“With One Look” – My Love Affair With “Sunset Boulevard” The Musical

I have a confession to make: I’ve never seen a live performance of my favorite musical. I know, it’s kind of hard to proclaim one specific show as your favorite when you haven’t actually seen it “for real”, but listening to the various cast albums a million times and seeing too many awfully recorded VHS bootlegs to count, I still feel I have the credentials to make such a statement. What is the show in question, you might ask? Sunset Boulevard, the underrated Andrew Llyod Webber masterpiece. But why exactly is it my favorite musical, beyond any other show I’ve ever seen? Let me explain….

Back around 1999, my grandparents purchased a VHS copy of a concert called Andrew Lloyd Webber: The Royal Albert Hall Celebration. It was one of those big, ridiculously insane shows that consisted of many over-the-top performances of Webber’s work, including weird collaborations (remember Antonio Banderas as the Phantom? Yeah that happened.)  But out of all the songs performed that night, one section stood out to me. At that time, I had seen the film version of Sunset Boulevard only once, and a few commercials for the musical here and there, but this moment changed my musical loving heart forever.

From the first note that was played, to the last lyrics sung by Glenn Close, I was shaking. There was so much mystery, intensity, and glamour all rolled up into a ball of true theatrical perfection that I just was in complete and utter awe of what I was seeing. Of course without the power of the internet at my hands, at that time, I couldn’t possibly learn that these two things (movie and musical) were in fact the same story I had seen a few years early. But as time went on, I came to realize what exactly Sunset Boulevard was, and that both versions are true masterpieces of their own genres, making them favorites of mine for years to come.

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If you know of the film, you know that the musical is related to something that is known for its dramatics and a bit of camp. It’s gothic in that 1950’s way, where we don’t have Edgar Allen Poe shoved in our faces, but we understand the “dark side” to a decade known for its complete detachment from reality. That element is still shown to great effect in the stage adaptation, and is elevated by the use of the brilliant production design by John Napier (who also worked on a movie secretly co-starring Glenn Close, Hook) along with Webber’s intricate score.

But at the heart of Sunset Boulevard, in either incarnation you see, are the characters. In the musical, all of the cast is much more vulnerable and layered than their movie counterparts, making their relationships much more dynamic than in the latter (especially the romantic ones.) But of course, none of them compare to the wacky and yet beautiful mess that is Norma Desmond. She is both the classic Hollywood monster and the stunning leading lady, rolled up into one truly unique role, no matter which version you speak of.

Out of all the many actresses that have played the part, including Patti Lupone and Glenn Close, none of them have really captured the role quite like Betty Buckley did. Though she wasn’t the original Norma in any production, she did take over for the role many times. Something about the complexity of her voice (both tragically beautiful and utterly creepy) elevated Norma from just the frightening movie creature, to a human losing her sanity, as she descended from that giant staircase.

In fact,  that explains the core difference between the two end products: the movie of Sunset Boulevard is a commentary on the film business, heartless and angry in every detail. The musical, however, is more of a fable, one that seems larger than life, and yet could happen to anyone if given the chance. It has human qualities to it that explain the kind of struggles we all go through: Aging, Money, Our Career, Love, etc. These are all things we understand (or will at some point), making Sunset Boulevard a piece that might seem so gothic and lavish at first glance, but is very relatable at its core.

So, I now pose the question to you, what is your favorite musical? Is it one you’ve seen or always wished to have seen? Comment below and describe below your pick, and all the reasons you adore it!

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