From approximately 1952 to 1956, Gloria Swanson worked with actor Richard Stapley (aka Richard Wyler) and cabaret singer/pianist Dickson Hughes on a musical adaptation originally entitled Starring Norma Desmond, then Boulevard! It ended on a happier note than the film, with Norma allowing Joe to leave and pursue a happy ending with Betty. Rights holder Paramount Pictures originally had given Swanson verbal permission to proceed with the musical, but there had been no formal legal arrangement. On 20 February 1957, Paramount executive Russell Holman wrote to Swanson asking her to cease work on the project because "it would be damaging for the property to be offered to the entertainment public in another form as a stage musical." In 1994, Hughes incorporated material from the production into Swanson on Sunset, based on his and Stapley's experiences in writing Boulevard!. A recording of the entire score, which had been housed in the Gloria Swanson archives at the University of Texas, was released on CD in 2008.
In the early 1960s, Stephen Sondheim outlined a musical stage adaptation and went so far as to compose the first scene with librettist Burt Shevelove. A chance encounter with Billy Wilder at a cocktail party gave Sondheim the opportunity to introduce himself and ask the original film's co-screenwriter and director his opinion of the project (which was to star Jeanette MacDonald). "You can't write a musical about Sunset Boulevard," Wilder responded, "it has to be an opera. After all, it's about a dethroned queen". Sondheim immediately aborted his plans. A few years later, when he was invited by Hal Prince to write the score for a film remake starring Angela Lansbury as a fading musical comedian rather than a silent film star, Sondheim declined, citing his conversation with Wilder.
When Lloyd Webber saw the film in the early 1970s, he was inspired to write what he pictured as the title song for a theatrical adaptation, fragments of which he instead incorporated into Gumshoe. In 1976, after a conversation with Hal Prince, who had the theatrical rights to Sunset, Lloyd Webber wrote "an idea for the moment when Norma Desmond returns to Paramount Studios"; Lloyd Webber did no further work on the play until after 1989's Aspects of Love.
At that point, Lloyd Webber "felt it was the subject [he] had to compose next", though by February 1990 he had announced plans to turn Really Useful Group private so he could "make movies rather than musicals." Tim Rice was, at one stage, rumored to have been collaborating on the piece. An early version of "With One Look", then titled "Just One Glance", was performed by Elaine Paige at Lloyd Webber's 1991 wedding.
In 1991, Lloyd Webber asked Amy Powers, a lawyer from New York with no professional lyric-writing experience, to write the lyrics for Sunset Boulevard. Don Black was later brought in to work with Powers; the two wrote the version that was performed in 1991 at Lloyd Webber's Sydmonton Festival. This original version starred Ria Jones as Norma. but it was not a success. A revised version, written by Black and Christopher Hampton had a complete performance at the 1992 Sydmonton Festival, now with Patti LuPone playing Norma, and "met with great success". Lloyd Webber borrowed several of the tunes from his 1986 mini-musical Cricket, written with Tim Rice, which had been performed at Windsor Castle and later at the Sydmonton Festival.
In 1949 Hollywood, down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis tries to hustle up some work at Paramount Studios. His appointment with a producer goes poorly when the executive rejects both Joe's proposed script and a loan to bring his car payments up to date. Joe does, however, meet Betty Schaefer, a pretty, young script editor who suggests they collaborate to rework one of his earlier screenplays. As they chat, Joe is spotted by car repossession agents and makes a quick escape.
During the chase that ensues, Joe evades his pursuers by pulling into the garage of a palatial but dilapidated mansion on Sunset Boulevard. Beckoned inside the house, Joe encounters Norma Desmond, the "greatest star of all" who ruled the silent film era but didn't make the transition to sound movies. Taken aback, Joe comments, "You used to be in pictures; you used to be big," to which Norma retorts, "I am big — it's the pictures that got small!"
The gloomy estate is inhabited only by Norma and Max, her loyal butler and chauffeur. Although decades past her prime and mostly forgotten by the public, Norma is convinced she is as beautiful and in demand as ever. Max perpetuates this illusion by shielding her from the realities of life out of the limelight and by writing her letters purportedly from still-devoted fans. Norma informs Joe of her plan to return to the screen with Salome, a script she has written for Cecil B. DeMille to direct with her in the starring role as the teenage biblical temptress. Dubious but sensing opportunity, Joe accepts her offer of work as editor on the script. Norma insists that Joe stay in her home while they collaborate on Salome.
Joe immediately realizes the script is incoherent, but Norma won't allow a major rewrite and the revision drags on for months. During this time Joe is a virtual prisoner at the house, but he does break away to fulfill his commitment to Betty. Their working relationship blossoms into a romance that has her reconsidering her engagement to Joe's best friend, Artie.
Blind to Joe's opportunism, Norma lavishes him with gifts that include a wardrobe makeover and he becomes her kept man. She declares her love for him and turns quite possessive; when he leaves her to attend Artie's New Year's Eve party, she is distraught and attempts suicide. As a conciliatory gesture, Joe reluctantly returns to work on Salome.
A cryptic message from Paramount has Norma certain that DeMille is eager to discuss her script. She drops in on the set of his current film and is greeted warmly by former colleagues and the famed director himself, but DeMille is noncommittal about Salome. Meanwhile, Max discovers the studio had called to ask about Norma's exotic car, not her screenplay. However, a delusional Norma leaves the lot convinced she'll soon be back in front of the cameras and begins to prepare for the role.
Increasingly paranoid, Norma deduces that Joe and Betty are more than just friends. She calls the younger woman to reveal Joe's secret life at the mansion, but he overhears and grabs the phone to tell Betty to come see for herself. Realizing their affair is doomed, Joe brusquely tells her he enjoys being Norma's pet and that she should go back to Artie. Betty departs, confused and brokenhearted, and Joe tells Norma he is leaving her and returning to his hometown in Ohio. He also bluntly informs her that Salome is an unfilmable script and her fans have long abandoned her. Furious and grief-stricken, Norma fatally shoots Joe three times as he storms out of the house.
Now completely insane, Norma mistakes the swarms of police and reporters who arrive for studio personnel. Believing she is on the set of Salome, she slowly descends her grand staircase and utters "And now, Mr. DeMille, I am ready for my close-up."Norma Desmond — a faded, eccentric, former silent screen star
Joe Gillis — a struggling young screenwriter
Max von Mayerling – Norma's first husband and butler
Betty Schaefer – A budding writer and Joe's love interest
Cecil B. DeMille – the famous director
Artie Green – Betty's fiancé
Sheldrake – a movie producer on the lot
Manfred – an expensive tailor
† This is not included on the Original London Production or in the World Premiere recording.
∞ Originally a reprise of "Let's Have Lunch"
The original West End production, directed by Trevor Nunn and choreographed by Bob Avian, with costumes from Anthony Powell, opened on 12 July 1993 at the Adelphi Theatre. The cast featured Patti LuPone as Norma Desmond, Kevin Anderson as Joe Gillis, Meredith Braun as Betty Schaefer, and Daniel Benzali as Norma's ex-husband, Max.
Billy Wilder and his wife Audrey were joined by Nancy Olson, who had played Betty Schaefer in the original film, at the opening night performance. Of it, Wilder observed, "The best thing they did was leave the script alone," and of Patti LuPone he exclaimed, "She's a star from the moment she walks on stage".
Reviews were mixed, according to the Associated Press (AP) review summary. That summary quoted, for example, the review by Michael Kuchwara for the AP: "Some reviewers felt Lloyd Webber took the sting out of a cynical tale. 'Wilder's bitter brew has been diluted,' wrote AP Drama Critic Michael Kuchwara. He added: 'When LuPone is off stage, the show sags.'" Frank Rich wrote "Much of the film's plot, dialogue and horror-movie mood are preserved, not to mention clips used to illustrate those sequences in which the faded silent-film star, Norma Desmond ...and her kept, young screenwriter, Joe Gillis ..., travel by car. The lyricist, Don Black ..., and the playwright, Christopher Hampton ..., smartly tailor their jokes to the original screenplay's style. At times even Lloyd Webber gets into the Wilder swing. Both acts open with joltingly angry diatribes about Hollywood, part exposition-packed recitative and part song, in which the surprisingly dark, jazz-accented music, the most interesting I've yet encountered from this composer, meshes perfectly with the cynical lyrics. Anderson makes the sardonic Wilder voice an almost physical presence in Sunset Boulevard. But that voice is too often drowned out by both LuPone's Broadway belt and by the mechanical efforts of Lloyd Webber and his director, Trevor Nunn, to stamp the proven formulas of Phantom and Les Miz on even an intimate tale. At odd moments the mammoth set advances like a glacier toward the audience or retreats or, most dramatically, rises partly up into the flies, actors in tow."
The show closed for three weeks, re-opening on 19 April 1994, revamped to follow the Los Angeles production, with a second official "opening". The revamped musical had a new song, "Every Movie's A Circus", a new set, and new stars, Betty Buckley and John Barrowman. Michael Bauer, who had originally played DeMille, replaced Benzali as Max, a role he played until the end of the London run (and subsequently on the UK tour and in the BBC concert). Buckley and the production garnered rave reviews. David Lister of The Independent, for example wrote: "The show looked an improvement on the one that got decidedly mixed reviews last summer."
Buckley went on to replace Glenn Close as Norma in the second year of the Broadway production. Elaine Paige, who had filled in when Buckley was ill in 1994, took over the part in the West End in May 1995 before joining the Broadway production for the end of its run between 1996 and 1997. Petula Clark filled in for Paige during her holiday in September/October 1995, before taking over the role in January 1996 when Paige departed for the United States. The last actress to play Norma in London was Rita Moreno, who filled in for a vacationing Clark in September and October 1996. John Barrowman played Joe until 1995, when he was replaced by Alexander Hanson. Graham Bickley played the role for the final year of the London run.
The show closed on 5 April 1997, having played 1,530 performances.
The American premiere was at the Shubert Theatre in Century City, Los Angeles, California, on 9 December 1993, with Close as Norma and Alan Campbell as Joe. Featured were George Hearn as Max and Judy Kuhn as Betty. Lloyd Webber had reworked both the book and score, tightening the production, better organising the orchestrations, and adding the song "Every Movie's A Circus". This new production was better received by the critics and was an instant success, running for 369 performances. The Los Angeles production also recorded a new cast album that is well regarded. It is also the only unabridged cast recording of the show, since the original London recording was trimmed by over thirty minutes.
A controversy arose with this production after Faye Dunaway was hired to replace Glenn Close. Dunaway went into rehearsals with Rex Smith as Joe and Jon Cypher as Max. Tickets went on sale for Dunaway's engagement but shortly after rehearsals started the producers announced that Dunaway was unable to sing the role to their standards and the production would shut down when Close left. Dunaway "claims that when advance sales slumped, Sir Andrew decided to save money by sending the LA cast of Sunset Boulevard - based on the story of a clapped-out Hollywood actress - to Broadway, where it is due to open in November. " However, the Los Angeles Times reported that "The cancellation came despite advance ticket sales for the Los Angeles production 'way in excess of $4 million,' said Peter Brown, a spokesman for Lloyd Webber."
Dunaway filed a lawsuit claiming her reputation had been damaged by the producer's claims. Dunaway's lawsuit was settled and the producers paid her a settlement but no other terms of the agreement have ever been disclosed.
The musical opened on Broadway at the Minskoff Theatre on 17 November 1994 with Close, Campbell, and Hearn recreating their roles from the Los Angeles production and Alice Ripley joining the cast as Betty. Also in the cast were Alan Oppenheimer as Cecil B. DeMille and Vincent Tumeo making his Broadway debut as Artie Green. The production opened with the highest advance in the history of Broadway ticket sales at that time and ran for 977 performances. Billy Wilder was in attendance on opening night and was coaxed onstage by Close for the curtain call. In a season with only one other musical nominated for Best Musical, the production won several Tony Awards; Glenn Close, with only one other nominee as Best Actress in a musical, won the Tony for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.
The New York Times theatre critic Vincent Canby commented about the Tony Awards for this year: "Awards don't really tell you much when the competition is feeble or simply nonexistent, as was the case the year that Sunset Boulevard won its Tony. Such prizes are for use in advertising and promotion and to impress the folks back home."
Patti LuPone, who initially had been promised the Broadway run, sued Lloyd Webber and received a settlement reported to be $1 million. Frank Rich, in his book The Hot Seat, noted that these lawsuits contributed to Sunset Boulevard setting the record for the most money lost by a theatrical endeavour in the history of the United States. According to The New York Times, operating costs soared far beyond the budget, and the "Broadway production has earned back, at best, 80% of the initial $13 million". For example, during the week of 2 July 1995, "it cost $731,304 to run Sunset Boulevard, including... advertising fees of $138,352 (which had been budgeted at $40,000 a week)." The road companies also generated large financial losses. Rich puts the final figure near or above US$20 million lost, making the show what he termed a "flop-hit," as it ran more than two years. The musical sold over a million tickets on Broadway.
The first national US tour in 1996 starring Linda Balgord ended in early 1997 after only a handful of venues due to exorbitant costs involved in transporting the set. Lloyd Webber called in director Susan H. Schulman to design a scaled-down production, with Petula Clark once again in the lead opposite Lewis Cleale as Joe. This production featured Anthony Powell's Tony Award nominated costumes, a slightly modified libretto by Schulman and Don Black and a new, more tour-friendly set by Derek McLane. The revised production, opening in Pittsburgh about a year after the closing of the original tour in Chicago, went on the road for almost two years, though it avoided the cities covered by the previous tour.
In August 2001, a UK tour commenced in Plymouth starring Faith Brown as Norma, opposite Earl Carpenter as Joe. The production had a completely new set, much simpler than the original London set, although the overall production remained closer to the original staging than the revamped US national tour. Carpenter left midway through the tour and was replaced by Jeremy Finch, who had previously understudied the role. The tour finished in late 2002 in Manchester and met with both excellent reviews and respectable ticket sales.
Ria Jones, who originated the role of Norma Desmond in the 1991 Sydmonton Workshop and understudied Glenn Close in the 2016 West End revival, will lead a new production opening at Leicester Performing Arts Centre on September 16, 2017 for a two-week run before embarking on a national tour around the United Kingdom.
A German production of the musical opened 7 December 1995 at the newly built Rhein-Main Theater in Niedernhausen near Wiesbaden, starring Helen Schneider and Sue Mathys (matinees) as Norma and Uwe Kröger as Joe. A cast recording (with Schneider and Kröger) was released in 1996. The role of Norma was later played by Daniela Ziegler and Christina Grimandi, with Schneider and, for the last few months, Sue Mathys both returning to play the lead. The production closed in May 1998.
The original Canadian production opened in Toronto in 1995 with Diahann Carroll in the lead role. Her performance was also praised by critics, although the production closed sooner than expected. It also starred Rex Smith as Joe, Walter Charles as Max and Anita Louise Combe, who had understudied the role in the London production, as Betty. The production later moved to Vancouver for the final few months of its run. A highlights recording of this production was released on CD.
In October 1996, the original Australian production of the musical opened at Melbourne's newly restored Regent Theatre. The cast included Debra Byrne as Norma, Hugh Jackman as Joe, and Catherine Porter as Betty. Maria Mercedes starred as the alternate Norma, performing two of the eight shows each week. Amanda Harrison took over the role of Betty for the final months of the show's run. The production ran until 14 June 1997.
A low budget unauthorised production played for a time in Spain in 2000, with heavy alterations to the book and using a combination of the original score and the subsequent revision that appeared in the Los Angeles production.
A year-long Dutch tour commenced in the Netherlands on 10 October 2008, with Simone Kleinsma and Pia Douwes alternating as Norma and Antonie Kamerling as Joe, using the same modified libretto that was first used in the 2001 UK tour. Kleinsma went on to win the Best Actress Award for the role in the 2009 Dutch Musical Awards and also Best Actress for the Flemish Musical Prizes. An official cast album was released, with Kleinsma appearing on the main album and with a four track bonus CD of Pia Douwes singing Norma's main arias.
The Swedish premiere took place at the Värmlandsoperan in September 2009, to mostly positive reviews. The role of Norma was played by Maria Lundqvist. A second much more elaborate production opened in October 2010, at the Gothenburg Opera House, with Gunilla Backman (who previously understudied the role of Betty in the original German production) starring as Norma.
A South African production starring Angela Kilian as Norma and Jonathan Roxmouth as Joe, was shown at the Pieter Toerien Theatre at Montecasino in Johannesburg from late August 2013 to mid October 2013 and at Theatre On The Bay in Cape Town from late October 2013 until early January 2014.
An eight-week engagement of a minimalist production, in which the actors used musical instruments, enjoyed a good run at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury over the summer of 2008. Directed and choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood, the cast featured Kathryn Evans as Norma and Ben Goddard as Joe. A West End transfer of the Watermill production began on 4 December 2008 prior to an official opening 15 December at the Comedy Theatre, with Evans and Goddard reprising their roles, and Dave Willetts joining the cast as Max. The production received rave reviews and extended its run to September 2009. However, the production closed just after initially planned on 30 May 2009. It had originally been booking until 19 September 2009. There were plans for a UK Tour and also talks of bringing the production to Broadway
Opening on April 4, 2016 English National Opera (ENO) presented a five-week 'semi-staged' run at the London Coliseum. Glenn Close reprised her role as Norma, making her West End debut, along with Michael Xavier as Joe, Siobhan Dillon as Betty and Fred Johanson as Max. In October 2016, Playbill reported that "the show 'is definitely a go' for the Palace Theatre [Broadway] in January 2017." There has been no official announcement, but producers have expressed an interest in bringing the ENO production to Broadway. It was announced on October 25, 2016 that the production will transfer to Broadway at the Palace Theatre in a limited engagement, starting in February 2017 with Close playing Norma, directed by Lonny Price.
Glenn Close reprises her performance as Norma Desmond in a revival on Broadway. Featuring a 40-piece onstage orchestra and a relatively minimalist set, the production began performances at the Palace Theatre on February 2, 2017 before opening officially on February 9 for a limited run, with tickets on sale through June 25, 2017. The cast features Michael Xavier as Joe Gillis, Siobhan Dillon as Betty Schaefer, and Fred Johanson as Max von Mayerling, all reprising their roles from the 2016 London ENO production. The 2017 Broadway revival is directed by Lonny Price.
In 2004, the first regional production of Sunset Boulevard was staged in the round at the Marriott Theatre in Chicago for a limited period and starred Paula Scrofano as Norma. It was the first and only regional production to be licensed by the Really Useful Group (RUG) for the next six years. However, in the spring of 2010, the leasing rights were finally released to regional companies and numerous productions have been staged around the United States.
The Ogunquit Playhouse production ran from 28 July through 14 August 2010, and starred Stefanie Powers as Norma and Todd Gearhart as Joe. This was the first fully staged production in the U.S. in nearly a decade. The Ogunquit production was directed by Shaun Kerrison, with choreography by Tom Kosis and featured costumes by Anthony Powell and an all new set designed exclusively for the Ogunquit stage by Todd Ivins.
The Arvada Center production ran from 14 September to 10 October 2010, in Denver, Colorado, the same city that launched the ill-fated first US tour in 1996. The show starred Ann Crumb as Norma and Kevin Earley as Joe. The production was directed by Rod A. Landsberry.
The Signature Theatre (Arlington, Virginia) production ran from 7 December 2010 to 13 February 2011 and starred Florence Lacey as Norma, with direction by Eric D. Schaeffer. Schaeffer said that the theatre was turned "into the back lot of Paramount Studios, so you feel like you're sitting in the back lot and there's sandbags and catwalks overhead, and then that actually transforms into the mansion." The production featured a 20-piece orchestra, which is the largest the theatre has ever used.
Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, Utah staged their production 29 April 2011 to 14 May 2011. Lynne Wintersteller starred as Norma, Benjamin Eakeley as Joe and Martin Vidnovic as Max. The show was directed by John Going. The production team included choreographer Jayne Luke, music director Michael Rice, set designer George Maxwell, costume designer Carol Wells-Day, lighting designer Dennis Parichy and sound designer Matthew Tibbs.
The Music Theatre of Wichita staged a production from 6 to 10 July 2011, using a 27-piece orchestra. The show was directed by Mark Madama and starred Ann Morrison as Norma, Chris Peluso as Joe, Nicolas F. Saverine as Max and Kaleigh Cronin as Betty.
The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Michigan, staged a production starring four-time Emmy-winning soap star Kim Zimmer from 23 August to 4 September 2011. The show was directed by Hans Friedrichs, with music direction by John Jay Espino.
The Pittsburgh CLO staged a new production in July 2012 starring Liz Callaway as Norma Desmond.
Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick, ME, staged a production for their 2012 Summer Season starring Denise Whelan as Norma and Gregg Goodbrod as Joe. The cast was reduced to 10 and the script was slimmed down to focus on Norma and the people closest to her.
Another scaled down production, using the modified libretto from the 2001 UK tour, played at Vintage Theatre in Denver, Colorado from April 29 to May 29. It was directed by Evgueni Mlodik & Craig Bond and starred Opera Colorado mezzo soprano Marcia Ragonetti as Norma Desmond, Drew Hirschboek as Joe Gillis, Wes Munsil as Max, and Miranda Byers as Betty Schaefer.
In April 2004, Petula Clark reprised her role as Norma opposite Michael Ball in a concert production of the show that ran for two nights at the Cork Opera House in Ireland, which was later broadcast on BBC Radio 2. The cast also included Michael Bauer (Max), Emma Williams (Betty), Michael Xavier (Artie) and the BBC Concert Orchestra was conducted by Martin Yates. To date, with more than 2500 performances to her credit, she has played the role more often than any other actress.
Another two-day concert engagement took place in 2004 in Sydney by the Production Company; Judi Connelli starred as Norma, Michael Cormick played Joe and Anthony Warlow was Max. The Production Company staged a slightly more elaborate version of the concert for a week in Melbourne during 2005. Connelli again starred as Norma, and David Campbell took the role of Joe. The State Theatre was sold out for every performance.
Paramount Pictures and the Relevant Picture Company announced in 2005 that they were developing a film adaptation of the musical. In 2007, The Daily Telegraph reported that actresses being considered for the role of Norma Desmond included Close, Paige, Meryl Streep, Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand. In an interview in 2008, Andrew Lloyd Webber said that there are no plans for a film adaptation to be made in the near future, but he remains hopeful one will be made at some point. In 2011, Lloyd Webber indicated he would like Madonna to star in the film, though she wasn't taking his calls. In December 2011, Andrew Lloyd Webber told the Daily Mail that he was considering filming a stage production of the show for cinema and DVD release featuring Glenn Close as Norma Desmond, but noted that the inherent costs in forming the production might hinder the project's viability.
In an interview with Elaine Paige during her BBC Radio 2 show Elaine Paige on Sunday on 6 October 2013, Lloyd Webber was asked "What's happening to the film?", and he replied:
I would love a film to be made of Sunset, of course, but unfortunately the rights are owned by Paramount who own the original movie and, so far, talks with them have never led to anything. And it's sad for me because I think in many ways Sunset is, I think, the most complete musical I have written, I mean in the sense that the book and the music and everything come together I think in a way that perhaps even some of the others, they don't. Anyway that's my sadness at the moment and maybe, one day, the whole thing will get brokered. I'm doing something else with Paramount because after I've done this I'm producing School of Rock on stage, and that's a Paramount picture, so maybe if they like what I do with that they'll let me do Sunset.
Original London production
Original Broadway production
2008 London Revival
2016 London Revival