Above – Robert Grubb, Sarah Brightman and Tim Draxl. Cover – Tim Draxl and Sarah Brightman. Photos – Daniel Boud

Despite its critical acclaim and a multitude of awards, Billy Wilder’s ground-breaking film Sunset Boulevard was not met favourably by the industry it was so consciously holding a mirror up to. In depicting Hollywood’s more sinister aspects, the movie’s self-referencing systematically dismantled the veneer of fame and allegedly prompted Louis B Mayor to call Billy Wilder a bastard who disgraced the industry that made and fed him. Years later and upon first seeing the moment delusional Norma Desmond returns to a film studio, Andrew Lloyd Webber knew he’d found his starting point for a stage musical.

Broadway star Patti LuPone once described playing Evita as “screaming her way through a part that could only have been written by a man who hates women." Despite the strain on her voice, dividends were paid in the form of a Tony in 1980.  Clearly unbothered by her comments, Andrew Lloyd Webber cast LuPone as Norma Desmond in his much-anticipated musical adaptation of Wilder’s 1950 film. Opening at London’s Adelphi Theatre in 1993, LuPone was lauded for her portrayal of the faded Hollywood star and was nominated for an Olivier award the following year. Despite every expectation that she would open the show on Broadway, Lloyd Webber fired her in favour of Glenn Close who subsequently secured the 1995 Tony for the role that LuPone had originated. 

“Great Stars have great pride!”

And after successfully destroying her dressing room at the Adelphi Theatre, Patti LuPone would go on to successfully sue the composer over their broken agreement. “The Andrew Lloyd Webber Memorial Swimming Pool” at her family home is a tangible reminder of that one-million-dollar pay-out!

Unlike his relationship with LuPone, things between Opera Australia and Andrew Lloyd Webber have been awfully cosy in the last few years given we’ve been inundated with his back catalogue. Evita, two different productions of The Phantom of the Opera and now before Starlight, Whistle and Stephen Ward turn up, comes a brand-new production of Sunset Boulevard nearly 30 years after the original Australian production reopened Melbourne’s glorious Regent Theatre. 

Lloyd Webber's soaring score is at times as dark as the themes it summons and as cinematically exciting as its source material. Within the work are some of the composers most memorable songs. First recorded and released by Barbara Streisand, “With One Look” and “As if We Never Said Goodbye” generated incredible enthusiasm for the production prior to its London opening and with Barbra going first, Norma Desmond’s status was assured along with an expectation about the kind of performer both worthy and capable of playing her.

Directed by Paul Warwick Griffin and designed by Morgan Large, Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment have delivered a beautifully realised, fully staged original take of this musical that is now as iconic as the film on which it was based.

Opening with its disturbing ending, Sunset Boulevard spotlights Joe Gilles, a struggling screen writer and his chance meeting with Norma Desmond, a faded and near forgotten star of the silent movie era. Damaged people are survivors and as victims of Hollywood’s ruthless all-consuming structures, both see the opportunistic worth in the other. As Norma spirals further into madness, Joe irreverently narrates his own demise with the kind of self-awareness that really should have served him better. With its wonderfully drawn characters dysfunctionally co-existing against a backdrop of an industry the public are perpetually intrigued by, Sunset Boulevard is a genuinely riveting story. That an older woman should buckle principally because she maintains a reasonable belief of buoyancy and viability in showbusiness is fascinating to consider through the prism of social media and the ‘Me Too’ movement and equally fascinating to consider through the prism of this very production.

Industry feelings around the casting of this show were heard at a level somewhat louder than a stage whisper which, in itself, is embarrassingly parochial given it’s a criticism never levelled at the abundance of international performers leading traditional Opera in this country each year. Perhaps with a little less tall poppy and lot more grace we might care to acknowledge that stages and theatres around the world are full of Australian talent. With international musical theatre and recording star Sarah Brightman announced as Norma Desmond, this production certainly had a name to head up a promotional poster. Brightman’s previous roles, noted style of singing and awareness that this was her first theatrical role in more than three decades, did of course make many question her suitability. In interviews leading up to the show’s opening, Brightman spoke candidly about the parallels between herself and the character she was portraying all while addressing her concerns about acting over singing. As uncomfortable and as surprising as this is to say about the original Christine Daae, Sarah Brightman’s concerns should not have been about her acting.

Brightman’s whole aesthetic is utterly perfect for the role and her stage craft is absolutely intact. With genuinely impeccable timing, she brought forward the characters darkest comedy and with incredible stillness and a far distant stare, she offers real and troubling insight into Norma’s declining mental state. While not involved in any of the shows dance routines, Brightman’s ability to move has clearly not been entirely lost to a Starship Trooper!

It’s unlikely many would consider Glen Close a great singer but what she sang as Norma Desmond we understood. In a work that is so musically narrative, we need to hear and understand the lyrics. Brightman is absolutely hitting the notes but her vocal production and choice of register alongside a cast with impeccable diction only highlights just how much of her sung material is virtually inaudible. There is something really authentic about Sarah Brightman’s portrayal of Norma Desmond but simultaneously, concern that the compassion we feel for the character may in fact be compassion for the person playing her. In turn, making her casting seem almost inspired. 

Tim Draxl is astoundingly good as Joe Gilles and lifts this entire production to where it was promised. Lithe, dashing, present and sardonic this is the stuff of career propulsion. With his incredibly appealing voice, impeccable diction and a strong acting background serving him, Tim Draxl utterly nails this role while remaining wonderfully generous to all alongside him.

With his dark tones and understated choices, Robert Grubb brings an eerie and subtle menace to Max as he slowly reveals the characters own layers of delusion and personal sacrifice existing in servitude to Norma.  

Other performers worthy of note are Ashleigh Reubenach, wonderful as Betty Schaefer, and absolutely shining in ‘Too much in Love to care.” And jumping off the Red Windmill and straight into Hollywood the ever smiling and delightfully voiced Jarrod Draper as Artie Green.

Sunset Boulevard isn't a particularly generous work for an ensemble but with Ashley Wallan's slick stylised era inspired choreography, this thoroughly drilled cast beams with incredible enthusiasm and reverence for a production they're rightly proud to be a part of. Wallan’s stamp is genuinely present throughout and adds real clarity to busy scenes by elevating movement and dance to visible language. The musical staging of this production is beautifully considered and unsurprisingly cinematic given Wallan’s previous work in feature films like “The Greatest Showman.”

With director Jamie Lloyd’s stripped down Sunset Boulevard sweeping this year’s Oliver's in London and now heading to Broadway along with the minimalism of Kip Williams' Dorian Grey setting up shop there as well, set design is an increasingly perilous pursuit. While Jamie Lloyds set less vision has been heralded for its bold minimalist take on this now 35-year-old musical, it's genuinely pleasing to see this fully realised production of Sunset here in Melbourne. The shows budget no doubt pleased designer Morgan Large enabling him to deliver an impressively lavish look for the production in sync with the increasing opulence of ticket prices. In what feels like an homage to the incredible Maria Bjornson, ornate lace curtains appear in continuous motion and open to reveal Norma’s gothic mansion in monochrome tribute to her screen legacy and dark existence away from the spotlight ever since. Large's stunning designs are powerfully cinematic and evocative in serving the narrative in conjunction with a parade of beautifully imagined costumes of era authenticity.

Elegant, lavish, stylish and classy this is a really strong production with an incredible cast deserving more than an uncomfortable conversation about just one of them, however; Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment pitched high and generated quite understandable expectation around their choice of star vehicle. That now, unfortunately, seems a decision worthy of reflection.

"Great stars have great pride."

And let's sincerely hope so because after all, characters on stage are in fact played by real people.

Event details

Opera Australia & GWB Entertainment presents
Sunset Boulevard
music Andrew Lloyd Webber | book & lyrics Don Black & Christopher Hampton | based on a film by Billy Wilder

Director Paul Warwick Griffin

Venue: Princess Theatre | Melboure VIC
Dates: from 21 May 2024
Bookings: www.sunsetmusical.com.au

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