You needn’t be a rocket scientist to grasp the puzzle Steven Meerdink faces with “Sunset Boulevard.” The artistic director of Minneapolis Musical Theatre had the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical on his short list for years. But MMT is a small, itinerant company that produces in intimate venues, and “Boulevard” is your typical mammoth Broadway set design with a re-creation of a Hollywood mansion.
“The size of the production was daunting,” said Meerdink, who saw the 1996 national tour in Minneapolis. “We had to get past that and rethink the whole thing.”
Rather than focus on the cavernous haunts of Norma Desmond, Meerdink chose to zero in on the mercurial film star’s character and interactions with those around her. We will find out how successful Meerdink’s vision is when Sarah Gibson takes her close-up as Norma this Friday at Hennepin Theatre Trust’s New Century Theatre — a small stage in downtown Minneapolis.
For generations, Gloria Swanson stamped in our heads her image of Norma Desmond, created in Billy Wilder’s 1950 film. It remains one of the eeriest performances in film history, with Swanson confidently allowing her character to go a little mad.
After Lloyd Webber translated the movie into a stage musical — with help from writer Christopher Hampton — the role has provided fresh and juicy meat for several legendary actors.
“I looked at a lot of different performances — Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley, Glenn Close,” said Gibson before rehearsal. “Glenn Close, have you seen that? It’s stunning how she chews the scenery, and that’s not a criticism.”
Aspirations gone awry
The Norma Desmond story and her codependent relationship with whipped screenwriter Joe Gillis (Tim Kuehl at MMT) are just so irresistibly weird. And yet, perhaps it is the grounded reality of a woman who cannot accept how the world has changed around her that makes the oddness that much more threatening to us.
“She’s an underdog,” said Gibson. “She was kicked out of Hollywood and is working on her return.”
Indeed. Norma, on one level, is just a hustling film star trying to get back on top of Hollywood. She thinks she has a winner in a new film project she’s been working on when, lo and behold, a screenwriter shows up on her doorstep. And what a coincidence, he needs work and a place to stay. This is your classic win-win situation — on paper.
Norma’s fear of abandonment and Gillis’ eroding self-esteem complicate matters. He realizes he’s not just writing a treatment, he’s writing a fantasy for a delusional woman trapped in her memory.
“She sees her life as a movie,” Meerdink said. “She plays that character so caught up in Hollywood, someone pushed into stardom early and then ends up bigger than life.”
Norma’s pathology invites satire, which might have been fun for Carol Burnett and friends, but is a slippery slope for a legitimate production. Meerdink and Gibson routinely discussed during rehearsals the need to let Norma be big and showy in her ridiculous moments, but somehow exist in her own distorted reality.
“People love a train wreck,” Gibson said.
Story’s big, stage is small
Getting the show on the New Century’s small stage will be a challenge. Meerdink said it reminds him of the shows MMT produced at the old Hennepin Stages space — except with “a nicer floor.”
Regardless, it’s a small footprint, and Meerdink has decided the answer is in reimagining the concept. His logic is this: because “Sunset Boulevard” exists as a flashback, and because Norma appears to have gone completely around the bend in that fateful climax, could we assume she ends up institutionalized?
This way, Meerdink contends, the walls and furniture of the institution become the pieces of the opulent mansion — an idea not unlike the created fiction of Romeo and Juliet. MMT also plans to use slide projections, much like an opera, and to use live cameras to reinforce the motif of Norma living her life on screen.
“I felt it was doable to strip this down, like we did with ‘Candide,’ ” said Meerdink, referring to MMT’s 2001 production at Bryant-Lake Bowl. “There’s no reason for it to be as big as it was on Broadway.”
Or to put into Norma Desmond’s lingo, the musical is still big, it’s the stage that got small.