The character of faded silent-movie queen Norma Desmond is one of the greatest grotesques in cinema, and even as romanticised in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Christopher Hampton's stage musical of Sunset Boulevard she retains a serviceable set of fangs. Petula Clark, always the sweetest of 1960s female British singers (although that was only the most visible phase of her long career), would seem to be much too pleasant a choice to play such a sinister, cracked recluse. On this occasion, advance assumptions are borne out by the reality.
Clark hits her marks, hits her notes and makes her gestures all as required, but seldom if ever does her performance convey a sense of Norma-esque spirit – a puzzling sensation from someone who was an actor before she was a singer. Her voice has consummate professional clarity and power, but never really puts across Desmond's emotions; in the closing bars of her return-to-the-studio number "As If We Never Said Goodbye", Clark's sobs seem to come on cues rather than from the heart of the song and of the character.
Likewise, her first-act hymn to the glories of the silents, "New Ways To Dream", lacks sufficient passion to get her over the niggling paradox of devoting a front-rank musical number to the days when "we didn't need words – we had faces." Clark's own face is hidden beneath half a pound of garish make-up, but nevertheless looks less like a frightening mask badly conealing the ravages beneath than the attempt of a 1970s punkette to scarify what are not particularly striking features. The shock I felt in 1993 when Patti LuPone's Norma appeared suddenly (supposedly) un-wigged and un-cosmeticised was so entirely absent this time around that only several minutes in did I realise I was watching the same scene.
Norma needs that demonic edge to counteract the dilution wrought on Billy Wilder's original story by Hampton; although the first major number, "Let's Have Lunch", is refreshingly cynical, thereafter the nasty smell of Hollywood is masked by the perfume of big-budget stage-musical values.
It is also necessary because, despite Norma being both the star character and invariably the biggest-name performer, Sunset Boulevard is not fundamentally her show. It is primarily the story of struggling writer Joe Gillis, who first finds that he has inadvertently wandered into Norma's time-warp palazzo and equally warped delusions, then tries agonisingly to extricate himself, sneaking away to work on an original screenplay with his best friend's girl at Paramount. Joe is absent from only three or four of the show's 21 scenes, and carries the bulk of the narrative.
Alexander Hanson is a tad insouciant at times as Joe – even when shot, he at first hardly flinches – but has a nice edge of self-despising stoicism as someone who has made his own gutter in Hollywood and accepts that he must lie in it. Hanson's skilful musical delivery makes up for a slight thinness to his singing voice; Joe and Betty's big duet "Too Much In Love To Care" is still more genuinely affecting than any of Norma's show-stoppers.
Nearly four years on, Sunset Boulevard has almost become a fixture: the ensemble players are sometimes unable to conceal the knowledge that they are just doing a regular job, and even the trucks and flies of John Napier's astoundingly complex set move now and then with a careless jerk. It will, however, take rather more to close the show than Petula Clark's attenuation of the charisma of Norma Desmond.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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