So Many Dreams to Tease the Heart: Musings on the First Preview Performance of Sunset Boulevard – February 2, 2017

Sunset Boulevard has come home at last.

As mentioned early on in this blog, Sunset Boulevard is one of my all-time favorite musicals, based on the 1950 film of the same name about the Hollywood studio system’s treatment of a faded movie star and a jaded writer. I’ve been a fan of the musical since its inception back in the early 1990’s, and followed all the off stage drama that occurred back then (reference in an early blog post here). The initial Broadway production ran a little of three years, closing in 1997, and there had been two touring productions not too long after its closure (I had seen the second touring production in 2000 in Boston). While there had been regional productions across the US and overseas in the ensuing years, the first major revival was in 2016 with a semi-staged production in London at the ENO (English National Opera) starring Glenn Close, who originated the role on Broadway. After its successful run in London, it seemed only a matter of time when that production would find its way to New York, and is now currently playing at the Palace Theatre (a few blocks away from its original home, the Minskoff) for a sixteen week run, with the four leads from London reprising their roles on Broadway.

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As mentioned earlier, I had been fortunate enough to see the original production, (though not with Glenn Close) with Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige on Broadway, and the second US National Tour with Petula Clark. Knowing beforehand that the revival would be semi-staged with a 40-piece orchestra on stage, I was curious to see how it would be done (I had not been able to fly to London last year to see that production), as the original production had opulent sets at its core, and the second US National Tour had a scaled down set design which didn’t quite match the grandeur of the original production. The overall set design for the current production had an industrial feel, with a maze of staircases and balcony landings and furniture brought on and off the set by the cast. Per the press releases and various online interviews with director Lonny Price, this semi-staged production was meant to look more like the backlot of a Hollywood set, wherein Joe Gillis would narrative the events as if it were scenes from a movie. This is emphasized with the use of black and white film clips (I’m not sure if they were from specific films or just old news reel footage) projected onto a scrim. Also, the clever use of lighting to shift from Norma’s house to Paramount Studios, gave the illusion of a multitude of different sets.

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This is the third first preview performance I’ve seen thus far in my theater-going experience, and the third time seeing the revival of a show of which I saw the original production as well (I hope that made sense). The cast was amazing and hearing this Andrew Lloyd Webber score (with new orchestrations) performed by a 40-piece orchestra was thrilling – I sincerely hope a new cast recording is made. Glenn Close received a thunderous entrance ovation and a standing ovation after “As If We Never Said Goodbye” (with another rousing ovation after singing the line “I’ve come home at last”). As this production aimed to be a stripped down version of itself, it worth noting that Ms. Close’s portrayal of Norma Desmond has also been toned down – this Norma Desmond is not as overly melodramatic (through there are moments of melodrama) as before, making her less of a monstrous figure and more of a real person clinging on to her illusions of grandeur. Michael Xavier was brilliant as Joe Gillis narrating his story with equal amounts of charm and cynicism – in this production he also serves as the director of the story, cueing scene transitions and observing almost abstractly at the events of which he experienced as they were unfolding. The story of Sunset Boulevard is more about Joe, and it’s taken me this long to realize that Joe is on stage throughout the entire show up until (spoiler alert) he’s shot dead and falls into the swimming pool (also inventively staged).

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The stage door was packed, and I didn’t stay too long – the crowds were overwhelming and it was a chilly night – but I did manage to see some of the ensemble cast, who were elated by the audience response. Needless to say I’ll be seeing Sunset many, many times in the next sixteen weeks, so there’ll be plenty of opportunities to meet the cast. I really hope a new cast recording is made, and perhaps a film adaptation (preferably with this cast). While the ticket prices are steep (but then again, it’s s limited run, so I guess its justified) there are $42 rush tickets available (though not specified in the ads, the rush seats are for the rear mezzanine and balcony), and they won’t be at the TKTS booth (per the box office person with whom I spoke).

Opening night is February 9th.

For more information, visit: http://sunsetboulevardthemusical.com/

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Something About Sharing, Something About Always: My Best of Times at La Cage aux Folles, Part 4

In this the final installment of my (ten month) fixation with this production, another change in season brought new cast members to the production – Harvey Fierstein, Jeffrey Tambor, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, and Mike McShane, to replace (respectively) Douglas Hodge, Kelsey Grammer, Robin de Jesus and Fred Applegate. Cast changes are inevitable, and new actors often bring their own take on the roles while maintaining the status quo of the overall tone of the show. There was a minor kerfuffle with the new cast members, as Jeffrey Tambor, departed after a handful of performances due to his poor performance, with Christopher Sieber coming to the rescue to assume the role of Georges. As I was quite distressed at the departure of the aforementioned cast members (mostly detailed in the previous installment), I took a (very) brief hiatus in my “La-Caging” to recover, so I can’t comment on the quality of Tambor’s performance (as I didn’t see it myself), but friends of mine who did see it confirmed that he was ill-suited for the role. At the time, I thought it was an odd choice to cast Tambor, who (to my knowledge) had no previous musical theatre credits – a fair amount of marketing was sunk into his casting (billboard ads, commercials, etc.) and to have him (essentially) be a dud in the role was a shame. I’m sure someone thought it was a good idea.

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Also unique among the replacement cast was the fact that Harvey Fierstein (who wrote the book for La Cage) was stepping onstage to inhabit the role of Albin/ZaZa. While it was not the first time a writer assumed a role in the show in which he/she had a part in creating, it was certainly an interesting prospect, as Harvey Feinstein has a very distinctive, raspy voice – to be totally candid, I was wary at hearing his voice sing this iconic Jerry Herman score. I need not have worried – I returned to seeing the show after Tambor left but before Sieber assumed the role [in the interim, understudy Chris Hoch went on] – Harvey’s take on the role, while different from Doug’s, was fantastic, and his singing voice got better as the weeks went by. Wilson Jermaine Heredia, perhaps best known for his award-winning performance as Angel in Rent had a different interpretation of Jacob, infusing a more urban vibe to the role than the strictly comic spin previously used. The show as a whole remained the same heartfelt and hilarious show it’s always been, with subtle changes to accommodate the rhythms and sensibilities of the incoming cast.

Replacement cast

Yet all good things do come to an end, as May 1st was announced as the closing date. Once again, I planned to attend all three of the final weekend performances, coordinating with a group of friends I had met while waiting at the stage door – the “Cagettes”. I’m grateful to have made such great friends through this show.  At this point, most of Longacre staff recognized me, from the stage door security guard to the house manager (though not so much the box office staff, as I still obtained my tickets mainly though TKTS). This worked in my favor near the end of the run – I had purchased a mid-orchestra seat via TKTS and as I entered the theater, the house manager looked at my ticket then asked if I was here on my own, to which I responded affirmatively; and thus my seat was upgraded to one of the cabaret seats (which I presumed was unsold, and they wanted to ensure that all the cabaret seats were occupied).

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Onward to the second weekend extravaganza of “La Caging” – sat in the left side box seats for the first time, a unique vantage point (as you can see into the wings from that angle) for the matinee performance, then the first row orchestra center for the evening performance. I do believe I’ve sat and seen the show from just about every section of the Longacre, including being seated at each cabaret table – there are four separate tables – at least once. As mentioned in previous entries, I got to know the ensemble quite well, having recognized me at the stage door, so there were occasional winks and acknowledgements from them, especially the Cagelles during the “La Cage aux Folles” number, where they interact with those seated in the cabaret tables and (sometimes those seated in the front row orchestra). It’s always fun waiting at the stage door to greet the cast and chat with them (as well as collecting signed playbills and photos with the cast) – there’s a camaraderie and genuine appreciation from the cast when they saw me (usually standing in my “usual” spot) outside the stage door. In between the final two show day, Lili quite randomly spotted a white stretch limo with a wedding party inside and immediately started to interact with them – even stepping into the limo to sip some wine. It’s always entertaining to watch Lili (Todd Lattimore) improvise with the people gathered outside the Longacre, whether they are theatergoers or just passersby.

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The final performance was another emotional roller coaster, with smatterings of applause and laughter, and an unexpected turn of events, with swing Christophe Caballero going on as Jacob, as Wilson Jermaine Heredia was stuck in traffic somewhere en route and was unable to reach the theater in time. During my (roughly) ten month stint watching La Cage, it’s safe to say that I’ve seen Christophe perform in the most different roles during the run, and had seen understudies go on for all the roles, except for one – for all the performances I attended, Terry Lavell was always at each of those performances (I believe he only missed one performance during the little-over-a-year run). I sat at the cabaret table for the final performance, and during Lili’s usual pre-show banter, she thanked the house management, ushers and gave special shout outs to the Cagettes in the audience.  After the curtain call, there were the usual speeches and outpouring of flowers for the cast and a rousing, heartfelt final reprise of “The Best of Times”. The stage door was crowded with audience members wanting to thank and greet the cast as they exited for the last time from the stage door. There was joy and gratitude from all those gathered outside the Longacre, and delight and hugs from the cast when they spotted me. It was an overwhelming experience; one I wished would never end.

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Needless to say, this production of La Cage aux Folles made a profound impact in my theatre-going life – the first time I acutely fixated on a musical over such a short period of time. In the succeeding years, I’ve had time to contemplate why I kept on going to see this particular musical (as opposed to the various other musicals and plays I saw before and since this production): the Jerry Herman score is uplifting and heartfelt, and leaves you in a good mood (as most all Jerry Herman scores do), the story is about love, family and being (and staying true) to yourself; and of course this cast was extraordinary, exuberant and exuded joy with every note sung and every step taken. I’ve also met and made the most amazing friends through this fantastic show.

I certainly had the Best of Times at La Cage aux Folles.

all signed playbills