Celebrated stage and screen actress Glenn Close returns to Broadway this season as faded star Norma Desmond in Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard. Close won her third Tony for breathing life into the iconic film character on stage back in 1995. The revival — under the direction of Lonny Price — makes its way to our shores after a sold-out run in London in the spring of 2016. NY1 entertainment reporter Frank DiLella recently caught up with Close to chat about her Main Stem “close-up”!
To quote the musical: “Norma’s back, at last!”
[Laughs.] It feels like a great kind of coming-home in a way, because the last major thing that I did on Broadway was Norma 22 years ago. And a lot of life has gone by since then. My daughter was 6 when I left the show; she’s now 28. It’s thrilling. Lonny Price’s new reimagining — the story and how he’s presenting it — is so powerful.
Can you talk about growing with Norma?
I think during an actor/actress’s life we bank the various characters that we have played. Time, life and a deeper knowledge of craft causes those characters to evolve in our subconscious. Even if I don’t think constantly about a character — when I come back to it — I’m more informed. I’ve done more in life — gone through more ups and downs. I think it has made me more empathetic, perhaps. That’s why I think it’s a great luxury to revisit a character — certianly one as formidable and enduring as Norma Desmond.
I think Sunset is one of Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber’s greatest scores, if not his best. You have so many wonderful moments in the show. Do you have a favorite tune?
When we did it in London, the English National Opera Orchestra was below me when I was on my perch waiting to go on. I would listen to the intricacies of the score and never, ever got tired of it. One of my favorite moments is the orchestration when Betty and Artie walk upstage, after the scene in Schwab’s Drug Store. It’s the “girl meets boy” theme and it’s gorgeous — so romantic.
The beauty of Lonny’s production is that the orchestra is center stage. Forty pieces! This is the largest orchestra on Broadway in more than 80 years!
The orchestra in London became such a seamless part of the show, and it is wonderful watching the musicians, who are used to being in a pit, emotionally engage with the show. Andrew’s score is deeply cinematic — it’s a great movie score — so the orchestra’s emotional engagement is incredibly important.
Andrew Lloyd Webber will have four shows on Broadway when you guys open Sunset Boulevard [including Phantom of the Opera, Cats and School of Rock]. In your mind, why is Andrew one of the most successful artists today when it comes to musical theater?
Because he knows what notes to put at what emotional moments. It’s a chemical thing, having something to do with the chemistry of the human brain – certain notes, in a certain order, always elicit an emotional response. Andrew’s scores do that and again and again. It’s incredibly satisfying for those who are watching. It’s cathartic.
Can you talk about Lonny’s concept for Sunset Boulevard? This production is a lot darker than the original.
Lonny’s concept is that all of this is conjured up in the mind of Joe Gillis — the murdered Joe Gillis. The stage is an empty series of platforms or scaffoldings on a big Hollywood soundstage. As Joe explians what happened — why this particular character ended up floating dead in a Hollywood pool — the story unfolds in front of your eyes. I think it’s mesmerizing. You don’t need a lot of “stuff” to tell this story, which is arguably the best example of Billy Wilder’s genius. It is timeless and will never lose its relevance.
Your principal castmates are all making their Broadway debuts with this revival — including Michael Xavier, who is playing your leading man, Joe Gillis.
I’ve not seen all productions of Sunset but I think each of them [Michael and company] in their own way are giving definitive performances. We had such a strong and new chemistry that the show became a phenomenon in London, so the point was to share that with New York. Not to go back to the drawing board and construct new chemistry with new actors, but to start from where we left off in London and build on it in New York. For me, there was no point in doing it without them. I wanted to bring over to Broadway what was incredibly new and fresh in London.
This show has a fan following. In fact, the night I saw it in London, the London Gay Men’s Chorus serenaded you in “Norma turbans” when you walked out of the stage door. What’s the appeal of this piece?
Norma Desmond is one of the greatest characters that has ever been written for a woman. And the fact that she’s of a certain age makes it more powerful and poignant. I don’t think the story has lost any of its relevance — the isolation people are feeling as we are supposedly all connected by this new social media thing that has sprung up since the 1950s. It’s about dreams, it’s about isolation, it’s about love, it’s about belief — all things that are kind of at the core of the human spirit and I think it speaks to people in many different ways.
What’s the first memory that comes to mind when you think about your time in the original production?
Driving down Sunset Boulevard on my way to rehearsal, vocalizing in my car and trying to decide at each stoplight, Do I have the courage to keep vocalizing? Because people may look in and think I’m a crazy person. I learned how to sing thanks to Sunset. When I first started, I was the worst singer in the company. There were many moments when I would ask myself, Can I deliver? I was jumping off the cliff every performance and finding my wings.
What do you want to take away from this experience? Creating Norma 2.0?
I hope my show pumps life and love and excitement and empathy into everyone who sees it. We actually evolved to have empathy… which can be undermined by all the stress and information and the disturbing things that are going on in the world. And I think the pathos of a piece of art like this is to remind us of our common humanity. How important it is to notice those next to us, to walk in each others shoes, to have empathy for and understanding of the human condition. It’s about survival.
Sunset Boulevard starring Glenn Close begins previews at Broadway’s Palace Theatre on February 2. Opening night is set for February 9.