Sunday, May 7, 2017

Sunset - A Close Hit

Maybe it's a bit late in the run to do a review of Broadway's limited run revival of Sunset Boulevard, but I saw it yesterday, and wanted to write one. (Honestly, mostly because I wanted to document the lighting and the orchestrations, as well as a few individual elements I thought were interesting. Not so much a review as a list of things that struck me.) I'll go through the various production elements increasing order of amount of things I have to say about it.

First, let's get the cast out of the way.

Glenn Close was, of course, the star as Norma Desmond, but if you're at all interested in Sunset Boulevard, you've already heard all about her. What surprised me was how restrained the audience was. There was no applause on Close's first entrance, at the top of the stairs. Instead, the audience waited until she had placed her foot on the stage proper. (It was pointed out to me that this was because it was only when she finished descending the staircase that Glenn did, in fact, become Close. Prior to that, from the audience's perspective, she was Glenn Far.)

Siobhan Dillon was a delightful surprise as Betty Schaeffer, with probably the best and most consistent singing of anyone in the cast. She also had the fewest accent problems. (Michael Xavier seemed to slip a couple of times. Fred Johanson went the British Butler route and did not put on an accent. Glenn Close, for whatever reason, the only American in the principal cast, seemed to be putting on some sort of transatlantic accent. Which makes very little sense, because she's playing a silent film star, who shouldn't have to concern herself about an accent. I guess it's just Norma being dramatic.) The character of Betty Schaeffer is the most "generic" of the four leads (snarky but idealistic love interest to contrast the cynical protagonist), but that doesn't mean it's an easy role. Siobhan Dillon does wonderfully with some of the best music in the score.

It is at this point that I should say that the weakest point of Sunset Boulevard is probably the underdeveloped relationship between Betty and Artie. Artie seems nice enough, but we don't see nearly enough of him to care about him being engaged to Betty. Of course, that's not the focus of the story, and the Norma-Joe-Betty love triangle is more important than the Joe-Betty-Artie one, but still, it would be nice if it were dwelt on more, if only so that we actually care somewhat when Betty decides to leave Artie. As it stands, Artie seems to exist mostly to facilitate the "Studio smart-ass" joke.

Michael Xavier did not really impress me as Joe Gillis, which is a bit of a shame because he's on stage for all but about fifteen minutes of the show. (Let's say two minutes total for combined scene changes, two minutes for the car chase scene, six minutes for Norma coming back to Paramount, and five minutes at the end.) He didn't seem to have quite the necessary range, particularly on the lower end, although that's a difficult point of any Andrew Lloyd Webber character.

Fred Johanson easily had the best voice of the cast, and delivered the required low notes with gravitas. His falsetto was not quite there, and I wonder if "The Greatest Star Of All" might not benefit greatly from being transposed down a step or two. The last note, an F4, is one usually reserved for tenors, and even when a baritone is asked to sing it, he's seldom asked to do so quietly, and for an extended period of time. But high notes aside, Johanson made a marvelously menacing Max, and it came as a legitimate shock when he smiled during the curtain call.

Now for the visuals of the production.

This production was adapted from a concert, directed by Lonny Price. Lonny Price has directed many semi-staged concert productions before, including Company and Sweeney Todd, both with the New York Philharmonic. So it did not surprise me to see little scenery. The orchestra took up most of the upstage space, and there were maybe ten or fifteen feet of downstage space to play on. On either side of the stage was the bottom end of a staircase, black, metal, simple, and the two staircases went up to the top of the opposite sides of the stage, crossing each other (one behind the other, not meeting) in the middle. There were platforms at the top of each staircase, as well as at about a third from the bottom, making for a total of five playing platforms, although it was really more like three, as the top platforms were really only used very briefly for entrances and exits. The three playing platforms were a necessity here, as scenery was limited, and a several points in the show the location changes quickly. At least one staircase is necessary for Sunset Boulevard, but here they were not for spectacle. They were strictly utilitarian. The staging was highly efficient, which is imperative for a plot that moves along as briskly and thrillingly as this one.

This production made fantastic use of lighting and projections. Projections were primarily used to establish mood and subject. Silent movie footage was projected onto a scrim at the front of the stage during the overture and at other points. Sometimes it was projected onto the scenery itself. The scrim was also used during the car chase scene, but the big lighting surprise of that scene was how the conductor's podium lit up to become Joe's car. When cars had to move around the stage, they were portrayed by people holding flashlights. The stage went completely dark except for the headlights (and a few projections near the end) during the car chase scene. And I must point out that the orchestra, being on stage, could not have had stand lights, nor do I expect the conductor was very visible at that moment. So Joe Gillis wasn't the only one driving blind.

The most impressive feat of lighting, to me at least, was the lighting of an ensemble member made up to be "Young Norma." She would appear from time to time, silently, usually when they were talking about Norma's past. She was always lit to look like an old black-and-white movie. This was not makeup, which became apparent on two occasions. Once when Young Norma briefly joined in on the action in "The Perfect Year" and danced with Joe. She briefly crossed out of her lighting and appeared in full color. The second time was when, after his last reprise of "Surrender," crossed behind Young Norma, into her light, and appeared in that moment as an old movie himself. For the most part, however, even when Young Norma was moving around in close proximity to other characters, her particular lighting was focused solely on her, and it looked quite surreal. In her first appearance during "The Greatest Star Of All," on the middle platform of one of the staircases, I initially mistook her for a projection. In all honesty, I was shocked when she walked off of the platform and down the staircase, giving herself away as an actual person.

While I'm on lighting, I must say that there needs to be a moratorium on costumes with lots of little sparkly bits until costume and lighting designers can figure out how to make that work without blinding the audience.

That happened in "As If We Never Said Goodbye," the direction of which stood out from every other number in the show. People often call Andrew Lloyd Webber's musicals "operatic," which is a description I agree with to varying degrees depending on the musical in question. But the directing of Norma's big ballad in Act II showed a unique operatic quality I've never seen in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical before. And that is the sort of directing characterized by having a singer stand there and sing without moving while the chorus looks on doing nothing, called "Park And Bark," of which opera productions, particularly older ones, are so frequently accused. I'll admit, what bothered me most about the directing of this number was the zombie chorus. They stood there, just staring at Norma as she sings this dramatic soliloquy. I think it may have been intended to be a freeze frame, but those work best when the transition is abrupt, and the people freezing are frozen in a position people wouldn't usually stand still in. "As If We Never Said Goodbye" had neither of these qualities, and so it did not play well to my eyes. (A more effective freeze frame was done later, in a smaller scene, with Betty suddenly freezing while leaning over her typewriter while Joe goes into narrator mode.)

It is at this point that I would like to point out that any criticisms I make of the show were only magnified in my mind by the fact that everything I do not mention here was so fantastic. The direction of "As If We Never Sad Goodbye" was a uniquely bad moment in what otherwise was a fantastically directed production. To that end, I will now cite what I thought was an especially well directed moment.

Before the reprise of "Sunset Boulevard" (you know I'm talking about the song now and not the show, because I used quotes instead of italics), where Joe comes clean to Betty, there's a short but dramatic reprise of the car chase music, which facilitates the most awkward transition in the show. It's easy to jump in time when you're also jumping in place, because some time can easily be assumed to have passed in the move from one place to another. It is also easy to jump in place without jumping in time. What's difficult is jumping in time without changing the location of the scene. Particularly if the characters both scenes are the same. The time only has to go forward maybe half an hour or so. Whatever's enough time for Betty to drive to the mansion, but it has to go forward, because Joe can't be on the phone with Betty and suddenly have her appear five seconds later. The solution is maybe fifteen seconds of transition music, but it still has to be staged somehow. Lonny Price had a quite clever solution. Joe sat down on a couch upstage, while characters and ensemble members went in and out of the platforms on the staircases and, with lighting shifts, quickly did a pantomime of the entire show up to that point. The "life flashing before one's eyes" imagery was clear, and I found the transition quite effective. When Betty entered, there was no question that some time was intended to have passed.

Now to the orchestra.

I know it's highly unlikely that this particular revival of Sunset Boulevard will make a cast recording, but I do hope that a studio recording will be made of the show at some point using these new orchestrations by Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Cullen. The two of them do basically all of Andrew Lloyd Webber's orchestrations. I don't know exactly how the collaboration works. I assume, Webber coming from a big family of classical musicians and composers (his father, William Lloyd Webber, was a student of Ralph Vaughan Williams -- how's that for family connections?), at least knows how orchestras work. At any rate, if Jonathan Tunick and Stephen Sondheim are any indication, the best orchestrations come from longstanding collaborations between the same composer and orchestrator over many works. And the orchestrations of Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Cullen are definitely at their best here. What is already easily one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's best scores reaches new heights with expanded orchestrations. This orchestra has two whole bassoons! Would you believe it? A Broadway pit orchestra (though not technically in the pit -- the actual pit, being unoccupied, is cleverly used in the staging) with two whole bassoons! And lots of strings. Where many Broadway orchestrations fall flat is a lack of strings. Too few strings makes an orchestra sound thin. Often orchestrators will double the one or two violins in the pit band with a wind or two to get more volume, but it's simply not the same. (Sometimes, for a cast recording, a few extra musicians will be pulled in to supplement the orchestra.)

At forty pieces, this production of Sunset Boulevard is up about fifty percent from its original circa-twenty-seven piece orchestra, and is quite possibly the biggest orchestra on Broadway since the original production of Carousel in 1945. (The minimum orchestra for Carousel is about thirty pieces, although there are reduced orchestrations of twenty or less available. For comparison, The King And I requires a similar orchestra, and South Pacific slightly smaller, closer to two-dozen pieces. In Andrew Lloyd Webber's musicals, Phantom has a thirty-piece orchestra and Evita eighteen. The many different orchestrations of Jesus Christ Superstar range from five pieces to thirty-five.) The orchestrations were full, and made use of many of the varied colors of the orchestra. Much of the score was greatly enhanced. Some of it was more or less the same but bigger.

I was not a too fond of the orchestrations for "Every Movie's A Circus." Now, to be perfectly honest, I'm not too keen on the song itself either. It was not in the original London production, but was added for the American production, replacing reprises of "Let's Have Lunch." I can only suppose that, for the first time in his career, Andrew Lloyd Webber finally felt that he was reusing the same tune too much. I disagree. I find "Every Movie's A Circus" to be too simplistically cheerful for Sunset Boulevard. The tune might have enjoyed life in a show like Joseph, or even Evita, but for the dark and satirical atmosphere of Sunset Boulevard, "Let's Have Lunch" is just jaunty enough with still the right amount of sarcasm. Of course, "Let's Have Lunch" is not lost. It still makes a good seven-minute chorus at the beginning of the show, and there's plenty of it to go around in the recitative. But I must say the exchange "Where have you been keeping yourself?" "Someone's been doing it for me." sounds much better set to the slightly unsettling tones of "Let's Have Lunch" rather than the poppy guitar strains of "Every Movie's A Circus."

The guitar is much of what bothered me. Well, not so much the presence of the guitar, but the loss of everything else. The orchestrations of everything else are so full, that when everything drops away (and without a change in tone in the script to facilitate it) it feels thin by comparison. The guitar was also prominent in "Girl Meets Boy" and its reprises, which also felt thinly orchestrated. The guitar is a soft instrument, and I expect the orchestrations were softened when it was playing for that reason. In the original orchestrations this doesn't make a huge difference in texture, and so "Girl Meets Boy" sounds fine on the original cast album. Here it felt diminished. Which is a shame, because "Girl Meets Boy," plus its reprises leading up to and including "Too Much In Love To Care" make up my favorite sequence of Andrew Lloyd Webber love duets, probably due to how it plays with tempo in a way Webber's songs usually don't. I maintain that Webber's recitatives and scenes tend to be far more interesting than his songs, and the score of Sunset Boulevard strikes a pretty good balance. Probably the best song-recitative-dialogue balance of any of his shows except for Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which is basically a song cycle, and School Of Rock, which is a conventional dialogue-and-songs musical, and therefore didn't really have a chance to go wrong there.

Despite a thinly-felt "Girl Meets Boy," "Too Much In Love To Care," a magnificent hodge-podge of modulations designed to keep Joe at the very top of his range, was still intact, and greatly heightened by the new orchestrations. I think it may have been the musical highlight of the show for me.

And now for the writing things.

There were new lyrics after Joe's first "This is crazy / You know we should call it a day," and the new lyrics technically made more sense (the "Sound advice, great advice" bit being more effective later in the song), but they still caught me off guard. As did some other small lyrical changes.

I still maintain that, even though the original lyrics were used in the London production, and only changed for the cast album, I guess because language, the (presumably) censored lyrics for "The Lady's Paying" are very simply better than Norma's "Shut up, I'm rich" verse. At no other point in the show is Norma that snappy, nor does she swear at all. Other characters do, but Norma's far too classy for that. And the sudden shift of subject from clothing to her apartments comes out of nowhere. It doesn't seem quite in character, whereas the censored lyrics ("I'm sick to death of that same old filling station shirt / And that boring baggy jacket stained with yesterday's dessert") do. But on the other hand, "The Lady's Paying" is a unexpectedly unusual song anyway. Or perhaps unusually unexpected. I also don't understand why the "I've been invited somewhere else on New Years Eve" section was ever changed from singing to dialogue. It scans perfectly well.

Other slight changes I'm not fond of include Norma's "There was a time in this business" recitative being changed into a reprise (pre-prise?) of "Sunset Boulevard," and the removal of Artie's "Jewish Casanova" line. (Note: This last one was lost in one of the aforementioned switches from "Let's Have Lunch" to "Every Movie's A Circus." That said, the tune to which Artie sings this line is a motif which I can't off the top of my head identify as being used anywhere else in the musical except for at the very end of the last reprise of "Sunset Boulevard." I know it must occur elsewhere.) (Note: After publishing this post, I remembered where else the motif occurs. It is used when Artie is singing in "By This Time Next Year." It seems to be a motif associated exclusively with Artie.)

But slight lyrical changes aside, there is one big change which was made in the move from London to Broadway which I strongly disagree with. Sunset Boulevard ends with Norma's big monologue. In the movie, the final line is "Alright, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my closeup." In the musical, her final line was "And now, Mr. Demillle, I'm ready for my closeup," which is slightly different, but similar. She delivers her speech, says the line, and the orchestra plays a final thirty seconds or so of music as Norma is lead off stage. But only in London. The ending was revised so that at the very end, after about twenty of those thirty seconds of music, Norma belts out a final short reprise of "With One Look." Which, to my mind, does no favors for the atmosphere of the finale. In this particular production, it came across as even more strange by having a black drop come down just behind Norma, separating her from the rest of the stage. The ending, in my opinion, relies on the audience being in a state of shock. And even knowing what was coming, I was shocked. But having Norma do a triumphant reprise of a solo at the very end destroys that tone.

And I'm bad at conclusions, but I've run out of things to say. So speaking of abrupt endings that really don't work, this.

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