Glenn Close: a History of the "Greatest Star" on stage

Dom O'Hanlon
Dom O'Hanlon

In a couple of weeks Glenn Close will make her West End debut a year shy of her 70th birthday in a new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard at the London Coliseum. Whilst the environment may certainly be different the role is a familiar one, as Close revisits her Tony Award-winning performance as Norma Desmond, a role which she last performed in full almost twenty years ago.

Whilst it may have taken a while for Close to perform on the West End stage, she is no stranger to treading the boards, and has enjoyed a varied career in both straight dramas and musical theatre. She has in fact performed in London before, at the National Theatre in a 2002 revival of Tennessee Williams' seminal play A Streetcar Named Desire, but she is a newcomer to the commercial West End, and her role in Sunset Boulevard places her in the heart of theatreland and in one of London's largest and most intimidating auditoriums.

Her work on stage is often headline grabbing but she is best known for her work on film, creating iconic roles in films as diverse as 'Albert Nobbs', 'Air Force One', '101 Dalmatians', 'Mars Attacks', 'Fatal Attraction' and 'Dangerous Liaisons'. As a film actress her career transcends genre and she is recognisable to multiple generations who have grown up watching her in their favourite on-screen roles.

Throughout her career she has been nominated for 6 Academy Awards, tying the record for being the actress with the most nominations never to have won, creating a formidable alliance with Deborah Kerr and Thelma Ritter. Her work on stage however has awarded her three Tony Awards, with one for her work in musical theatre.

One of the first musicals Close starred in on Broadway was Richard Rodgers and Sheldon Harnick's Rex which ran for 48 performance in the spring of 1976. The musical attempted to tell the story of King Henry VIII and his relationship with his six wives, and starred Close in the role of Princess Mary, opposite Nicol Williamson as Henry VIII. Opening in a packed season alongside the original production of 'Chicago' and Michael Bennett's 'A Chorus Line', the alliance between two stalwart musical theatre composers couldn't muster enough attention to keep the show alive, and it became one of the biggest flops of the year.

To a certain generation Close is remembered fondly for creating the role of Chairy Barnum in the original Broadway production of Barnum in which she starred opposite Jim Dale at the St James Theatre from April 1980 to March 1981. The production was famed for its big budget telling of the life of PT Barnum, and included a dramatic hire wire walk across the proscenium for its leading man. Featuring an eclectic score by Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart, Close brought a specific energy to numbers such as "One Brick at a Time" and "The Colours of My Life", and earned good reviews, alongside a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.

In 2006 Close returned to musical theatre in a concert production of the almost-Broadway musical Busker Alley. Featuring music and lyrics by the Sherman Brothers, the writers behind 'Mary Poppins' and 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang', it had a book by AJ Carothers and was based on the 1938 British film, 'St. Martin's Lane'. The musical originally toured the USA in 1995 and was slated to open at the St James Theatre the following season in a production that starred Tommy Tune, who injured himself in Florida. The Broadway production was shelved, and in 2006 the York Theatre Company presented a one-night benefit performance starring Close and Jim Dale, reuniting the pair on stage once again.

Her greatest musical theatre achievement by far occurred when she created the role of Norma Desmond in the American premiere production of Sunset Boulevard which opened in Los Angeles in December 1993. After opening originally in London's West End with Patti LuPone in the lead role, Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Really Useful Group reworked the production based on critics reviews, and opened the second company on the West Coast of America ahead of the Broadway opening. With Close in the lead role, the score was heavily transposed to fit her vocal range, and whilst many knew she had the acting ability to carry the role, some in the industry were sceptical about her living up to the demanding vocal track that includes iconic numbers such as "With One Look", "As If We Never Said Goodbye" and "The Perfect Year".

Any doubts about Close in the role were shattered following the LA opening, as she received a love letter from the New York Times critic Vincent Canby:

"Glenn Close ha[s] suddenly become a big, exciting new star of the American musical theater of the 1990's. Sunset Boulevard is something else. Her performance catapults her into the sphere of megastars...As the show serves her with material that effects a career transformation, she serves the show. Though not quite single-handedly, she takes the role of Norma Desmond, the demonic, reclusive silent-film queen whom Gloria Swanson made so dauntingly memorable, and fiercely shapes it into her own unexpected image...Ms. Close's performance is ravishing. Her looks astonish...her singing voice is lovely and strong, the phrasing capturing Norma's merciless determination and self-serving wit."

With the American press now sold on the production, the Really Useful Group took the decision to break their contract with LuPone and allow Close to open the Broadway production - a move that created many inches in the gossip columns and resulted in a hefty law suit (the first of two separate cases) that ultimately stopped the show from being considered a financial 'hit'. Close received glowing notices for her role in the Broadway production, and took home the 1996 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, and the rest is history.

Twenty years later Close is preparing to once again step into the glorious Anthony Powell costumes in a new semi-staged production that runs at the London Coliseum from 1 April to 7 May 2016. Speaking at a press event last year, she said that the character was "in my psyche", saying "Norma haunted me...she becomes part of your fabric and your being". Fans of the show, and especially London audiences who were deprived her performance the first time around are looking forward to the new production that will feature a spectacular full orchestra and supporting cast.

It has been reported that this new London production may be a warm up for Close to return the role to its original medium in a film adaptation of the musical. Whilst numerous attempts have been made over the years to create a film of the show, rights issues with Paramount Pictures and the Billy Wilder estate have held the project back.

Book and lyric writer Christopher Hampton recently said "It is not my decision but as far as I'm concerned that is what I'm thinking. We've just had a series of talks with Paramount so everything is in place and hopefully we can get it done while Glenn is in London."

Whether the film adaptation comes to fruition or not, fans of Glenn Close only have a limited time to see her live in London's West End. We certainly can't wait to see her return to the role and her "people out there in the dark" next month.

To book tickets to see Glenn close in Sunset Boulevard, click here.

Originally published on

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