LONDON — There was a moment at the end of the night—once the rest of the cast had taken its bow—when the 48-piece orchestra struck up one last time and Glenn Close swept magisterially back on to the stage.
The audience inside one of London’s most ornate and revered theatres leapt to its feet, offering not just a standing ovation but the kind of hollering, overhead-clapping and whooping that is usually considered deeply uncouth at the home of the English National Opera.
Close’s Sunset Boulevard colleagues—mere acting mortals—were clustered together at the extremities of the stage; cast aside as the sea was parted.
The Fatal Attraction and Damages star is magnificent as the faded movie diva Norma Desmond; and she sure knows it. Her power and charm captivate as she swirls through nostalgia and reverie towards madness.
Perfectly poised, vulnerable and yet over-bearing Close dominates every scene she’s in—and makes you long for her return in the scenes she is not. One of her opening lines, of course, is a classic. “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small,” she barks.
And then she breaks into the one really good song of the show:
With one look I can break your heartWith one look I play every part...No words can tell the stories my eyes tellWatch me when I frown, you can’t write that downYou know I’m right, it’s there in black and whiteWhen I look your way, you’ll hear what I say
It’s a celebration of big-screen acting, performed right before our eyes by one of the best. As Close nails the final note and raises her arms aloft—the first of many ovations thunders round the auditorium.
When the British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber first staged his musical adaptation of the 1950 movie in 1991 at his Sydmonton Festival, the starring role was filled by the talented, but little-known Welsh actress Ria Jones. It was a flop. (Jones is Close’s understudy, and stood in for her when Close fell ill on Thursday.)
By the time the show was ready for the West End in 1993, musical theater mega-star Patti LuPone had been recruited, but still the reviews were mixed.
It was only when the show arrived in its spiritual home in Los Angeles that it really came to life. A temporary stop-gap actress was sought before LuPone was due to re-open the multimillion-dollar production on Broadway in 1994.
She never got the chance because that stand in was Glenn Close.
Close, who was 47, had been nominated for an Oscar five times in the 1980s—the last of those six years before Sunset Boulevard opened in LA.
On stage, she was a revelation. Her singing voice may not have matched LuPone’s, but her fading star-power finally gave the show the genuine Hollywood glamour it needed.
When LuPone read in a newspaper that she had been dropped from the Broadway show while she was still finishing the simultaneous run in London, she gave a bravura demonstration of exactly what happens when a diva is scorned. She wrote in her autobiography:
From the outside, I’m sure it sounded like all hell had broken loose in my dressing room, which in fact it had. I was hysterical… I took to batting practice in my dressing room with a floor lamp. I swung at everything in sight in sight — mirrors, wig stands, makeup, wardrobe, furniture, everything. Then I heaved a lamp out the second-floor window...
If there could have been a bigger slap in the face, I’m not sure what it would have been.
Lloyd Webber, who also wrote Cats, Evita and The Phantom of the Opera, was the focus of much of LuPone’s ire but she was also furious with Close for stabbing her in the back and never reaching out to apologize.
In the end, Lloyd Webber was forced to pay LuPone $1m for not appearing on Broadway.
If Close was proving a more convincing diva on-stage, she had her own strop off it when the Broadway production doctored the ticket sales figures during her vacation to make it look as though it was the opulent production, not Close, the star, that was packing out the Minskoff Theatre.
Under headlines like “Bullets over Broadway,” Close made sure the papers fully understood her displeasure.
The sell-out show won seven Tony awards including one for Close.
Partly due to the LuPone payout but mostly because of the ludicrously expensive set, Sunset Boulevard lost tens of millions of dollars in the 1990s despite the awards and the sale of more than a million tickets.
There is no lavish set for this short run—running till May 7--at the London Coliseum. Interconnected stairways stand in for the Hollywood hills, the Paramount film studio and the famous palazzo on Sunset.
The rest of the cast was perfectly good—especially Siobhan Dillon as Betty Schaefer—but it felt like the other actors had been pared back just like the set. Somehow they existed only as background for Close.
More than 20 years after her first startling turn as Norma Desmond, Close is back in the part at the age of 69.
In another of the lines lifted directly from Billy Wilder’s movie script, the screenwriter Joe Gillis says to Close’s Norma: “I didn’t know you were planning a comeback.”
“I hate that word,” Close responds. ”It’s a return!”