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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Early Morning Madness and the Magic in the Making: Explaining How My Love for Sunset Boulevard Created the Minskoff Theatre Curse

Speaking the actual name of the Scottish Play in a theater when not performing it. The presence of ghost lights on stage. Not wishing someone “good luck” before a performance. Over the course of theatrical history, there have been superstitions and stories of strange, inexplicable occurrences that have defied logic. Some may dismiss them as coincidence, while others may believe them to be fabricated or embellished; then there are those few who wholeheartedly believe in such things and adhere to the rules around how to ward off bad luck, to appease the ghostly figures that inhabit several Broadway theatres and also the Gods of the Theatre. I never really believed in all that, I thought it had to be sheer coincidence or just mischief-making to propel the veracity of such stories. The evoking of the Minskoff Curse, and the subsequent events that happened made me realize how wrong I was, and even though fifteen (!) years has passed since the Curse was first uttered, its lingering presence remains intact (albeit altered), making its home at the Marquis Theatre.

Before I impart the tale of the Minskoff Theatre Curse, a bit of exposition is required. First of all, for any of this to make any sense, I must mention that Sunset Boulevard is one my favorite musicals, and is in fact ranked third in my list of all-time favorite [excluding revivals] musicals that I have seen live on stage, (after Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera). I would listen to the cast recordings constantly, and talk about so much to the point that my nickname amongst my high school friends was (and still is) Norma. Sunset Boulevard was the first Andrew Lloyd Webber musical I aware of and followed in its development from the West End to Los Angeles to Broadway (I became aware of Phantom after the show already arrived on Broadway, and Aspects of Love seemed to have opened and closed relatively in short order) and I had also seen and enjoyed the 1950 Billy Wilder film. I still hold out hope that the musical will be made into a movie musical, but considering the recent Hollywood movies based on musicals, most with pretty, young bankable movie stars for the most part can’t do justice to the source material, I should know better. But then again the upcoming movie musical of Les Miserables gives me hope that casting of such projects should have trained actors who have some theatre experience.

But I digress.

Sunset certainly had its share of (presumably) unintended drama off-stage, particularly with its leading ladies. Glenn Close, having played faded movie star Norma Desmond in the American premiere production in Los Angeles, being slated to star on Broadway, despite the fact that Patti LuPone had been promised that honor (LuPone subsequently sued Lloyd Webber over this breach of promise); Faye Dunaway, who was to replace Close in the Los Angeles production was basically fired from the production for not being up to snuff to play the part (she also sued Lloyd Webber). So, even before the show reached Broadway, there was trouble brewing. Nevertheless, Sunset reached Broadway in 1994 with the largest advance tickets sales at the time, the critical reviews were for the most part favorable, and won the appropriate awards. Despite these accolades, the show was not a financial success, considering the production costs associated with the exorbitant sets and lavish costumes, which were amazing. I was only able to see the Broadway production three times (and the second US tour production once), as I was still in high school at the time of the production with little disposable income of my own, and there were not as many discounts for young theater-goers as there are now (had there been the programs and discounts for teens they have now back then, I would certainly have seen the show and many others…).

But I digress.

Again.

While I was unable to see Glenn Close as Norma Desmond, I did see Betty Buckley (twice) and Elaine Paige, who were both astounding. Most likely due to the high weekly production costs of the show, Sunset was also the first Lloyd Webber show of which I was aware to close (Phantom was and is still running, and Cats was still around). I was absolutely livid and quite distressed when I read the news of its closing on March 22, 1997 adding insult to injury, in my opinion, since that day is also Lloyd Webber’s birthday. I soon organized a group outing with a bunch of my friends to see the show one last time on February 20, 1997 (I was unable to attend the final performance due to a school-related activity that required my attendance, which ended up not happening, but by the time I knew that it was too late to get to the final performance). Anyway, my friends and I were seated in the rear mezzanine of the theater, and I was cheering quite enthusiastically, to the point that my voice was quite hoarse by intermission and just about gone altogether by the end of the show, which was not particularly a good thing; that evening was also the very first time I waited at stage door for the actors (Elaine Paige in particular) to emerge. While we waited, we spotted Julie Andrews leaving the Marquis Theatre stage door across the street (she was in Victor/Victoria at the time) and waved at her (and she waved back!) and I organized my friends to be standing in the area between where the stage door and Ms. Paige’s car (yes, I was that determined to meet her). When she did emerge from the stage door and signed our playbills, I had to have one my friends tell her how I enjoyed her performance and ask her if I could have a photo with her, as I literally could not speak to her, which I found pretty embarrassing. Thankfully, I got to meet her again years later at a book signing for her memoir Memories and finally got to speak with her.

My Sunset playbill, signed by Elaine Paige

Me and Elaine Paige, February 20, 1997 (I have no idea who the couple behind me were, but at least they’re smiling too!)

By the time we left the stage door, it was already past midnight, so we all headed to the subway to get home. If memory serves, it was during this subway ride home when I thought up of what will later be known as the Minskoff Theatre Curse, and a complex and specific curse it was. Here’s how it went: I had evoked that no musical that went into the Minskoff Theatre after Sunset that had the letter “S” in its title (either upper or lower case) would last more than three years there, as Sunset ran for just about two and a half years (don’t bother asking me how I did it – that is knowledge that can be dangerous if placed in the wrong hands). Now here’s where things get uncanny and made think that it was more than coincidence:

  • The next musical to play at the Minskoff Theatre was The Scarlet Pimpernel, which had problems of its own – the production played for about a year and a half (two different versions were presented) before closing briefly and moving to the Neil Simon Theatre, where it played under a year before the show closed for good.
  • The next musical to play at the Minskoff Theatre was Saturday Night Fever, which ultimately played a little over a year before closing.
  • The next musical to play at the Minskoff Theatre was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which only played less than a month, and interestingly enough, the marquee for that production stayed up longer than the production was open.

The Minskoff Theatre remained vacant for several months after The Adventures of Tom Sawyer closed, and it is at this point in time I’m convinced that the mythical Gods of the Theatre took offense at my curse-making and decided to take punitive action. That they did and on a grand scale, for the next musical to play at the Minskoff Theatre was Dance of the Vampires, which marked the Broadway return of Michael Crawford, of whom (as mentioned in a previous blog) I have an avid fan. When I had read about this, I was both overjoyed and worried: delighted at the prospect of seeing Crawford act and sing on stage in a musical (I had seen him in concert a few years prior) and also anxious about that “s” in the show’s title and where the theatre in which the show was to reside. Needless to say, the Gods of the Theatre had relished their machinations, as Dance of the Vampires received the most hateful, negative reviews I have ever read, to the point that the “reviews” were more like personal attacks on Crawford himself rather than on the qualities of the production (or about the other actors). Despite these hateful critiques, the production ran for three months (nearly two of which were in previews) – I managed to see the show nine times: twice in previews and the rest after it opened, and was the first show I saw both the matinée and evening performance, albeit they were the final two performances. The show was (and still is) one of the best musical scores I’ve heard, and was thoroughly entertaining; and to see and hear Crawford onstage in character was a thrilling experience.

After Dance of the Vampires closed, I sought out a way to rescind the Curse and make things right again with the Gods of the Theatre. The opportunity came out roughly a year later, when the next musical to play at the Minskoff was a revival of Fiddler on the Roof, which, while has no “s” in its title, just so happened to be the very first Broadway musical I ever saw (as a school field trip in 1990). I took this as a sign and my opportunity to show my sincerity and remove the Curse. So I then made plans to book tickets for February 20, 2004 and to also to attend the performance with one of the friends who had also gone to see Sunset that night. The Curse was lifted that night (again, don’t ask what I had to do to lift the Curse – it’s not something that can be shared). Suffice to say it worked – Fiddler ran for roughly another year, and the next (and current) show to play at the Minskoff Theatre? The Lion King, which is destined to have a long, long run.

Normally, this would be where the story ends, but another curious thing happened: after the expulsion of the Minskoff Curse, it seems to have regrouped, dropped “the letter‘s’ in the title” component and moved into the closest theater from its prior home: the Marquis Theatre. For the musicals that have played at the Marquis Theatre that were not limited or seasonal productions ran less than two years:

  • La Cage aux Folles: November 2004 – June 2005
  • Woman In White: October 2005 – February 2006
  • The Drowsy Chaperone: April 2006 – December 2007
  • Cry Baby:  March 2008 – June 2008
  • 9 to 5: April 2009 – September 2009
  • Come Fly Away: March 2010 – September 2010
  • Wonderland: March 2011 – May 2011

Currently at the Marquis Theatre is a revival production of Evita, which started its run in March 2012, so I’ll be closely watching to see how long this production runs, though there’s not too much I can do about this, as the phenomenon that currently occupies the Marquis is not the same Curse I had evicted from Minskoff. So I ask you, is this all purely coincidence or is there perhaps something other-worldly that exists in the world of the Theatre? Well, believe what you will; needless to say I’m now more careful with my critiques and thoughts about the theatre and equally careful not to anger the Gods of the Theatre, lest I incur their wrath again. I’ve learned my lesson the hard way.

Update: I know I should have updated this sooner, as it has already been announced that Evita will be closing on January 26, 2013, which (interestingly enough) is also the same date as the 25th Anniversary of Phantom of the Opera. The next production to play the Marquis is the revival of Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll & Hyde, though that production is (as far as it has been reported) scheduled to be a limited run, so it’s safe from this “curse”.