About two thirds of the way through Sunset Boulevard, Joe Gillis (Michael Xavier) exits a swimming pool to reveal the kind of body that requires eight hours a day at the gym. Mr. Xavier is a good singer and dancer, but this moment captures precisely why he is so miscast as Joe: the screenwriter’s psychosexual relationship with silent film star Norma Desmond (Glenn Close) doesn’t make any sense if he’s a typical kept man, young, athletic, and docile. Joe is meant to be cynical, over the hill, contemplating a return to Dayton, Ohio. Thus, he needs Norma just as much as she needs him. He should look burnt out, hungry enough to feel ambivalent about allowing Norma to take control. Otherwise, why stay?
Of course, the failure of Sunset Boulevard cannot be laid at Mr. Xavier’s feet alone. Scenic designer James Noone has inexplicably favored a single set that doubles as movie studio and mansion. In all those deliciously claustrophobic moments, then, the ones where both Norma and Joe should feel suffocated by their rotting, gaudy home, the stage is flanked by signs reading “Studio 27” and “Studio 30,” while down its center run several skeletal staircases—it it these Norma will use in her famous finale, but gone are the lavish detailing that evoke a lost Hollywood. Furthermore, a full orchestra performs above the pit, meaning Norma and Joe are never really alone. Tone is vital to Sunset Boulevard, and yet it is almost as if every effort has been made to siphon off its sense of dread.
Ms. Close, who has been widely praised for reviving a role she originated, is a strong actor, but in this part she is mostly wasted. No doubt it would be difficult for anyone to follow Gloria Swanson, whose personal history added a great deal of resonance to her performance. Even so, Ms. Close fails to achieve Swanson’s gravitas; the latter’s pencil-thin eyebrows and Svengali stare create a profoundly haunting effect that is absent here. Again, it is not entirely her fault: writers Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black, and Christopher Hampton devote far too much time to Joe and his other love interest, Betty Schaeffer (Siobhan Dillon). Betty is a tug on Joe’s sleeve, a reminder of the outside world, but her presence in this musical draws too much attention away from its central and far more interesting plot. (Two songs featuring Betty get reprised. None of Norma’s do.) Indeed, I was particularly surprised to find Norma’s impression of Charlie Chaplin nixed—in the context of the movie, this allows much-needed relief while at the same time demonstrating the depths of Norma’s manic need for an audience. And though, as noted above, the musical requires no relief because it provides no terror, Chaplin’s vaudevillian movements still seem perfectly suited to the Broadway stage.
Sunset Boulevard is one of the darkest depictions of Hollywood by Hollywood. Its relationship to the medium is one of the keys to its power; transforming it into a musical doesn’t quite make sense. It makes even less sense when the musical that bears its name is more “girl meets boy” than “woman destroys man.” What a waste. What a shame.