sell out on a Wednesday. Not even close. At it's height, the room was a little less than half full. All well and good. More room for me.

I was seated reasonably comfortably in the first row of the mezzanine section. There was a little metal fence in front of me, and the leg room wasn't bad. The seats were unfortunately a little tighter than I'd like. I guess I've gotten spoiled by the fact that in modern movie theaters, you can actually put the armrests up so they don't dig into you. These dug in, to the point where I actually wrenched my back a little trying to shift around and get comfortable. But at least there was no one next to me. In fact, I had the entire row to myself. And for most of the evening, I was the person sitting furthest back in the whole auditorium. (There were a few rows behind me, and once or twice, I turned my head and saw someone sitting in the last row. But I'm pretty sure this was a theater employee, as the person wasn't there for most of the performance.)

So I'll give you my overall review, and then I'll break it down for you. In essence, I'd say that this production gave a top-quality performance of a somewhat flawed show.

Let's talk about the show first. For starters, as I mentioned, it's a fairly downbeat story. It follows Joe Gillis, a cynical young Hollywood screenwriter in 1949 who is down on his luck. On the same day, he meets Betty Schaefer, an idealistic young woman who works as an assistant at Paramount, and Norma Desmond, a middle-aged former silent-film star who lives in a huge but run-down mansion with her devoted manservant Max.

Betty believes that Joe has some real talent, and tries to convince him to turn a story he'd written into a quality screenplay. Norma is rich, but cray-cray. She has a manuscript that's thicker than a phone book (ask your parents, millennials), and is hoping for a big film comeback playing the sexy and 16-year-old Salome. Good luck with that. Betty is bright and practical. Norma is wealthy and larger-than-life, but batshit insane. Or at least lives a very rich fantasy life. You decide.

The play (and the film on which its based) starts with Joe narrating shortly after his own death, so we know from the get-go where this is going. And it's not Happyville.

Joe, of course, sells out to Norma and becomes her kept man, but regrets it when he falls in love with Betty. Norma's hoped-for comeback ends with humiliation for her, and a bullet in the back that leads to a nice post-mortem swim in Norma's pool for Joe. It's a little like the opera Madama Butterfly -- you don't really want to get too close to any of the characters, because you know it's not going to end well for them.

So the story is interesting, but not especially enjoyable. And depending on how they're played, the characters aren't always all that agreeable either.

As for Webber's score -- well, ask yourself, how many songs do you actually know from this play? Unless you're a real musical theater buff, chances are, not many. It's not a bad score at all. It's simply not that memorable. At times, there are flashes of "Music of the Night", or little whiffs of something from Superstar. But it just never reaches those heights. And for Webber, it never would again.

The sad irony here is that unbeknownst to himself, by the time Webber wrote Sunset Boulevard, he pretty much was Norma Desmond -- an aging artist whose best days were behind him. I don't love saying that, but look at his list of shows post-Phantom -- there's not a blockbuster in the lot.

In any event, the story is pretty well told (a lot of the dialogue was lifted directly from the Billy Wilder film), and the one thing the score does do really well is move the show along. SO there are some pleasures to be had here. And thankfully, this particular production does a good job of maximizing SB's strengths.

The show is well directed, the orchestra (I couldn't see 'em, but the announcer assured us there was one) was spot on, the scenery was pretty good, and the cast -- the cast was delightful!

The main players included Judy McLane as Norma Desmond, Bryant Martin as Joe Gillis, David Hess and Max Von Mayerling, and Sarah Quinn Taylor as Betty Schaefer. All were quite good.

The film version of Sunset Boulevard featured Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond. As I mentioned, I've never watched the movie, but from the clips I've seen, she plays her fairly melodramatically, in spite of the fact that she won an Academy Award for the part.

It's telling, then, that for years whenever I thought about Sunset Boulvard, the portrayal that first came to mind was Carol Burnett's, in a series of skits that she and Harvey Korman did about the Norma and Max characters on the old Carol Burnett Show.

McLane's Norma is imposing, and at times pathetic, but her interpretation of the character seems more realistic than Swanson's, and for most of the production, you actually like her. (At least I did). You feel bad for her when she realizes she is losing Joe, and even worse when she finally discovers that her big comeback was only ever a fantasy.

In fact, I'm going to embarrass myself here, and talk about the soap opera General Hospital. Much to my shame, I know most of the characters on General Hospital, past and present. This is because Denise has watched General Hospital for as long I've known her. And when you're married to someone for almost thirty years, and they watch a show for all that time, you can't help but absorb some of it, even if you're kicking and screaming all the way.

There's a character on General Hospital (I think she's off the show right now, but she'll doubtlessly be back) named Tracy Quartermaine, played by the actress Jane Elliot. She's described by Wikipedia as "spoiled, rich and often badly behaved," and she eventually marries a younger man, Luke Spencer (of Luke and Laura fame). I understand that when the character originated, she was basically a villain. But in more recent years, she's been kind of a likable character. Judy McLane plays Norma Desmond as a delusional Tracy Quartermaine, but one who can sing her ass off.

Bryant Martin's Joe Gillis character is in an unenviable position. He's actually the protagonist of the play, but he's also far less riveting than Norma. (He's also saddled with a lot of 1950s-style dialogue, the kind where taxi drivers would say things like "Now look here, Mac!") But he makes the most of the part, and also manages to make his role a sympathetic one (at least for most of the show). In spite of the fact that he's using Norma, you can kind of see where he's coming from. And for most of the show, he at least attempts to be kind to her.

David Hess's Max is well played, although I don't feel as though the character itself was all that consistently written. There's a lot of missing info here on how exactly Max went from being Norma's first husband (which we learn in the second act) to being her toady. Hess had some amazing musical moments, though.

Sarah Quinn Taylor's Betty is actually a little annoying at times. That's OK, however, as initially Joe finds Betty annoying also. (The character seems to have been played as something of an innocent ingenue in the film, but I think this interpretation works just as well, or maybe even a little better.)

So overall, I won't say it's the best night of theater I've ever had. I thought it got a little draggy towards the end, and it's just not that pleasant a story, however well it's performed.

I also have to say, though, that it must have struck some kind of a chord with me. Because when I got home, I went up on Amazon Prime and added the original 1950 film to my to-watch list, and my plan is to watch it sometime before the end of the weekend. So I guess that theater doesn't always have to be delightful to be effective.

Sunset Boulevard will continue playing at the John W Engeman Theater in Northport through October 27. The website is