"It's not a comeback--it's a return!" cries Norma Desmond about her misguided efforts to film the life of Salome. Norma, of course, is the heroine of Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder's 1950 film about the gothic underside of Hollywood stardom. Sunset Boulevard made areturn in Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1994 stage musical, a near-hit in both its West End and Broadway editions. Although the musical provided a Broadway triumph for leading lady Glenn Close, it was dogged by bad luck; two other stars engaged to play Norma were let go, and the road company shuttered early when it proved too expensive to tour.
However, Sunset Boulevard made another comeback this winter, when a new national tour went on the road, produced by Pace Theatrical Group and Columbia Artists Management, starring Petula Clark as Norma, Lewis Cleale as Joe Gillis, the screenwriter who becomes her lover, and Allen Fitzpatrick as Max, her faithful chauffeur. This new Sunset Boulevard, directed by Susan H. Schulman and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, also featured a new design concept executed by Derek McLane (scenery) and Peter Kaczorowski (lighting). The tour retains Anthony Powell's original costumes; sound design is by Tony Meola.
With its cynical tone, its cast of silent film favorites playing Hollywood has-beens, and a plot twist featuring Cecil B. DeMille as himself, the film had a voyeuristic allure for movie fans. In its original production, Webber's musical was more sentimental; audiences were meant to weep over Norma Desmond's lost youth and fame. Under Schulman's direction, the Sunset Boulevard tour is closer to the movie, its skeptical view of stardom, its fascination with the details of filmmaking. In fact, this Sunset Boulevard quite possibly takes place in the movie studio of Norma Desmond's mind.
"We wanted a frame for the production," says McLane, "and what presented itself was the idea of a movie studio. Susan was interested in Norma's delusional state, the fact that she has defined herself in terms of the movies. Everything onstage looks like a piece of movie scenery. You're never sure if you're seeing the real thing, or a prop." The suggestion, he adds, is that the play may be Norma's fantasy, acted out on an empty soundstage, using the raw tools of the moviemaking process.
Thus the show curtain, depicting the approach to Norma's mansion, with palm trees floating ominously in front, is a scenic painting fresh off its frame. In the upper left-hand corner, a series of typewritten letters spells out: "Sunset drop. Exterior." Not long after the curtain rises, one notices a trio of scenic towers, filled with furniture pieces, which reconfigure from scene to scene. The guest room that Joe occupies on Norma's estate is a tiny wagon with a bed on it; through the window, a studio lighting unit provides ersatz moonlight.
Even the show's most difficult scene--the chase sequence in which Joe eludes the goons who want to repossess his car--has been conceived in terms of film. Cleale "drives" a vintage vehicle in front of a film sequence shot from the point of view of a moving car. The film was pieced together by projection designer Wendall K. Harrington from several sources. "We found a number of different pieces of film," she says, "that we pulled together and carefully speeded up so that it had some danger." The onstage vehicle is a real car, which was "chopped up and shrunk," with its front cut away, to show the actor. "There's lighting equipment on the front," says McLane. "It's meant to be the car from the movie on the screen. It's as if the front of the car was removed so the camera could get in close and shoot the actor, the steering wheel, and the view out the rear window." (Scenery for the production, including the car, was built and painted by Hudson Scenic Studios. Additional scenery and props were done by The Rabbit's Choice. One amusing technical credit: "The most beautiful and expensive scrapbook in the world by Meghan Abel," the daughter of production propertyman Timothy M. Abel.)
This concept is carried out even in the play's most famous setting, Norma's mansion on Sunset. John Napier's design for the original production was a vast assemblage of vintage bric-a-brac arranged around a sweeping staircase. In its meticulous detail, it resembled contemporary photos of Hollywood's most baroque interiors; it was also cavernous and tended to dwarf the actors. In this production, McLane's setting is less grand, but more claustrophobic, dominated by heavy draperies and dark period furnishings--it's the mansion that time forgot.
The first appearance of Norma's mansion is a moment worthy of a horror film. According to McLane, "If Max spends so much energy trying to perpetuate the idea that Norma is still a great star, perhaps he creates her mansion out of the dreary, empty, industrial space of a movie studio. He leads Joe into the mansion; then we see drapes fly in and unfurl; then the loading doors of the soundstage open and that's where the staircase enters." It's like watching the unfolding of a spider's web. The designer adds, "That set is quite a trick, because it has to be grand, but it also has to be intimate, since it's all about two- or three-character scenes."
McLane notes that some of the interior's details, including the staircase, come from the book Opulent Interiors, published by Dover. The painting of Norma in one of her signature roles was done by Chris Faust. "The body and crown are based on a John Singer Sargent portrait," says the designer, "then he worked from a photograph of Petula Clark, when she was a young woman." A decorative statue was purchased from the firm Industrial Plastics. The draperies were created by I. Weiss.
The second big challenge of the show is Act I, Scene 12, the New Year's Eve party at the apartment of Joe's friend, Artie Green. In the number "This Time Next Year," Artie and his guests, all low-level movie people, spin fantasies of future success. At a certain point, however, the audience must also see Norma, alone in her mansion, contemplating suicide. The original production solved this with a hydraulic lift; Norma's mansion rose several feet in the air and Artie's apartment was seen beneath it. McLane placed the apartment setting down front; it's a collection of brightly colored Populuxe-style furniture pieces, backed by a drop depicting a blueprint of the apartment's layout. In the upper left-hand corner are the words, "Artie's Apartment." In the lower right corner are the words, "Shot #133b." The drop is a scrim; a simple change of lighting reveals Norma in her desolation. About the apartment setting, McLane adds, "The period of the furniture is about five years later than it should be, but we really wanted it to have a modern design sensibility, as opposed to Norma's house, which is practically in another century."
The highlight of any production of Sunset Boulevard is the second-act scene where Norma returns to Paramount and sings "As If We Never Said Goodbye." The setting is the soundstage where DeMille is shooting the film Samson and Delilah; McLane has assembled a jumble of elements, including scaffolding, lighting equipment, and another scenic drop depicting a Philistine palace. The drop, McLane says, is adapted from a design used in DeMille's actual film of Samson and Delilah. "All I could find were black-and-white stills," he says, "so I invented a color scheme for it. There again, you see the drop tied on a wooden frame. I love the look of movie shoots, the way you see one little moment of movie reality, with piles of equipment all around the edges of it."
The techniques of stage and film merge together in the play's climax in which Norma, having murdered Joe and gone hopelessly mad, descends the staircase dressed as Salome, ready to begin filming the movie that will never be. It's probably impossible to equal Billy Wilder's terrifying final shot, in which Gloria Swanson glides closer and closer to the camera, gesturing wildly, until she becomes a total blur. But, as staged by Schulman, the final sequence has a creepy elegance. Says McLane, "When Norma kills Joe, the downstage furniture disappears. When she sings the last verse of her song, 'Surrender,' the other furniture disappears, and the drapes start to fly out, one by one." Meanwhile, the bottom landing of the staircase--where Norma is--breaks apart and rolls downstage center. "By the time it arrives downstage, everything is gone; all that's left is that one section of staircase and the empty soundstage. As the window flies out, for the first time you can see a label on the bottom: 'Norma's Mansion Window.'" As she finishes her number, we see a collage of images on the back wall, depicting Norma in her great film roles, followed by movie title card that says "The End." Harrington says that montage consisted of "fancy Photoshop work" in which Clark's face was inserted into period film stills. These images are seen courtesy of a Pani projector built into the staircase unit.
Lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski notes that seamless transitions were very important to both Schulman and Marshall and his design aids and abets them at every turn. Again, movies provide the inevitable reference point. For scenes set in and around Norma's mansion, the lighting has the silvery gray tones of 40s film noir; for scenes set in the real world--the studio backlot, Schwab's Drugstore, Artie Green's apartment--the lighting uses a much broader palette. "Norma has been holed up in that house, while life has gone on outside," the designer says. "Her return to the studio should be jarring for her. I wanted it to look as vivid and colorful as possible. She remembers it as a black-and-white world, but it's now a Technicolor(R) extravaganza."
One element that links both parts of Kaczorowski's design is the use of footlights. "They seem to cross the line between the two worlds," he says. They are used in the first number, "Let's Have Lunch," in which Joe is surrounded by a chorus of hustling studio employees. The number builds, says the designer, to "what Kathleen Marshall called the 'cacophony' sequence.'" The actors come downstage and directly challenge the audience, with the footlights creating a sinister uplighting effect.
Besides the footlights, there are also a couple of units placed in shinbuster positions at extreme stage right and left, which are used to illuminate the curtains in Norma's house. "They're pointed at the front swag," he says. "All the others are lit from ladder positions upstage of the proscenium. The lighting is meant to be as sheer and fold-revealing as possible. I treat them more or less aggressively at different times. When Norma sings 'Salome,' describing her script, or when she watches a movie of herself, the curtains are seen in greater relief. For other, more real scenes, when she and Joe are working on the script, they're not so obvious. They felt very much to me like movie palace curtains and it seemed extremely appropriate that they should be most prominent when she is in the middle of her movie-related reveries."
Many of Kaczorowski's most colorful effects come from nine High End Systems Cyberlights(R), which perform a multitude of functions on this show. This is particularly true in the backlot sequence, in which Joe and Betty Schaefer, the woman he really loves, wander through an unused soundstage, and perform the ballad "Too Much in Love to Care." Betty, the daughter of a studio electrician, demonstrates her knowledge of studio lighting. "There's a pink and yellow sky at the rear," says the designer, "and she flips the switch that turns it into a night sky and moon. All nine Cyberlights compose a vivid daytime California sky at the top of the scene; those same nine lamps turn a vista into an evening sky with stars and moon, using various templates."
Cyberlights are used in several other key moments as well. During the "cacophony" sequence of "Let's Have Lunch," the units, showing patterns on the floor, move down with the actors "and cross to their corners with them." When Norma enters the Samson and Delilah soundstage and is spotted by the elderly electrician Hog Eye, the Cyberlights pan across the stage and auditorium and onto her. During the second-act studio scenes, the units cast Venetian blind patterns on the floor. "They jog a vista from left to right, just to focus each little book scene." The Cyberlights, more known for their bold colors, are also key players in the creation of the slightlychilly feel of Norma's mansion. "I had made a dichroic version of Lee 142, Cool Lavender, for the Cyber," Kaczorowski says. "The lamp made it a steelier, cooler color, with an arc-light feeling."
Other touches include a pink sky made with R39. "It's called Skelton Sangria," says Kaczorowski, recalling the legendary lighting designer Thomas Skelton. "I worked with him for years and I miss him terribly, so I try to get that color in every show, as a tribute. When the show can stand to have a vivid pink, it's an awfully good one to have." The eerie effect of Joe's body floating in Norma's pool is also done with a Cyberlight. Another aquatic effect, that of rippling water reflected from the pool, is achieved with a tubular ripple projector from City Theatrical. Ropelights, placed inside the prop tower units, give the units a haunted-house quality.
Lighting is used for one of the play's climactic moments: Joe discovers Norma on the staircase, phone in hand, telling Betty to stay away. Joe picks up an extension and gives Betty the address of the house on Sunset. Norma exits, and to the accompaniment of Webber's most darkly melodramatic music, Joe is left alone onstage, while a number of supporting characters appear, each revealed briefly in a shaft of cold white light. The final apparition is Betty; the lights come up on the set, and she speaks. The sequence effectively sketches in Joe's inner turmoil, provides a swift transition, and gives Betty an elegant entrance.
Overall, Kaczorowski adds, his rig is quite small for a big musical. "There are 215 conventional fixtures, all [ETC] Source Fours and Altman PAR cans, and nine Cyberlights." The production calls for three followspots, but in each city, house equipment is used. Also, he says, the design was built for speed. "There are electrics built into Derek's trusses. They travel like that, so when the truss goes up, the electrics are basically hung and focused. There are five overhead electrics downstage of the big studio doors; four of them are in trusses, so only one pipe has to be hung separately. Upstage of the door, there's a striplight pipe and two smallish leko pipes. There are three ladders per side--four ladders have eight lamps on them and two ladders have four lamps. The whole show has to go up in 13 hours, soup to nuts, ready for a show. Electrically speaking, it's very tourable."
The show is run on an ETC Obsession console, MIDI-linked to an Expression, which runs the moving lights. Lighting equipment was supplied by Four Star Stage Lighting. The projection system was provided by Scharff Weisberg, and the large-format projection system came from Production Arts. Other key personnel included assistant set designer Antje Ellerman; McLane's assistants Stephen Carter, Atsuko Kurita, and Rob Wolin; Harrington's assistants Michael Clark and Chelsea Pennebaker; assistant lighting designers Tracy Klainer and Christopher Reay, and moving light programmer Josh Weitzman, who, says Kaczorowski, "did a fabulous job."
As Broadway productions become more and more complex, look for more shows to be significantly redesigned for the touring market. What remains to be seen is whether other productions will get as thorough a rethinking as this Sunset Boulevard. The original production will have its partisans, but there's no doubt that this touring design is fascinating for the way it explores the thin line between individual delusion and the professionally manufactured dreams of Hollywood. Or, as Norma Desmond would put it, they give the world new ways to dream.