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Glenn Close as Norma Desmond: No great singer but plenty of pathos (©Richard Hubert Smith/ENO)


Andrew Lloyd Webber occupies a peculiar place in Britain’s theatrical pantheon: a household name still uttered with a bit of a sneer in a country that shells out a fortune to see musicals, but whose arts establishment remains a bit snitty about our most successful popular composer. Doubly odd, considering that many of us can measure our lives with reference to his works — the outraged sermons in the 1970s on Jesus Christ Superstar, creaky school productions of Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat, an endless supply of Cats and Phantoms of the Opera in the West End and on Broadway.

Lloyd Webber hails from a classical tradition, which is why his works are closer to operetta than any other popular composer. Sunset Boulevard, which has now ended its run at the Coliseum, is testament to that.

The story of Norma Desmond, remaining big while the pictures got small, is so familiar a trope that even those who haven’t seen Billy Wilder’s 1950 film can cite the line. The rest of the plot is a tad light — a cynical screenwriter in Hollywood (yep, him again), accidentally drawn into Norma’s circle, first as exploiter, then exploited — and finally avenged with due melodrama.

What it needs is an established star. So Lloyd Webber dutifully acquired one in Glenn Close, who in age terms is getting towards Norma numbers, but in altogether more robust form. From the moment she swept on stage in a lamé cape and dark eye make-up visible from the gods, Close commanded the vast acreage of the Coliseum stage. She bullied, threatened and bewitched her money-addled protégé Joe Gillis (Michael Xavier), while plotting a comeback with her old studio boss, Cecil B. DeMille, in an absurd reincarnation of Salomé. The studio wants a touch of the old Desmond magic — unfortunately for her, it’s in the form of her vintage car they covet for a shoot, not her legendary silent screen presence.

Pedants may note that Close is not a great singer and had struggled with a chest infection — gamely returning to the boards after a couple of days in hospital on a drip (Norma would have approved). No matter, she had the confidence of a fine performer with complete belief in her character and enough pathos to leaven her manipulation of a hapless protégé. The torch songs “This Time Next Year” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye” got the audience on their feet with many tear-strewn cheeks in the stalls. The glory of this saga is that allows us to tap guiltlessly into a well of sentiment about ageing and opportunities past. We can combine our knowing sympathy for deluded Norma with an agreeable amount of pity for ourselves.

Like Evita — another thoroughly OTT Lloyd Webber lady — Norma is, of course, an utter nightmare who traps Joe, as he realises too late, in “a long-term contract with no options”. At a chilling point just before the interval, after a suicide attempt, she wrapped her bandaged hands around her lover prey: a mummified wreck but one exerting ruthless control. True to the spirit of Phantom the lights dimmed, and we were left with the image of the white bandages illuminated. Light relief was on tap in song-and-dance numbers like “Let’s Have Lunch”. Max von Mayerling (Fred Johansen), her discarded husband-butler, stalked the set like a giant wounded beast, waiting for the worst to happen. Sure enough, it did.

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