Glenn Close, Don Black & Christopher Hampton interview
Twenty years after starring in the LA and Broadway productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard, Tony Award-winner Glenn Close is set to make her West End debut in the role of 'Norma Desmond' for a special revival at the ENO's London Coliseum in 2016. Building on the success of last year's semi-staged production of Sweeney Todd, musical theatre returns to the historic building for a strictly limited season, reviving this iconic and much loved modern classic.
At an event yesterday at the London Coliseum, Ms Close took in the vast auditorium where she will be performing the role in front of 2,360 people for 43 performances, backed by a full orchestra and supporting cast. Calling it a “beautiful house to be working in” she told how her fellow actor friends have all commented on the size and scale of the venue, as well as the exceptional acoustics that will soon carry the hit-laden score up the rafters, including the standards “As If We Never Said Goodbye”, “With One Look” and “The Perfect Year”.
Speaking to interviewer Edward Seckerson, Ms Close spoke about the feeling of returning to a role some twenty years later in her career, describing the experience as a “gift”, commenting that she knows it won't quite be the same and isn't altogether sure what she will be like. “It's in my psyche” she laughed. “Norma haunted me...she becomes part of your fabric and your being”. Close still holds onto the impressive wardrobe of glorious costumes, originally designed by Anthony Powell, from the iconic turbans to the white fur-tipped suit that Norma wears to return to Paramount Studios. She didn't comment on whether she'll be wearing them again, or if director Lonny Price chooses to update the classic collection, but she did offer to bring the chimp with her, once she gets it out of storage.
Ms Close's history with the show at the time caused headlines and inches in the gossip columns. Originally opening in London at the Adelphi Theatre in 1994, the piece was met with mixed reviews, with many of the American press lamenting the casting of Patti LuPone in the central role, so much so that Lloyd Webber closed the production in order to give it a lick of paint. Quite literally.
“We painted the set black” said Don Black, commenting on the changes between the London and LA production, which is the version that later transferred to Broadway with Close replacing Ms LuPone, leading to a large law suit and many broken dressing room lamps. “We realised our ineffectual attempt to lighten the mood”. The original London production was unintentionally lighter – from the original marketing to the colour of Norma's house and the characters' costumes. The creative team decided on a more consistent tone to match the Gothic, gloomy feel of the piece, which resulted in more music being written and less dialogue scenes. The new song “Ev'ry Movie's a Circus” was added for the ensemble, and the whole piece felt more consistent in tone to the original film.
Seckerson reminded us that Lloyd Webber prefers sung-through musicals as it means he has more control over the material, which can make the job of a book-writer and lyricist fairly difficult. “The dialogue is so tight” commented Black, “there isn't a wasted syllable in the text”. The challenge with many musicals is working out exactly which moments require songs, and Sunset is unique because of how cinematic the score feels – there is never a silent moment on the stage. Lloyd Webber would picture a moment from the film and just start playing a melody.
The idea for a musical version of Billy Wilder's 1950 film was certainly not a unique one. Gloria Swanson herself was in continual negotiations with Paramount Pictures to mount a musical version – her's titled Boulevard! even got to the stage of having readings, and a performance on the Steve Allen Show. Stephen Sondheim was also originally in talks to present a musical version, passing on the opportunity after feeling that the piece would work better as an opera. After working with Don Black on the song cycle Tell Me On a Sunday, Lloyd Webber touted the idea of a musical version back in 1979 and the pair wrote two songs together; “Madame Takes a Lot of Looking After” for Max, Norma's first husband and house servant, and an aria for Norma herself titled “One Star”, the melody of which is now “Memory” in the 1981 musical Cats. You can't say the Lord doesn't recycle.
Christopher Hampton on the other hand, fresh from his success with 'Dangerous Liaisons' was approached by the ENO to work on new librettos, and targeted Paramount himself to adapt an operatic version of the film, only to be told that the rights had already been optioned – to Lloyd Webber. Black and Hampton dined together and decided to collaborate on the musical, providing the lyrics and script, working from quite an iconic and in many ways perfect source material. “After attending the London opening”, commented Black, “Wilder said to us – you've been very clever, you haven't changed a thing!”. When asked if having such an iconic script to work from makes the task of adapting easier or harder the pair aren't quite sure. “You can't top it” says Hampton, “it's one of the few brilliantly shaped screenplays”.
Ms Close was brought to the attention of the creative team by Christopher Hampton himself after the pair had worked together previously, and when she felt was ready she was invited to fly to London to sing for the team. “I was wearing my grandmother's ring for luck” chuckled Close, remembering turning up to Lloyd Webber's house to sing Norma's two biggest songs in front of him and director Trevor Nunn. “I can't say that I had them in my voice at that moment but I remember Andrew saying “she has it there in her voice”...I knew it went well as I was invited to have dinner afterwards...”
Rather than open cold on Broadway, Andrew wanted to open the show in Los Angeles, bringing the show back to its intended spiritual home away from the glaring eyes of the New York critics. “We had an incredible ensemble, I always felt I was the weakest singer and I knew I had a lot to learn, and I needed to work really hard.” mused Close when asked about the challenges of realising such a 'rangy' score. “I knew I didn't have a freakishly fabulous voice like Elaine Paige or Betty Buckley...I was more of a Mary Martin. I approached the songs like monologues and learned how to compensate with my voice”.
Many of the keys were compensated for Close's voice with much of the score transposed down to sit in an easier range, and it is this version that's the official licensed version being performed all around the world. Brought up listening to Mary Martin sing “Cock-eyed Optimist” from South Pacific (a role she would later play in a TV version alongside ) Close studied singing with an Italian singing teacher and first learned to sing arias when she arrived in New York, and went on to star in musicals such as Rex (Richard Rogers' failed attempt at writing a musical about Henry VIII) and the original production of Cy Coleman's Barnum opposite Jim Dale.
In preparing to return to the role, Close states that she needs to have strong muscle sinew in order to project the energy from the stage, and this starts with working out. It's a demanding role in every aspect, and any actor needs to preserve their voice, no matter how long the run. “I've started on the treadmill...you become a hypochondriac” she laughed.
Billy Wilder's view of Hollywood was certainly a sardonic and unattractive one, creating a world where everybody used each other for their own means. How then is Norma so compelling as a character? “She has an unshakable belief” says Close “and this gives a nobility, even though it may be delusional...there's no self pity”. To show queens the world over, the climax of the piece is not the final scene, but instead her re-entry to Paramount, where she's finally recognised by someone up in the gallery and the spotlight hits her. “She's so sure of re-entry to this world, and the idea that someone can believe in something so completely is compelling”.
The producers are being tight lipped about Close's co-stars for this new production, and it's not known who the “greatest star of all” will be on stage of the London Coliseum. One thing's for sure – Close will be up there with the best of them. This may be her West End debut, but this a role that for many people defines her work on stage as well as screen.
Buy tickets for Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard from 1 April 2016 at the London Coliseum here.