Musicals Give Us The Big Picture

Sunset Boulevard was a splendid vehicle for a Hollywood star to bring a tearful audience to their feet

Theatre
Glenn Close as Norma Desmond: No great singer but plenty of pathos (©Richard Hubert Smith/ENO)

Andrew Lloyd Webber occupies a peculiar place in Britain’s theatrical pantheon: a household name still uttered with a bit of a sneer in a country that shells out a fortune to see musicals, but whose arts establishment remains a bit snitty about our most successful popular composer. Doubly odd, considering that many of us can measure our lives with reference to his works — the outraged sermons in the 1970s on Jesus Christ Superstar, creaky school productions of Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat, an endless supply of Cats and Phantoms of the Opera in the West End and on Broadway.

Lloyd Webber hails from a classical tradition, which is why his works are closer to operetta than any other popular composer. Sunset Boulevard, which has now ended its run at the Coliseum, is testament to that.

The story of Norma Desmond, remaining big while the pictures got small, is so familiar a trope that even those who haven’t seen Billy Wilder’s 1950 film can cite the line. The rest of the plot is a tad light — a cynical screenwriter in Hollywood (yep, him again), accidentally drawn into Norma’s circle, first as exploiter, then exploited — and finally avenged with due melodrama.

What it needs is an established star. So Lloyd Webber dutifully acquired one in Glenn Close, who in age terms is getting towards Norma numbers, but in altogether more robust form. From the moment she swept on stage in a lamé cape and dark eye make-up visible from the gods, Close commanded the vast acreage of the Coliseum stage. She bullied, threatened and bewitched her money-addled protégé Joe Gillis (Michael Xavier), while plotting a comeback with her old studio boss, Cecil B. DeMille, in an absurd reincarnation of Salomé. The studio wants a touch of the old Desmond magic — unfortunately for her, it’s in the form of her vintage car they covet for a shoot, not her legendary silent screen presence.

Pedants may note that Close is not a great singer and had struggled with a chest infection — gamely returning to the boards after a couple of days in hospital on a drip (Norma would have approved). No matter, she had the confidence of a fine performer with complete belief in her character and enough pathos to leaven her manipulation of a hapless protégé. The torch songs “This Time Next Year” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye” got the audience on their feet with many tear-strewn cheeks in the stalls. The glory of this saga is that allows us to tap guiltlessly into a well of sentiment about ageing and opportunities past. We can combine our knowing sympathy for deluded Norma with an agreeable amount of pity for ourselves.

Like Evita — another thoroughly OTT Lloyd Webber lady — Norma is, of course, an utter nightmare who traps Joe, as he realises too late, in “a long-term contract with no options”. At a chilling point just before the interval, after a suicide attempt, she wrapped her bandaged hands around her lover prey: a mummified wreck but one exerting ruthless control. True to the spirit of Phantom the lights dimmed, and we were left with the image of the white bandages illuminated. Light relief was on tap in song-and-dance numbers like “Let’s Have Lunch”. Max von Mayerling (Fred Johansen), her discarded husband-butler, stalked the set like a giant wounded beast, waiting for the worst to happen. Sure enough, it did.

A lot of musical theatre is taking another turn these days: either as a tribute to pop bands (Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys) or the raucous Book of Mormon and Hamilton’s vast success in America, mingling rap, edgy dance and political theatre. But Sunset Boulevard belongs to a foundational breed — sired by Hollywood and a love of spectacle and catharsis. As Norma might have observed: it’s not so bad to be mocked, so long as they still applaud.

The trouble with Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, now playing at the National Theatre, is that it is the product of the time and place in which it was written. You’re thinking the political strains of Weimar Berlin got to them? Not so much. The duo had run so late delivering the “play with music” that they were urged to leave Berlin to concentrate on it — and opted, in the best socialist manner, for a stay in a château in the south of France, where they consumed copious quantities of good wine and were distracted by the presence of Lotte Lenya.

Weill dutifully churned out some of the best-known songs of the 20th century, from “Mack the Knife” to “Pirate Jenny”. Brecht  (and his collaborators) created an engaging but scrabbly cast of characters from a faux-Victorian London, and a plot notoriously hard to follow. That challenge has enticed Simon Stephens, a prolific British playwright whose hits have been embraced by German critics. Now he’s returning the favour by giving the Threepenny a makeover. “The trouble with it is that the text isn’t much good,” Stephens told me in an interview during rehearsals.

But even when Brecht was on less then rigorous form, his enthusiasm for comically subversive and irreverent poetry survives. His Macheath is torn between satisfying his carnal desires and escaping the noose, while Polly, his naive girlfriend who is daft enough to elope with the rotter, has a grimy old dad, busy training thieves and beggars in return for a return on their gains. Her mama, Mrs Peachum, is a lustful, duplicitous  lush who might have marched in, wig askew, from a Restoration comedy.

The Brecht estate, once notoriously sticky about adaptations, has agreed to a new dramatic “wash” as Stephens puts it. Weill’s heirs are no less fiercely protective, so the songs have to be left untouched — which means a stretch to the squeaky high notes of the 1920s for Haydn Gwynne, who swaps recent turns as Margaret Thatcher and Camilla for the vaudeville Mrs Peachum. “This is not going to be one of my more subtle performances,” she says gleefully.

One obvious danger lurks in match-making Stephens and Brecht: his adaptor has fairly unremarkable early 21st-century leftish politics, while Brecht had unremarkably leftish Weimar politics. That doesn’t stop either of them from being accomplished dramatists — but there is a comfort zone here that can become stifling. Let’s see how Rufus Norris, the National’s director handles that. Rory Kinnear as a charismatic Macheath should steal the show — when not picking pockets. This is a luxuriously-appointed Threepenny. I’ll report back on whether the investment paid off.