Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book and Lyrics: Don Black and Christopher Hampton
Director: Nikolai Foster
Even though Andrew Lloyd Webber’s comeback – or in the words of Norma Desmond, his return – has been delayed by the pandemic, 2020 hasn’t been all bad for the Cinderella composer. While his Jesus Christ Superstar was revived at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre during the summer, he’s been keeping global audiences entertained by showing musicals and concerts – and graciously not all his own – on his YouTube Channel, The Shows Must Go On. But perhaps the best nod to his talents comes from Leicester’s Curve Theatre with its stunning production of Sunset Boulevard.
Bringing back the team from its 2017 production, the theatre has created a new, Covid-secure version filmed without an audience but using every inch of the auditorium. Over the years there has been much discussion over how to film Sunset Boulevard and the likes of Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and Liza Minnelli have all been touted to take the lead role of the forgotten silent film actress, but still no movie has appeared. But perhaps there is no need for a film now that this one from the Curve has been made; Nikolai Foster’s treatment of the 1993 musical is so good that another film would only be superfluous.
There are two major reasons for Foster’s success. The first comes with the decision to film the Curve’s stage as if it is a movie studio in Hollywood. As this is where most of the action takes place, it seems a sensible choice, but it allows Foster to not worry about showing the mechanics of the Curve’s stage. Light mechanisms and super-troupers are clearly visible, and Foster has some fun in showing the cameras that are filming the actors. It’s a postmodern touch that nevertheless fits entirely with the story of a faded star trying to make her way back into the film industry.
The other reason that this version works so well is the pairing of the two main stars, Ria Jones and Danny Mac. Jones was the first ever Norma Desmond when Lloyd Webber was workshopping the musical in 1991, but Patti LuPone took over when the show reached the West End. After understudying for Glenn Close in 2016, it seems right that she returned to the role in 2017. Always in character, Jones gives the tragic Norma a wily desperation in her plans to play a 16-year old Salome in a film that she has scripted. It has no dialogue but she plans, as she did before, to act with her looks alone.
Mac is a revelation and gives the smooth-talking Joe Gillis an irresistible charm along with a suggestion that he may not be taking Norma completely for a ride. Mac copes well with Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s quick-tempo lyrics and the title song is filmed in a single take and has Mac walking up and down stairs and across the stage without ever once taking his eyes off the camera. His earlier TV career doubtlessly gives him the confidence for these close-ups.
Jones and Mac are given excellent support by all the cast, especially Adam Pearce who plays Norma’s faithful manservant and Molly Lynch as Miss Schaefer, Mac’s other love interest. There is also good work from Carl Sanderson who plays legendary film director Cecil B deMille. In costumes by Colin Richmond and with hair presumably done by themselves, everyone is on top form.
Like some of Lloyd Webber’s other musicals, there are only a handful of melodies holding the show together but Sunset Boulevard has the dreamy The Perfect Year, the wistful As If We Never Said Goodbye and the elegiac New Ways To Dream, and their reprises are always welcome. These swirling ballads match the nostalgia for more glamorous times that runs right from Norma’s turbans to Joe’s white bow-tie.
2020 has been a tough year, but the Curve’s production of Sunset Boulevard will make it a little better.
Runs here until 9 January 2021