The posters proclaim ‘The theatrical event of 2016’ and indeed, bringing Glenn Close across for her London stage debut more than twenty years after she played the role of Norma Desmond on Broadway is quite a coup.
This is one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best scores, based on the superb Billy Wilder film which starred Gloria Swanson as Norma and William Holden as Joe, narrating the film opener as a corpse face down in a swimming pool. This production takes its own opener from that, with a dummy which is highlighted in what is usually the orchestra pit in cool blue light, and then hoisted to hang prone above proceedings for the whole show.
Joe Gillis (Michael Xavier) is a studio hack, a writer who hasn’t had that much success but who knows a lot of young and hungry performers and creatives who litter Tinseltown, waiting for their big breaks. Early on his script pitch is knocked back by Betty Shaffer (Siobhan Dillon), a twenty-two year old idealist who grew up on studio lots, and so it is that trying to escape from loan sharks, he drives his car into the vast palazzo of fading star Norma Desmond, Cecil B De Mille’s ‘young fellow’ (the name De Mille in fact gave Swanson in their days of collaboration).
Glenn Close’s Norma starts as big as she is, the star who may not always hit the notes but can certainly put across the key numbers, and her ‘With One Look’ rightly gets the first huge audience response of the night. Later, when we know Norma better, and when we have seen how she has manipulated Joe into enjoying both her and her life of luxury, she is both luminous and delicate in ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’, on the Paramount lot where the gateman and the lighting tech remember her, but the studio runner estimates she ‘is about a hundred years old’.
Xavier may be a little too chiseled, and although his Speedo appearance in Act 2 gives a bit of comedy, it is out of place for the period. I enjoyed his singing, but the gold standard for this part, for me, remains John Barrowman who was close to perfect in his fatalistic attitude to the only way he can survive in the fake world of Hollywood. Norma Desmond exists in a false sense of reality, kept there by her devoted servant (and ex-husband) Max (Fred Johanson, who I saw years ago when he played Judas in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’).
Max’s solo song of obsession, ‘The Greatest Star of All’, is a big ask for any singer, with its large range and soaring line endings, and if Johanson didn’t quite nail the ‘fade’ line, it didn’t matter. His acting, always in the background, observing, and, in this production, perhaps calling up the ghost of Young Norma from the past (she appears, touchingly, when Norma’s ‘Joan of Arc’ film is screened, and at the New Year’s Eve ball). For him, his job is to keep the young girl he once knew alive, and happy.
Semi-staged as this production is, the orchestra (the ENO’s own) are centre stage, with metal staircases and walkways which double as different locations as we progress through the tale. There’s a sofa for Norma to lounge on, a car for Max to drive on to the lot, and a bar for the bright young things to celebrate life in. There’s also the love story which blossoms between Joe and Betty (they have their big duet ‘Too Much In Love To Care’, but they are within the cardboard lot and frontages, and we know that Norma is unbalanced, tragic, and jealous, and that their young love is doomed.
Joe said it himself in the title number which opens Act 2: “You think I’ve sold out? Dead right I’ve sold out”. And so, like half-forgotten director William Desmond Taylor, he winds up shot in the back and in a watery tomb, while a distraught Norma gets ready for her close-up and her devoted Max calls the invisible cameras to ‘action’ one last time.
Is this production worth your time? Absolutely yes. This musical demands a ‘Star’ and La Close is very much it. But there are many other pleasures to enjoy as well in this excellent revival.