SITTING IN THE dark at Sunset Blvd., I noticed a fetid, sweet smell akin to a dying lily, as if the woman next to me hadn't bathed in a while and had put on old perfume to hide it. Just when it became too much, the smell would disappear, replaced by the scent of sandalwood incense. That's just how Norma Desmond's house would smell, I thought. Like Miss Havisham of Great Expectations (a comparison made in the film), this washed-up silent film star is crumbling in on herself, decaying awfully, but exquisitely.
As it turns out, no incense is burned onstage, but the actors smoke clove cigarettes (apparently to avoid nicotine). It's a small, perfect, unintended touch, and the kind of humanizing gesture that saves this potentially
monstrous Andrew Lloyd Webber
production from it's own overwhelming ambition.
To this critic's mind, Webber is the Oliver Stone of musicals: They both pick Big Stories and make them bigger. They're hacks, overfeeding themselves from the pockets of a declining generation. Still, one can't help but respect their sheer industry, their bald egos, their ability to somehow pull it off in spite of their worst artistic instincts.
Even more than in the Billy Wilder film of 1950, the set is the star here. Norma's $13 million, nouveau riche, oil sheik-meets-film noir living room is a single unit weighing 20 tons, moved by hydraulic lifts, every foot of its three levels carved, gilded, and contorted with ostentation. But the piece doesn't quite fill the Orpheum stage, and its outer edges disappear into black space. It can't envelop us; for all its effort, it's just a suggestion of itself. Which works, in a sense: Norma's universe is in fact shrinking from the outside world.
Linda Balgord, who dons endless turbans and scarves and beaded robes that scratch up and down that voluptuous staircase, is an intelligent actress who's decided exactly who her Norma is. Unlike Gloria Swanson in the film, Balgord's Norma is sane: "deluded but not demented," she once said in an interview. At first it works--she's still young, and mad as hell that no one else agrees. But she teeters at the edge of cronehood, lapsing into a curled-fingered palsy and then recovering. And that's the rub: A still-spritely 50-year-old who's trying to look young doesn't shake like that, ever. A sane woman doesn't believe she can play a 16-year-old Salome, as she wants to do. A woman with her eyes wide open doesn't wear Norma's Kabuki-style makeup.
But when Norma said, "I am big. It's the pictures that got small," you knew she was right. Her brand of pre-Depression faux-royalty was a functional insanity perfectly appropriate for her era. It's the world that went and sobered up without her. Yet the film only connects Norma's megalomania and the society that produced her at the end, when--moving in for her close-up--she looks briefly into the camera at all us "wonderful people out there in the dark." The musical nods to this moment in the title song: It's right that this showstopper isn't about Norma at all, but the street in Tinseltown where she became who she is. Norma's a nut, to be sure, but she's also a casualty of something larger, and if the musical had looked more deeply into this, it could have perhaps improved on the film.
One imagines that composer Stephen Sondheim would have caught onto this. His Follies deals with similar themes--that show's Sally, like Norma, is losing her mind, living in the past, and the piece crawls with ghosts of 1920s show-biz glamour. But, of course, Sondheim is a much deeper thinker than Webber and his lyricists, Don Black and Christopher Hampton.
Still, the actors, designers, and director Trevor Nunn seem to have put a lot into this production. Ron Bohmer plays Joe Gillis with humor and a creeping self-loathing, doing at least as much with this difficult role as William Holden did. The rest of the cast is unimpeachable. The opening scene, when Joe's body floats in Norma's pool as cops try to fish him out, is reproduced ingeniously for the stage, and the car-chase scenes are conveyed using old-fashioned filmic techniques (basically, projecting images onto a scrim while using live actors onstage). These somewhat primitive special effects don't always work, but they do show that someone's really thinking back there.
Unfortunately, Sunset Blvd.'s music is its weakest element. The tunes are almost all forgettable, and virtually none of the lyrics comes close to the pithy brilliance of the film's script. Norma, a woman who says things like: "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces," is not one to gush about creating "fairy-tale adventures in this ever-spinning playground!" Or repeating ad nauseum, "We gave the world new ways to dream." Proud she was. Unhinged, yes. Sentimental, never.