Based on the 1950 film of the same title, the plot revolves around Norma Desmond, a faded star of the silent screen era, living in the past in her decaying mansion on the fabled Los Angeles street. When young screenwriter Joe Gillis accidentally crosses her path, she sees in him an opportunity to make her comeback to the big screen. Romance and tragedy follow.
In the early 1960s, Stephen Sondheim outlined a musical stage adaptation and went so far as to compose the first scene with librettist Burt Shevelove. A chance encounter with Billy Wilder at a cocktail party gave Sondheim the opportunity to introduce himself and ask the original film's co-screenwriter and director his opinion of the project (which was to star Jeanette MacDonald). "You can't write a musical about Sunset Boulevard," Wilder responded, "it has to be an opera. After all, it's about a dethroned queen." Sondheim immediately aborted his plans. A few years later, when he was invited by Hal Prince to write the score for a film remake starring Angela Lansbury as a fading musical comedienne rather than a silent film star, Sondheim declined, citing his conversation with Wilder.
When Lloyd Webber saw the film in the early 1970s, he was inspired to write what he pictured as the title song for a theatrical adaptation, fragments of which he instead incorporated into Gumshoe. In 1976, after a conversation with Hal Prince, who had the theatrical rights to Sunset, Lloyd Webber wrote "an idea for the moment when Norma Desmond returns to Paramount Studios"; Lloyd Webber did no further work on the play until after 1989's Aspects of Love.
At that point Lloyd Webber "felt it was the subject [he] had to compose next", though by February 1990 he had announced plans to turn Really Useful Group private so he could "make movies rather than musicals.
In 1991 Lloyd Webber asked Amy Powers, a lawyer from New York lawyer with no professional lyric-writing experience, to write the lyrics for Sunset Boulevard. Don Black was later brought it to work with Powers; the two wrote the version that was performed that same year at Lloyd Webber's Sydmonton Festival: it was not a success, though a revised version, written by Black and Christopher Hampton "met with great success" at the 1992 Sydmonton Festival.
Norma has also developed feelings for the young screenwriter, buying him lavish gifts; she even attempts suicide when he goes off to a party. Joe finishes Salome and the phone rings: The studio is calling, but it turns out that Norma's car is wanted for a film, not her. Max, her ex-husband (and live-in butler), can't bring himself to give the ex-star this sad news. So, Norma happily meets DeMille, who is, of course, non-committal about Salome. Meanwhile, Norma has detected that Joe and Betty are lovers. She telephones the younger woman to confront her, but Joe grabs the phone from her hand, asking Betty to come see first-hand the hell he is living in. Betty arrives, and Joe breaks her heart by telling her he's a kept man and is planning to stay that way. As soon as Betty leaves, however, Joe tells Norma that he's leaving her as well and heading back to his hometown in Ohio. He also bluntly informs her that Salome will never be filmed and all her fans have forgotten her. Norma, furious and grief-stricken, fatally shoots Joe. Descending into insanity, Norma mistakes her arresting officers for her beloved fans and studio executives. Thinking she is on the set of Salome, Norma descends the staircase with the immortal phrase, "...And now, Mr. De Mille, I am ready for my close-up."
†Not included on the World Premiere recording.
Reviews were mixed: Many critics felt that the score was repetitive and that more time had been spent constructing the mammoth set than working on the book. Still, it was an instant sell-out success and ran for 1,529 performances. Anderson left the London company in January 1994 to be replaced by Gerard Casey.
The American premiere was at the Shubert Theatre in Century City, Los Angeles, California, on December 9 1993, with Glenn Close as Norma and Alan Campbell as Joe. Featured were George Hearn as Max and Judy Kuhn as Betty. Lloyd Webber had reworked both the book and score, tightening the production, better organizing the orchestrations, and adding the song "Every Movie's A Circus". This new production was better received by the critics and was an instant success, running for 369 performances. The Los Angeles production also recorded a new cast album that is well-regarded. It is also the only unabridged cast recording of the show, since the original London recording was trimmed by over thirty minutes.
The musical opened on Broadway at the Minskoff Theatre on November 17 1994 with Close, Campbell, and Hearn recreating their roles from the Los Angeles production and Alice Ripley joining the cast as Betty. Also in the cast were Allen Oppenheimer as Cecil B. DeMille and Vincent Tumeo making his Broadway debut as Artie Green. The production opened with the highest advance in the history of Broadway ticket sales and ran for 977 performances. Billy Wilder was in attendance on opening night and was coaxed onstage by Close for the curtain call. In spite of this, the "Broadway production has earned back, at best, 80 percent of the initial $13 million" For example, during the week of July 2, 1995:
Although it closed after 122 weeks, it still lost money.
In a season with only one other musical nominated for Best Musical, the production won several Tony Awards; Glenn Close, with only one other nominee as Best Actress in a musical, won the Tony for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.
Patti LuPone, who initially had been promised the Broadway run, sued Lloyd Webber and received a settlement reported to be $1 million; Faye Dunaway, set to replace Close in L.A., was let go because Lloyd Webber felt her singing voice was not up to the role. She also sued Lloyd Webber. Frank Rich, in his book The Hot Seat, noted that these lawsuits contributed to Sunset Boulevard setting the record for the most money lost by a theatrical endeavor in the history of the United States. Despite its record advance sales, weekly operating costs were so high that it could not pay back its initial investment, and its road companies generated large financial losses. Rich puts the final figure near or above US$20 million lost, making it what he termed a "flop-hit," as it ran more than two years.
The London show was revamped to follow the lead of the New York production and starred Broadway and TV veteran Betty Buckley and John Barrowman. Michael Bauer, who had played DeMille in the original production replaced Benzali as Max, a role he played until the end of the London run (and subsequently on the UK tour). Buckley and the production garnered rave reviews. Buckley then followed Glenn Close as Norma Desmond in the second year of the New York production. Elaine Paige took over as Norma Desmond in London, and Petula Clark filled in for Paige during her holiday in September/October 1995, before taking over the role the following January. The last "star" to take on the role of Norma Desmond in London was Rita Moreno, who filled in for a vacationing Clark in September and October 1996. John Barrowman played Joe until 1995, when he was replaced by Alexander Hanson. Graham Bickley played the role for the final year of the London run.International productions The Toronto production opened in 1995 with Diahann Carroll in the lead role. Her performance was also praised by critics, although the production closed sooner than expected. It also starred Rex Smith as Joe, Walter Charles as Max and Anita Louise Combe as Betty.
A German production of the revamped musical opened December 7 1995 at the newly-built Rhein-Main Theater in Niedernhausen, starring Helen Schneider and Uwe Kröger in the lead roles. The role of Norma Desmond was later played by Daniela Ziegler and Christina Grimandi, before Schneider once more played the lead. The show ran with moderate success until it closed in May 1998. During the last few months, Schneider was replaced by Sue Mathys as Norma Desmond.
In 1996, Debra Byrne as Norma and Hugh Jackman as Joe starred in the first Australian production of Sunset Boulevard. The production opened the newly restored Regent Theatre, but closed down even sooner than the Canadian production due to Debra Byrne's poor health.US and UK tours The excellent reviews Petula Clark garnered in London helped launch a second national tour in the US. A first attempt starring Linda Balgord had been aborted after only a handful of venues due to exorbitant costs involved in transporting the set, so Lloyd Webber called in director Susan H. Schulman to design a scaled-down production, with Clark in the lead opposite Lewis Cleale as Joe. This production featured Anthony Powell's Tony Award-winning costumes and a new, more tour-friendly set by Derek McLane.
In August 2001, a UK tour commenced in Plymouth starring Faith Brown as Norma, opposite Earl Carpenter as Joe. The production had a completely new set, much simpler than the original London set, but without compromising the quality of the show. Carpenter left midway through the tour and was replaced by Jeremy Finch, who had previously understudied the role. The tour finished in late 2002 in Manchester and met with both excellent reviews and respectable ticket sales.Concert productions In 2004, Petula Clark reprised her role as Norma opposite Michael Ball at a concert production of the show that ran for two nights at the Cork Opera House in Ireland, which was later broadcast on BBC Radio. To date, with more than 2500 performances to her credit, she has played the role more often than any other actress.
Another two day concert engagement took place that very same year in Sydney by the Production Company; Judi Connelli starred as Norma, Michael Cormick played Joe and Anthony Warlow was Max. The Production Company staged a slightly more elaborate version of the concert for a week in Melbourne during 2005. Connelli again starred as Norma, and David Campbell took the role of Joe. The State Theatre was sold out for every performance.Current productions A year-long Dutch tour commenced in Holland on October 10th, 2008, with Simone Kleinsma and Pia Douwes alternating as Norma.Upcoming productions The Swedish premiere will take place at the Värmlandsoperan in August of 2009. The role of Norma Desmond will be played by Swedish actress Maria Lundqvist.Other productions A six week engagement of a minimalist production enjoyed a good run at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury over the summer of 2008, with Kathryn Evans as Norma and Ben Goddard as Joe.Abandoned productions A world tour, once again starring Petula Clark, was supposed to commence shortly after the second US tour, starting off in South Africa and finishing up in Los Angeles, but the project never came to fruition.
A US stock touring production was scheduled in early 2006, but never went further than the planning stages because Really Useful Group changed their minds about releasing the licensing rights to stock/amateur companies.
Casting was underway in February 2008 for a new production in the United Kingdom, however this has been cancelled due to rights issues between Paramount, the Relevant Picture Company and the Really Useful Group.
Glenn Close had been mentioned as playing the role of Norma Desmond, which she previously performed on Broadway, winning a Tony award. However, although Close's casting has been regularly announced, Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group have yet to confirm it themselves, and Close has not officially been contracted. Although Glenn Close performed the role to huge success on Broadway, there is speculation over whether Elaine Paige should get the part in the film version. Paige played the role in London and Broadway (up until the show's demise in 1997) to critical acclaim. The August 5, 2007 Telegraph.co.uk reports that several actresses are being considered, among them Close, Meryl Streep, Liza Minnelli, and Barbra Streisand.
Ewan McGregor was previously announced as playing Joe Gillis, but most sources citing his name, including the Internet Movie Database listing, have retracted such statements. Hugh Jackman, who played Joe Gillis in an Australian production of the stage musical, has also been considered for the role of Joe. Again, no firm casting has been announced.
Drama Logue Awards (Los Angeles production)
L.A. Drama Critics Circle Awards