'Elegant Decay' for 'Sunset Boulevard'

by Bryan Reesman
in Inside Theater
'Sunset Boulevard' photo by Joan Marcus
'Sunset Boulevard' photo by Joan Marcus

With Glenn Close returning to the character of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, the role that won her the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical 22 years ago, one wonders what the creative team could do to top the previous production. As Sunset’s new scenic designer James Noone notes, the last mansion set was enormous and very realistic. “It was a beautiful, stunningly executed, Gothic Hollywood movie palace that came down from the flies and moved forward,” he says.

But he feels that its dazzling look also worked to the detriment of that show, pulling attention away from the musical itself “because the thing was always moving and doing something kind of wonderful that was unseen mechanically but was very captivating,” says Noone. “With our production, we tried to create a space that would really let the humanity of the story come through and the characters to be heard and seen. We didn’t want to overwhelm it with visuals, so we tried to find a space that would allow that to happen.”

The central thrust of the narrative finds struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis inadvertently stumbling upon the mansion of wealthy but faded silent movie star Norma Desmond after he flees two repo men. She hires him to spruce up her screen adaptation of Salome, a role for which she is now too old but through which she hopes to stage a comeback. (Sorry, a “return.”) While Joe thinks that she is eccentric and deluded, he believes Norma could possibly be his meal ticket for a personal revival at the studio system; if not, at least he could live high on the hog with her. He also secretly works with young studio script reader/aspiring screenwriter Betty Schaeffer on another project, and she offers him a better shot at a successful collaboration. But his relationship with Norma takes on a strange romantic twist.

In order to echo Norma’s decaying estate and Joe’s fizzling career, veteran designer Noone took the idea of a movie soundstage and deconstructed it into a set that he feels if one put were to put walls on it would create a giant mansion set. What he has presented to us is what is behind that façade: “Those big movie sets were all just fronts and behind was bracing and trussing and lights.”

The lights darken as Glenn Close has a realization. Photo by Joan Marcus

Two Staircases

The skeletal set is dominated by two impressive stairways that descend from about five stories up and criss cross without connecting. Each features a landing that is about eight or nine feet high before the final part of the staircases descend to stage level. The 28-foot-high staircase going from stage left to right belongs to Norma. At 30 feet high, the opposite one is used by the chorus, during the New Year’s Eve party scene and for the work space where Joe writes for Norma and with Betty.

There is symbolism in the curve of the two steel staircases that have been painted black. “They intertwine in a big arms kind of way,” says Noone. “One of the things we talked about often was how we make it feel like Norma’s taking over the set. I see those staircases as two arms waiting to grab you. At the end of the first act her face falls into view and swallows up the whole space as she gets a bigger grip on Joe’s life.”

The only main person besides Joe to walk up Norma’s staircase is his other writing partner Betty. “She is on the rise, Norma is on her way down,” explains Noone. “At the end of the Schwab’s scene, she and [her fiancé] Artie exit up that staircase. She’s up-and-coming. We want Betty to be someone who’s ambitious, and she’s going to make something of herself.”

Noone says that having metal staircases worked well with Norma’s frequent costume changes: “Glenn has a lot of beaded costumes and you hear them clunking up and down the stairs, which we kind of like. It just gives a human quality to it all.” They also had to be sturdy. There are 64 people onstage between the cast and musicians, and a decent number of them utilize those stairs and landings. (A lift built at stage left allows Close to ride up and down for easy access. The switchback staircase installed at stage right gives other cast and chorus members access to their side, but it is the equivalent of a five-story walk-up and a bit more strenuous in terms of exercise.)

The Sunset Boulevard set transforms into different places through different lighting, cast and prop configurations. One minute it is Norma’s mansion, the next a studio lot or Schwab’s pharmacy, where aspiring young talent eats and hobnobs. “We had to find a way of creating a space that allows the audience to fill in the blanks of what the physical reality is,” he says.

Michael Xavier plays Joe Gillis. Photo by Joan Marcus

NYC vs. London

Noone originally created the set for this incarnation of Sunset Boulevard for the English National Opera. It took him three to four months to design and the shop one month to build. The London stage had 50 feet behind the onstage orchestra for scenery. The New York stage has only two feet.

“That second staircase [in London] didn’t take a left so quickly,” recalls Noone. “It actually went further upstage and wandered off into darkness and went offstage. Certainly, Broadway theaters aren’t big opera houses, so we had to turn the staircase to go right off stage right behind the other staircase, which works but doesn’t have the depth that we had in London.”

The onstage orchestra includes 40 people who are playing on a collection of platforms that, in total, measure about 18 feet in depth and 45 feet in width. The front platform for the strings is six inches high; the rear one is two feet and eight inches high. Beyond the fact that the orchestra has twice as many players as could reasonably fit into the pit, Noone feels that the symphonic music is an integral part of the story.

“Often it sounds like it’s for a movie,” explains the designer. “It’s very big and very lush and powerful, so we didn’t really want to hide that. We wanted to make that part of the storytelling, because movies are all about music. You always hear those amazing scores, and [composer] Andrew [Lloyd Webber] has written some really, really beautiful music, like the car chase, which is really symphonic and really powerful. It just wouldn’t be the same if they were in the pit. There’s something exciting about seeing the orchestra playing all that.”

Large numbers painted on walls on either side of upstage identify soundstages during the Paramount Studio scenes, but their omnipresent nature ties into the idea that Norma’s onstage mansion is presented in the real-life Palace Theatre, a former movie house turned Broadway theater. The Hollywood sign makes an appearance in a few scenes, and the letters are painted on the backside of an RP screen rising on the upstage wall. When lights are put on behind it, the name becomes visible.

There is an iris curtain on the back wall. “I have a scrim with this wallpaper painted on it for Norma’s house,” says Noone. Between the RP and lights, “we squeezed an enormous amount of stuff into two feet [behind the orchestra]. There’s no reason that it should be working as well as it does, but we made it happen.”

A scrim curtain under the proscenium arch plays movie footage from the past at the start of each act, including some of Gloria Swanson who received an Oscar nomination playing Norma Desmond in the original 1950 movie upon which this musical version is based.

Noone gives a lot of credit to lighting designer Mark Henderson for his enthusiasm and passion. “He was so game, and it never became an obstacle for him,” says Noone. “He always made it work. We were very blessed to have Mark as a lighting designer.” For the spaces beneath the two landings, which were used as garages, a studio lot entrance and mansion rooms, Henderson lit them from behind with lights located upstage. “He so beautifully takes us to each place that we need to go to with the lights. It helps us focus and tell the story.”

The wealthy silent film star and the struggling screenwriter. Photo by Joan Marcus

The Vintage “Car”

A major prop befitting Norma Desmond is the 11-by-four-foot (LxW) car that emulates a late 1920s-style roadster that a movie star might have ridden in. It emulates the Isotta Fraschini used in the film. Noone reports that they took a golf cart frame and attached pieces from an old car found in a junkyard. They cut them up and put them on. They had a month to create the car after efforts to find something suitable fell short. The London production featured a 17-foot-long car that was sold off after that run.

Fred Johanson, who plays Max von Mayerling, Norma’s devoted servant, learned to drive it very carefully as he does take it from center stage through the landing at stage right. It is not running on a track. “The car was initially supposed to go through both garages, but we ended up having to spill into the stage left garage with some orchestra members,” says Noone. “The car would prohibit any kind of lights hanging down through that thing. We have lights beyond it to shoot through it, which are really beautiful.”

As Noone declares, Close gives a great performance as Norma Desmond, and one cannot compete with that. “You want her to be all that you’re looking at,” he says. Noone and director Lonny Price knew that Close would deliver a great performance. “So how do we create a space that puts Glenn forward and center? She’s six feet away from the audience at the very end. It’s pretty thrilling.” He feels that with this production, people talk about Glenn and “can really connect with her in a way that you couldn’t before.”

Given the fact that the story required a grand set that both emphasized Norma’s past glories without overwhelming her, Noone’s choice of a stripped-down set was very appropriate. “It can be epic when it needs to, but it can also be very intimate,” he says. For the tale of a larger-than-life character whose world has shrunk down, it fit perfectly.

The set transforms into an old Paramount Studio. Photo by Joan Marcus