`Sunset Boulevard' production mixes the cinematic with the theatrical

By ROBERT TRUSSELL - The Kansas City Star
Date: 01/01/99 22:15

Movie madness -- the inability to separate fact and illusion.

That, essentially, is the subject of "Sunset Boulevard," the stage musical based on Billy Wilder's cynical cult classic about a former silent-screen star who immerses herself in a world of fantasy -- which, of course, is what Hollywood has always been about.

"Sunset Boulevard" was a movie about the movies, so don't be surprised if the touring production headed to town next week has the look of, well, a movie.

Nor should anyone who saw the show in London or on Broadway be surprised that this production has its own point of view, a distinct tone, a different look.

Usually producers of hit Broadway musicals send out virtually carbon-copy touring productions. That was not the case with "Sunset Boulevard," an adaptation by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, playwright Christopher Hampton and lyricist Don Black that claimed the 1995 Tony Award for Best Musical.

Not so long ago Susan H. Schulman, an award-winning stage director who once paid her dues in the sweltering heat of Starlight Theatre, received an intriguing call.

How would she like to put together a tour of "Sunset Boulevard," one of the biggest shows ever to bear Lloyd Webber's name? The original productions in London and New York were remembered for designer John Napier's massive, complicated sets and the operatic direction of Trevor Nunn, a master of stage spectacle.

It was musical theater on a grand scale -- so grand, in fact, that it was unable to tour profitably. The first effort to mount a national tour in 1996 was canceled after hitting only a few cities.

"It gave me a great deal of pause because I didn't understand what they really wanted," Schulman said recently from her home in New York. "Usually a tour is a replication of the original. They said that actually they were interested in something different for the tour.

"And so I said, `Are you interested in kind of approaching it as a revival so that it would have a new point of view?' They said, `Absolutely.' "

"They" were the three creators and the other high potentates of the Really Useful Company. According to Schulman, Really Useful (Lloyd Webber's own production outfit) decided to try something new by licensing the rights to Pace Theatricals, which actually produced the current tour.

"But it is their show and of course one wants to please the creators, but I must say they were very collaborative ... and that was a delightful surprise," Schulman said. "And this was new for them. They've never not been the producers..."

Schulman had seen the show once in New York. On the plane to London, where she met with the show's creators, she listened to the lushly orchestrated, jazz-tinged score on headphones.

"I decided this is really a personal story," she said. "It's very intimate. I wanted to tell the story that way, from a real Hollywood-in-the-'50s point of view. I felt that I would look at it more from the point of view of a real movie fan.

"I presented these ideas, and everybody seemed to think this was a good viewpoint and another way into the story."

Film on film on stage

Wilder's movie, for the benefit of the uninitiated, depicts the strange relationship between Joe Gillis, a broke and opportunistic screenwriter who seeks refuge from bill collectors in the dilapidated mansion of Norma Desmond, a once-great silent screen star. Norma, in her fashion, falls in love with Joe, and he becomes a kept man, despite the difference in ages.

Translating a movie about the movies smoothly to the stage while remaining true to the story would seem to be a tricky proposition. But Schulman said she and set designer Derek McLane compensated for the relative artificiality of the theater -- compared with the "realism" of film -- by emulating moviemaking techniques, including close-ups, cross-fades, two-shots and dolly shots.

"I've tried to do it very cinematically," she said. "You have to be a movie fan to see it, but it's there and we use a lot of movie imagery."

Musical noir

The show, which stars Petula Clark as Norma, opened in Pittsburgh and appears to have been reasonably well-received on the road.

Everett Evans of the Houston Chronicle called it "pleasant entertainment," although he felt that "the new production ... proves lighter not only in weight but in tone. ... Some of the dark power has been drained away."

Christopher Rawson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote: "Now it's a brisker tale, funnier, making a virtue of self-invention. After all, film noir is melodrama with a wink."

And Roy Proctor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch praised Schulman's directing as "resourceful and inventive, but ultimately can't turn this musical into the Lloyd Webber powerhouse it isn't."

Critics, of course, are the bane of theater people everywhere, and Schulman sounded a little annoyed at the comparisons between her version and Nunn's original.

"I don't know that `lighter' is the right word," she said. "I think it's more personal in tone. ... It's not operatic, but it's definitely film noir. And film noir is certainly not naturalism. There's a heightened reality to it, and there's certainly a heightened reality to this production. And it's definitely more intimate.

"Maybe people use the word `lighter' because it has a lot of humor in it. But I'm one who believes in finding light in even the darkest material, because then you have contrast."

Clark had played Norma under Nunn's direction in London, but Schulman said they decided to reconstruct the character from the ground up.

"She was the last Norma," Schulman said. "But we really started over again. I never saw her in London, but people who saw her say this is a completely different interpretation of the role. It evolves more from personal experience, I think. Norma's a very vulnerable character.

"She's wonderful to work with. It was wonderful of her to do this, to start from scratch. She's a very courageous and very risky actress."

And at the end of the day, what does the show tell us about the human condition?

"I think the statement in the stage play, which is also in the movie, is that when you confuse fantasy and reality, you have no ground," Schulman said. "You're doomed to extinction, and I think that's what happened to Norma. She kept living in one world, which was a fantasy, and she never really ventured outside ...

"I think that's the tragedy of Norma. She was a great talent and had she allowed herself to change with the times she might have continued to have a career."

To reach Robert Trussell, theater critic for The Star, call (816) 234-4765 or send e-mail to rtrussell@kcstar.com