In April 2016, the London Coliseum will play host to a semi-staged production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Sunset Boulevard, with Glenn Close reprising the role of former silent movie star Norma Desmond, which she played in Los Angeles and on Broadway. In front of an invited press audience, she spoke of her previous involvement with the musical, her take on the character of Norma and the opportunity to revisit the role after 20 years.
Scott Matthewman writes:
On the role of music in her life…
My father loved Italian opera, and both my parents loved Rodgers and Hammerstein. My first memory of music, I think I was about three, was hearing Mary Martin singing in South Pacific. And so when I went to New York to seek my fortune, and to start what I hoped would be my career, I started taking voice lessons with a wonderful Italian teacher who taught me arias.
But I only really learned to sing in Sunset Boulevard. When we started rehearsals, way back then in Los Angeles, I would be singing as I drove down [the real] Sunset Boulevard to get to the big church where we were actually rehearsing.
On her audition process…
The invitation to do the show had come in a letter from Christopher [Hampton, who co-wrote the book and lyrics with Don Black]. We had worked together on Dangerous Liaisons, and he wrote asking me if I would consider being in Sunset Boulevard. And it was daunting, and exciting, and kind of something you that you never dreamed you would have a chance to do. I’m forever grateful.
I had somebody working with me in New York, and I was told that when I thought I was ready, I would be flown to London and I would audition for Andrew [Lloyd Webber], Trevor Nunn and Christopher. So I flew over, wearing my grandmother’s ring for good luck. I was driven to his home, stood by the piano in his sitting room and sang the two big songs. I can’t say that I had them in my voice at that moment, but I remember him leaping up and saying: “She has it in her voice!”
And then I knew it went well because I was invited out to dinner with them all afterwards.
We had an amazing ensemble for that show, that started in LA and then went to New York. I always felt that I was the weakest singer, and I knew I had a lot to learn. I don’t have that kind of freakily fabulous voice that Elaine Paige or Betty Buckley have. I feel I’m more in the line of a Mary Martin. I think of those songs as monologues, and get through to them that way.
On understanding Norma Desmond…
To understand Norma, I watched the film [the 1950 film directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, upon which the musical is based], and I watched a lot of the best known silent films. I wanted to learn the tone, the style and the size of the performance – it’s a totally different kind of acting. I did a lot of research on it.
And when I was approached to do [this revival], I felt it was a gift. To do a character and then to be able to come back to the same character 20 years later – it will be another exploration for me. I’ve had 20 years of life, 20 more years of my craft, and I think she won’t be exactly the same. I’m not too sure what she’ll be like, but I think she’ll be informed by that.
And also, she’s in my psyche now. When you play a great character like that, it becomes a part of your being.
My favourite kind of character is someone who has unshakeable belief. I think that belief gives a certain kind of nobility, even though it might be delusional. The fact that somebody believes something so completely is very, very compelling. To have someone try to reach that dream, or maintain that dream – and we watch the unravelling, but they don’t know.
And another quality that I find really compelling is that, while Norma kind of thinks of herself still as the great movie queen, I don’t think she has self-pity. She’s so sure of her re-entry into this world that made her who she was in the beginning. So is that belief the edge of insanity? Possibly. But I’m not going to kind of analyse what kind of insanity it might be.
She has fantasised for all those years, and then she thinks she’s finally back. It’s the same, but it’s different. I think she has to take her time to get the size back. It’s terrifying in the beginning, but then she shows what she’s made of. She overcomes that terror, and thinks that she’s home again.
Norma could be considered a clown, but a lot of clowns are heartbreaking. One of the great figures of my childhood was Emmett Kelly, who was with the Barnum & Bailey circus, which my grandfather would take us to every year. He was a clown who came out of the Depression, a very heavy five o’clock shadow, a battered old hat and rags. He would be sweeping, trying to sweep away the spotlight. There was something so compelling about him. He was funny, and people were laughing, but he never cracked a smile.
And so the idea of comedy coming out of a figure like that, I think that’s really powerful. Laughter, I think, is probably the most seductive thing in the world. And then to put that with incipient tragedy is fabulous.
On preparing for her West End debut…
I’m very thrilled to be here in the West End. The theatre is very big. All the actors I’ve talked about this theatre with say it has great acoustics. It’s a beautiful house.
For me, preparation starts with just working out. You have to have strong muscles in you to project that kind of energy on the stage. So I’m getting on the treadmill, which is not something I love to do, but I know how much energy it takes. You have to be in good shape.
And you have to take care of your voice. Hopefully there’s a good ENT guy who can help me with things like that. You become quite a hypochondriac, in an annoying way.
Book Tickets for Sunset Boulevard: wwwmusicaltheatrereview.entstix.com/tickets/sunset-boulevard
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