Scan the reviews of Sunset Boulevard and you’ll see some common threads. The leading lady gives a star turn but the lyrics are klunky and there was no point adapting the film for the stage. Sondheim declined a chance to adapt after Wilder said the film could only work as an opera. The current revival has been praised for scrapping the giant sets but something else is missing. What exactly? Let’s take a closer look at the libretto.
What is the story about?
May-December romance? The dark side of Hollywood? The horrors of age, death and time? The horrors of being trapped in a big house with a crazy lady?
The characters pursue big dreams and destroy themselves in the process. This lends itself to the musical form. At the same time the characters are static. This does not. Their fatal flaws lie in their denial. Norma isn’t hustling to be a star. She believes she is one. Joe isn’t hustling to be a better writer. He believes the folks rejecting his work are fools and jerks. Halfway through act one the career arc fades. The action shifts to Joe’s attempts to escape the house and Norma’s attempts to keep him there.
Who is the protagonist?
The music thinks Norma is. She gets the “I want” songs (With One Look, The Perfect Year), the “I am” songs (With One Look again, New Ways to Dream) and the “celebration” song when she thinks she’s achieved her goal (As If We Never Said Goodbye).
The plot thinks Joe is. We follow his journey and everything is seen through his eyes. He leaves the house frequently to pursue work at the studio and a relationship with Betty. Norma becomes his antagonist attempting to lure him back with money, threats and violence.
Sadly the score doesn’t have much use for Joe. He’s stuck with recitative and reactive duets. His only solo, Sunset Boulevard, has to serve as his “I want,” “I am,” “I’m becoming” song as well as a takedown of Hollywood culture. It’s more responsibility than the lyrics can handle. (“Beneath the tan the battle rages.”)
For me it’s a consistent tone. Webber’s romantic score undercuts Wilder’s cynicism. The music buys into her delusion that she’s a dethroned queen. A tragic victim. Is she? Is it really so bad to be a wealthy retiree living in an L.A. mansion with a servant who worships her? A snarkier composer might have played up the contrast between her dreams and her reality. They might have given Joe something interesting to sing while they were at it.