"Sunset Boulevard." Just the name alone has a host of associations, from trips to the beach as a teenager to Saturday nights on the Strip, from elegant Beverly Hills mansions to downscale taco stands.
In 1950, it was a film by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. "Sunset Boulevard" weaves a magnificent tale of faded glory and unfulfilled ambition. Silent movie star Norma Desmond longs for a return to the big screen, having been discarded by tinsel town with the advent of "talkies." Her glamour has faded in all but her mind. When she meets struggling Hollywood screenwriter Joe Gillis in dramatic circumstances, their subsequent passionate and volatile relationship leads to an unforeseen and tragic conclusion.
The film told a story that stands for all the disillusionment and broken dreams of Hollywood; it was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won three, including one for best writing, story or screenplay.
It took more than 40 years for that film, a Hollywood icon, to become a musical. Wilder, its writer-director, told composer Stephen Sondheim, who wanted to write the music, that it shouldn't be a musical, but an opera: "It has to be an opera. After all, it's about a dethroned queen" he is supposed to have said.
That musical was finally written and premiered in 1993 with Andrew Lloyd Webber providing the music and Glenn Close the Tony- Award winning performance as Norma Desmond, who said "I am big. It's the pictures that got small!" It won seven Tony Awards, including best musical, best score and best performance by a female actor for Close, who also got that year's Drama Desk Award for the same performance.
Now "Sunset Boulevard" is making its debut at Musical Theatre West, in a new production starring Valerie Perri as Norma Desmond and David Burnham as Joe Gillis. The show opens Friday with a preview performance and runs weekends through July 27 at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center at California State University, Long Beach. It's directed by Larry Raben.
Raben talked about this production while driving from Las Vegas for the last week of technical rehearsals.
"It premiered in Los Angeles with Glenn Close and went on to Broadway, but it has been out of rotation for several years," Raben said. "The original had a swimming pool and was a major production. I've recast this as a wonderful chamber version.
"In my production, I am building filmic elements into the story along with stage elements. I've tried to evoke the era and its atmosphere."
Perri was in the original pre-Broadway production at the Schubert Theater in Los Angeles, where she played Norma Desmond at Saturday matinees. She was discovered by Webber, Raben said, and has, in 20 years, become a star on her own.
"That was where I first met her," Raben said, "and now she is starring in this production. It has come full circle.
"People say Andrew Lloyd Webber likes to borrow from many places," Raben said. "This is one of his best scores. You get amazing Broadway-style arias, late '50s-style jazz, the whole composition setting the evening's feeling.
"Billy Wilder was right, it is an opera and Webber was the right composer for this show."
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