With the release of Patti LuPone’s memoir, there has been a resurgence in talk about Sunset Boulevard in the message board circuit. The musical of Billy Wilder’s legendary film noir classic was big news and big gossip fodder in the early 90s, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The show opened in London with Patti in the iconic role of Norma Desmond, played in the film by silent star Gloria Swanson (in the performance of her career). However, the reviews for the London run – particularly those of the American critics who flew over – were less than enthusiastic. Thus began a series of events that led to LuPone being replaced for the Broadway run by Glenn Close, who was in the Los Angeles company. Lloyd Webber claimed Paramount studios demanded a movie star in the role and well…you’ll have to read Patti’s book for her perspective on the matters.
The show itself became a vehicle for great female stars, with replacements as notable as the originals. This sort of event hadn’t really happened since the original productions of Hello, Dolly! and Mame in the mid to late 60s. Norma Desmond became a role that women wanted to play. LuPone and Close were both replaced by Betty Buckley. Other Normas in the West End included Petula Clark, Elaine Paige and Rita Moreno. Paige made her Broadway debut with this show, closing the NY production. Diahann Carroll opened Garth Drabinsky’s Toronto production. Many other actresses were interested in playing the role, but the show proved a financial disappointment and was not a juggernaut success like POTO. The set was enormous (and temperamental) with the grand staircase coming down from the flies, etc. It was visually stunning, but I don’t think overall it is a good adaptation of the material. There are some interesting songs, particularly the near-arias composed for Norma. (It’s a shame Sondheim didn’t write his version of it).
It’s not quite the Madame Rose argument, but there are many admirers and detractors of the various Normas who power-belted through the show in the mid-90s. Here are five of them:
Patti LuPone (in the original higher key):