'Sunset Boulevard' ready to change history

NEW YORK — Just when one of Broadway's biggest behemoths seemed to be receding into theater history, it's back and ready to do what it initially failed to do: sell enough tickets.

On tour

Kansas City, Mo., through Sunday.
Memphis, Monday through Jan. 17.
Philadelphia, Jan. 19-31.
Newark, N.J., Feb 1-7.
Cleveland, Feb. 8-24.
Schenectady, N.Y., Feb. 26-28.
Detroit, March 22-28.
Providence, March 22-28.
Baltimore, March 29-April 4.
East Lansing, Mich., April 5-11.
Hershey, Pa., April 12-18.
New Haven, Conn., April 19-May 2.
New Orleans, May 3-9.

Two years ago, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard lost so much money in so many cities that the composer's company, Really Useful Group, ended up $10 million-$12 million in the red. Now, the show is about to embark on another cross-country tour. Don't they ever learn?

It seems they do.

The show was a Broadway hit as long as Glenn Close was playing faded silent-film star Norma Desmond. But while it never exactly flopped without her, it couldn't cover the running costs of its spectacular production. Not in Toronto, London or New York (even with leading ladies such as Diahann Carroll, Elaine Paige and Betty Buckley), and certainly not on the U.S. tour, which had no star at all.

Now, the touring formula is reversed. The show has a star, Petula Clark, who played Desmond to great acclaim in London. But the scaled-down production is only one-fourth as expensive as the $12 million original, inspiring renewed faith from touring organization Pace Theatrical Group.

"The title has great recognition," says Pace president Scott Zeiger. "And if a star is attached to it, it has the seal of credibility that this is the real thing."

Inevitably, the new budget dictates conceptual changes. The question, however, is not whether the show can maintain its old sense of spectacle, but if wigged-out Norma can be more accessible to Middle America.

Sunset Boulevard
Petula Clark and Lewis Cleale star in the production now touring the USA, a reworked version that is more economical than the $12 million original that struggled to make a profit on Broadway.

"She's nobody I know, but she's everybody who lives a fantasy," says newly appointed director Susan Schulman, famous for scaling down Stephen Sondheim's similarly gargantuan Sweeney Todd.

She devised a more intimate concept in which all of Sunset takes place on a film soundstage that probably exists only in Norma's narcissistic mind: "None of it is real anymore. Everything was made up. It had nothing to do with where they were or the part of the world in which they live, but what movies they made."

Behind this discreetly revisionist mentality lies the fear that Sunset Boulevard's critics were right — that aside from a few brilliant moments, it's far from Lloyd Webber's best work. As evidence of that, lyricist Don Black was brought in for changes.

But the most crucial part of the equation is the star, who must give the tortured character emotional authenticity. Several fine actresses played Norma, but Schulman wanted Clark, whose lightweight image might make her seem an eccentric choice. But consider: She was a child star in wartime England, had numerous hits in the '60s, starting with Downtown, and then, for a few years in the '70s, quit working completely. "She's been through all of this," says Schulman, "and she's still here."

Best of all, the still-youthful Clark, 64, has seen the dark side of show business but avoided it. She never listens to her old records: "I'm very normal from that standpoint. I enjoy my life now." In fact, Sunset interrupted plans for her to stage an innovative one-person show in the high-style manner of Cirque du Soleil.

No doubt all of this gives her the sanity to enter into Norma Desmond's warped world so completely that some fans may not even recognize her. That happened in London; people complained they had come for Clark and never saw her. "Maybe they were expecting me to sing a couple of hits as I come down the stairs," she says, laughing. "I'll be the lady in the turbans, in case they don't know."

By David Patrick Stearns, USA TODAY