Sunset Boulevard: Articles & Reviews

Betty Buckley in Sunset Boulevard

By Ken Mandelbaum
August 7-13, 1995

Before Patti LuPone and Glenn Close were cast in their respective productions of Sunset Boulevard-in fact years before Sunset even went into production-I proposed in these pages Betty Buckley as the perfect choice for the musical Norma Desmond. Indeed, rumor has it that the score was composed with Buckley's particular sound and style in mind. Once Sunset hit the stage, it was immediately evident that the role was fiercely difficult to cast and, naturally, Buckley turned up soon, first as LuPone's West End successor, and now as Close's Broadway replacement.

While I enjoyed Buckley's 1969 Broadway debut performance in 1776, she first bowled me over a year later in the London production of Promises, Promises; I attended twice just to hear her sing "Knowing When To Leave" and "Whoever You Are, I Love You." Having witnessed that, I assumed she would rapidly become one of Broadway's top musical leading ladies, but detours in film and TV ensued. When they were casting the New York production of Evita, I was bewildered when her name didn't turn up (at least I never saw it in any of the many items that ran during that period). A couple of years thereafter, she got a neat Broadway showcase (and a Tony) in another Lloyd Webber show with the small but showy role of Grizabella in the guaranteed-smash Broadway arrival of Cats.

There was fine work in Drood's title trouser role; a stunning vocal display inthe final weeks of the Broadway Song and Dance; then Carrie, in which Buckley's intensity and almost freakish singing voice were a perfect match for the role of crazed Margaret White. It was a great part for her, but while her sequences were extraordinary, the rest of the show didn't work, so it was to be a near-legendary triumph seen by very few.

Many more people Are going to see her in Sunset, and that's a good thing, because Buckley turns out to be brilliant beyond even my expectations. It's almost unnecessary to state that the singing is splendid, the kind very rarely encountered on Broadway these days, or that it may be a long time before you again witness anyone build a musical number the way Buckley builds "As If We Never Said Goodbye" and all the other major pieces.

What's even more impressive is the way Buckley builds her interpretation of Norma, an interpretation that couldn't be more different from her Broadway predecessor's. Where Close's Norma was a larger-thanlife, uproarious hoot, Buckley's is far subtler, more real, and sympathetic. It's a startling, utterly original performance loaded with fascinating detail and full of surprising choices that pay off handsomely.

In her first scene, she appears to be a ghost haunting a world of her own; awakened by an unexpected intruder from the outside world, she's almost unable to register the presence of an alien being not part of the sadly wilted universe in which she has encased herself. In the movie-night "New Ways To Dream" sequence, Buckley appears to be so much floating ectoplasm, but she gradually comes back to life with ' "The Lady's Paying" and "The Perfect Year," flowering into the beauty Norma once was. Although she's cruelly betrayed at the end of the first act (and looks decades older as the curtain falls), her return to the studio finds her fiercely proud as she reminds the guards that she made Paramount what it is, memorably touching as she makes peace with the years of waiting and allows herself to experience the happiness of which she's been so long deprived.

Where Close was virtually certifiable from her entrance on, Buckley is a fragile figure who doesn't foreshow the final lunacy until the "Who's Betty Schaefer?" scene midway in the second act, where it becomes apparent what a toll her attempted rebirth has taken. And in the final scene, Buckley actually manages to restore something lovely that was inevitably dropped from the musical: In the film, Joe Gillis's narration is heard as a voice-over on the soundtrack; on stage, it must, of course, be delivered to the audience by the actor playing the role, so Joe's final, touching, post-murder words in the film about life taking pity on Norma couldn't be retained in the musical. But Buckley's delivery of Norma's last speech brings the character full circle and makes it clear that she's found a peculiar kind of happy ending, once more-and forever-back in that world of her own. In fact. Buckley's work here can actually withstand comparison with the unique turn provided by Gloria Swanson on film. Buckley's is a performance of phenomenal intensity, intelligence, and beauty-and did I mention how great her singing is?

For New York, Buckley's make-up has been rethought from what she wore in London and what Close originated in Los Angeles; the crone look has been abandoned in favor of a new design that highlights Buckley's own good looks and renders her the model of the silent-screen beauty. She also wears the wonderful Norma outfits superbly.

Leading man Alan Campbell continues to be remarkably consistent; I've seen him four times, and each time his singing is as good as on the recording, his acting completely committed. Alice Ripley is also a fine singer, but after the same four viewings, I still find myself unable to warm to her Betty Schaefer. George Hearn was on leave to make a film during Buckley's opening week and was sorely missed. Sunset Boulevard may be an easy show to pull apart and criticize, but once again its grand-guignol melodrama was extremely effective, and I have yet to tire of these Lloyd Webber tunes. And it may actually be more difficult to dismiss Sunset now that Buckley is playing it with such integrity. With this performance, Buckley ascends once and for all to the ranks of Broadway musical diva of the highest magnitude.

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