Showstopper

When Hillary Clinton Met Norma Desmond: Review of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ on Broadway

On Wednesday, Hillary Clinton came to see Glenn Close’s brilliant incarnation of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Did she find emotional echoes in the production?

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The whooping started just as we were all seated, with moments to go before the curtain rose on Wednesday evening’s performance of Sunset Boulevard.

The applause and cheering were not yet for Glenn Close, back on Broadway 22 years after winning the Tony for playing Norma Desmond. She was reprising the role, having played Norma in London last year.

The audience’s cheers—raucous, keenly felt, and loud—were for Hillary Clinton, who was taking her aisle seat in the Palace Theatre’s orchestra section, close to the stage. She had just come from dinner with actress Kate McKinnon, who is perhaps most famous for portraying the former secretary of state on SNL.

The audience’s rousingly warm welcome went on for so long that one wondered if Close would ever get the opportunity to take to the stage as Desmond in this Andrew Lloyd Webber production—based on the 1950 Billy Wilder film—which originally began life in London’s West End in 1993 with Patti LuPone in the lead role.

With two divas in the house, who would get the biggest cheers? The audience cheered for them both—roared, more accurately.

There was an added poignancy to watching Sunset Boulevard that night. Clinton and Desmond are far from mirror images—although Clinton’s fiercest foes may accuse her of similar delusions of grandeur and ambition as Desmond possesses—but each is an iconic, accomplished woman forced to confront the crumbling of her ambition and dreams, having attained so much success, and still possessed of so much determination and charisma.

Close’s performance is, of course, goosebump-enducing and electric. An actress of her talent playing Desmond, the silent movie star left behind by the era of talkies, brings focus to Norma Desmond, the warped and wondrous personality.

Here is a movie star at once grand and detached from reality—who thinks nothing of spending thousands of dollars on Joe (Michael Xavier), the object of her affections—and who is commanding and sharp when she wants something, fierce when crossed, and child-like and needy when rejected.

Joe, a screenwriter she is both in love with and banking on to help make her a star again, is both seduced by Norma’s riches and revolted by what he is becoming, and Xavier evokes him without edge.

It is Joe’s connections with Hollywood, and his frustrated love affair with Betty (Siobhan Dillon) that form a kind of time-filling blanket in the show (although a moving duet of theirs is sung with feeling).

All the surrounding ballast of singing and dancing in the show—the songs about Hollywood and its venal, sanity-shredding ways—is a slickly executed pleasure to watch; and similarly Xavier’s appearance in a pair of tight swimming trunks, his body wet, produced a number of happy whoops.

But these moments do not feature Glenn Close, and therefore, brutally, feel a little redundant. Any moment without Close on stage starts to feel like a frothy musical about those ye-gads crazy kids trying to make it in Hollywood.

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Norma’s fantasy life of fame—especially the production of troves of fan letters—has been the responsibility of her mysterious majordomo Max (Fred Johanson), whose protection of her borders on the creepy and fanatic.

The real action is not on the sound-stages glimpsed occasionally by the audience, but Norma’s mansion of faded glories on Sunset Boulevard, with its winding staircase and chandeliers piled up one on top of the other.

James Noone’s set design of scaffolds and perches ingeniously doubles as both mansion and movie studio. Via projections on a screen, there is also wonderful use made of silent movies, and footage of old Hollywood. My theater buddy loved the “cars” effect (people holding two lights, whizzing about); I did not.

Close’s voice, as has been noted elsewhere, is not conventionally smooth, but then her expansive-yet-cornered Norma is far from smooth herself. The occasional talk-singing is entirely appropriate to her character’s anguish and insanity.

The Sunset Boulevard showstopper, Norma’s “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” sung as she goes once again to Cecil B. DeMille (Paul Schoeffler) to restart her career and a spotlight is once again trained upon her, is intensely moving because it is a harking back to a golden age, while every note of it has the rasp of desperation—Norma’s delusion that she can have all the fame and glory again.

Her consummate acting skills mean Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s book and lyrics are not just vividly bought to life, but also with all kinds of light and dark shading, pathos and wit, and comedy and tragedy, that only Close—here at her most powerful and charismatic—can marshal believably.

Of course, the insanely dramatic outfits by Anthony Powell (bejeweled head scarves, black suits with white fur sleeves, evening gowns of shimmering excess) and the crazy diva holed up in the Hollywood mansion deliver implicit camp pleasure—bucketfuls of it—but Close does not play up to that, or play it for that. By not making Norma a caricature, we see, all too painfully, her fractured reality.

Talking to Matt Lauer on Today, Close said she had “delved down” to try and understand Desmond’s behavior, on today and “in that journey of discovery you always find a place to love them.”

The 22 years of aging that had elapsed between Normas had enriched her performance, Close said. The Hollywood studio system of now was just as punitive to older actresses as Norma endures in the play, she added.

Just as watching Swanson play Desmond was piercing because Swanson’s stardom herself was rooted in the pre-talkie era (and Swanson-as-Desmond watched Swanson’s Queen Kelly in Wilder’s movie), so Close’s own Hollywood status bleeds over on to the stage.

Close’s habitation of Norma is ultimately tragic and triumphant; her final appearance, as she prepares to face law enforcement believing them to be her beloved cameras, is wrenching and ridiculous, as she descends that grand staircase like a nervous crab suddenly becoming a jaunty flapper girl.

As throughout, the genius here is in Close’s phrasing, which first gently declares that she will never desert DeMille again (even though he is the one doing the deserting), then—sung slightly harder—that this is her life and always will be, then—she almost spits out—“There is nothing else, just this,” to suddenly softly invoking those “wonderful people out there in the dark,” the cinema audiences, who have given her, quite literally, life.

The night our audience saw it Clinton’s presence bought an additional charge and layer to the emotion. At the interval, she graciously received many people’s thanks, requests for photographs, and participatory selfies. They queued, and crowded around her. One woman put her hand gently to her chest, and thanked Clinton for all she had done.

There was more applause and cheering and shouted support for Clinton before act two, and then at the end of the show she was hustled discreetly backstage with minimal fuss to meet Close, who had herself just left the stage after multiple ovations, which will no doubt be repeated—deservedly—throughout the run.

But there was only this one performance where at least elements of Sunset Boulevard—not Norma’s self-delusion, but rather the diminishment of a powerful woman, painfully, in front of her own eyes; and her determination to survive in the face of that—that may have echoed quite so piercingly within Hillary Clinton, sitting watching Sunset Boulevard from the stalls.

Sunset Boulevard is at the Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, until June 25. Book tickets here.