Made in 1950 at the tail end of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard made the movie industry squirm, exposing its smelly underbelly even as it paid a sort of horrified homage to its early triumphs and excesses. Many a faded queen of the silent screen saw herself in the tragically self-deluded Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), and as her devoted butler, ex-husband and former director Max, Erich von Stroheim was essentially playing himself. But this movie that took a merciless scalpel to the glitz of Tinseltown – part melodrama, part film noir, part black comedy, part psychological horror – went on to dazzle the critics, cop three Oscars out of 11 nominations and establish itself firmly among the ranks of movie classics.
In the mid-’50s, Swanson herself toured with a cabaret-style adaptation (with a somewhat sunnier ending) titled Boulevard! But it took a long time for subsequent efforts to turn Sunset Boulevard into a full-scale stage musical to bear fruit; circa 1980, Stephen Sondheim expressed interest, but was dissuaded by Wilder himself, who thought that the tragic story needed operatic treatment.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black and Christopher Hampton finally brought it to the West End in 1993, to mixed reviews. Then they did a bit more tinkering and wowed Broadway with a tighter version the following year, starring Glenn Close as Norma, George Hearn as Max and Alan Campbell in the William Holden role of Joe Gillis, the hack screenwriter who gets pulled into Norma’s toxic orbit. The Broadway version won seven Tony Awards including Best Musical, plus a Drama Desk Best Actress nod for Close.
With its requirement for opulent sets to portray the aging actress’ overstuffed monstrosity of a Hollywood mansion, Sunset Boulevard falls outside the budgetary means of most regional theater companies, so it will be interesting to see how Diana di Grandi and Up in One Productions manage to convey that Gothic atmosphere when they bring the show to the Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck over the next four weekends. Set and lighting designer Andrew Weintraub, scenic artist Richard Prouse and costumer Lobsang Camacho have their work cut out for them. And with such iconic role models to emulate, so do the actors, who include Barbara Rankin as Norma, Jim Nurre as Joe, Lou Trapani as Max, Niki Metcalf as Betty and Kolrick Greathouse as Artie. Kevin Archambault directs, with music direction by Elaine Miller.
Will this talented ensemble be up to the challenge? Are they ready for their close-ups, Mr. DeMille? Find out for yourself at a performance of Sunset Boulevard beginning at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays or at 3 p.m. on Sundays from July 29 to August 21. Tickets coat $27 general admission and $25 for seniors and children under age 12. For reservations or more info, call the box office at (845) 876-3080 or visit www.centerforperformingarts.org. The Center for Performing Arts is located at 661 Route 308, 3.5 miles east of downtown Rhinebeck.