The women behind "Sunset Boulevard"

For Susan Schulman and Kathleen Marshall, bringing the musical to Pittsburgh is like going home

Sunday, November 29, 1998

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Editor

Get ahht!"Or something like that, something affectionately Pittsburghese - that's how Susan Schulman and Kathleen Marshall greeted the news that their new production of "Sunset Boulevard" was going to open its national tour in Pittsburgh, at the Benedum Center.

 
  Stage Preview:

'Sunset Boulevard'


Where: Benedum Center, Downtown.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 2 and 7:30 p.m. next Sunday.

Tickets: $34-$49.50; 412-456-6666.

   
 

"We looked at each other and laughed," recalled Marshall over a light post-rehearsal meal in a Broadway diner. "We're going home!"

Their delight wasn't just because Pittsburgh is where they met in 1981, when Schulman was the whirlwind staff director at the Civic Light Opera and Marshall, an 18-year-old from Squirrel Hill, was in her first year in the dancing and singing ensemble. Nostalgia is fine, but a multimillion dollar national tour is all business.

Sure, starting in Pittsburgh is a pleasing coincidence, maybe even lucky, but its real value is more substantial. The Benedum gives them a leg up, since they know those ropes - literally as well as figuratively. They know the Benedum will give their technically complex show the best possible launch.

"We were thrilled, of course," said Schulman in a phone interview. "That's a delightful present; we know the theater so well and the great guys in Local 3," the stagehands union.

All this matters a lot, because on this tour Schulman and Marshall are the director and choreographer in charge. And technical complexity has a heavy history with "Sunset Boulevard," the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Don Black "musical noir" version of the Norma Desmond story.

 
   

Susan H. Schulman

Broadway directing: "Sweeney Todd" (1990); "The Secret Garden" 1991); "The Sound of Music" (1997).

Other New York shows: "Company" and "Merrily We Roll Along" (York Theatre); "Carnival" and "A Little Night Music" (Equity Library Theatre); "Violet" and "Jack's Holiday" (Playwrights Horizons); "Allegro" and "The Boys from Syracuse" (Encores! Series).

National tours: "Secret Garden" (also Australian company); "Annie Get Your Gun."

Regional: More than 30 musicals during eight seasons as staff director at Pittsburgh CLO; "Man of LaMancha" (Stratford Festival); "Royal Family" (McCarter Theatre); "Time and Again" (Old Globe); "Violet" (ACT, Seattle); nonmusical dramas from "A Streetcar Named Desire" to "Macbeth."


Kathleen Marshall

Broadway choreography: "Swinging on a Star," "1776"; assistant choreography: "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "She Loves Me," "Damn Yankees"; consultant: "Once Upon a Mattress."

Other choreography: "Violet" (Playwrights Horizons); "As Thousands Cheer" (Drama Department); "Call Me Madam," "DuBarry Was a Lady," "The Boys from Syracuse" and "L'il Abner (all Encores! Series); "Time and Again" (Old Globe); "Music of the Night" (national tour); "The Matchmaker" (McCarter Theatre); "Violet" (ACT, Seattle).

Directing: "Chess" (Maryland Arts Festival); "Of Thee I Sing" (John Harms Center).

 
 

In London and on Broadway, "Sunset" was as remarkable for its set - a massive, baroque Hollywood mansion that slid forward, then lifted high in the air revealing another stage beneath it - as it was for its brooding score and grandiose performances by Patti Lu Pone and Glenn Close. After winning the 1995 Tony, "Sunset" set out on tour in fall 1996 and winter 1997 with a replica of that massive set. A long tour was planned - in fact, well in advance, the 1998 CLO schedule was moved forward, opening August for a long run at the Benedum.

Instead, the tour suddenly closed down after just a few cities, and the Broadway production closed precipitously as well. Both proved too top-heavy and expensive to sustain. (The Pittsburgh Broadway Series had to fill the resulting August gap with "Show Boat.")

"I get the sense a lot of cities wanted the tour," said Marshall, "but it wasn't economically feasible."

"They had some trouble moving it," said Schulman, dryly.

Flash-forward several months, and Schulman got a call from Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group and PACE Theatricals, joint producers. (PACE is also part of the triumvirate that runs the Pittsburgh Broadway Series.) They were planning a new, slimmed-down tour, and the original director, Trevor Nunn, was no longer involved.

"I was quizzical," Schulman recalled. "I was flattered, of course. I had a small relationship with Andrew and [librettist and lyricist] Don Black from a workshop production of 'Song and Dance.' But I had seen 'Sunset' only once, in London, so I said I'd need to read it and listen to the score."

She did so on a plane to London to discuss the project. Maybe it had something to do with the privacy of earphones in the dim cocoon of a trans-Atlantic jet, but "I thought, 'Oh, my goodness!' It was so intimate. I got really involved in the story. Norma and Joe [the younger writer] - there was no hero or villain. They both needed each other, each on a life raft at a similar last place in their lives. I found it intensely moving. She's a star, and he's a great fan, but he's lost that love, Hollywood has taken it away. I suddenly found it all very tragic. So I began to develop a point of view."

Without which, you couldn't direct a show that needed a new point of view to get it up on its feet again.

"I told them I wanted to make it very personal," Schulman says - less grandiose, certainly, which had been much of the problem. "I decided to set it on a Hollywood sound stage and let it evolve as a movie does. We'd create each setting as in a movie, let the audience enter into the creation of the fantasy."

"Sunset" is set in the '50s, which Schulman describes as a great time for movies, even though producers were then running scared of the new beast, television. "The production numbers are right out of the '50s movie musical world. Norma is very film noir."

But first, Schulman needed a creative team. She made an unusual choice: "I chose my entire collaborative team from 'Violet,' " an intimate off-Broadway musical she directed that won the 1997 New York Drama Critics Circle Award as best musical, the same year "Titanic" won the Tony. "I wanted 'Sunset' to have that intimacy."

That brought in Marshall, who had choreographed "Violet." But their relationship has been a long one.

"She gave me my Equity card," Marshall says, remembering that first CLO season, then at Heinz Hall. "Now I realize how young she was then and what a huge deal her job was. She came into that season like Schwarzkopf - prepared, smart, but also open, nice. ... Her technical knowledge is so vast. She's right in there with the nuts and bolts."

Women rarely get to direct big stage musicals.

"It's the old stereotype," Schulman told the Post-Gazette in 1992, after she had broken through the gender barrier with "The Secret Garden" on Broadway. "So much money is involved - can the little woman do it?"

To prove you can do it, you need experience, but how to get that? What freed Schulman from this double-bind was her experience at the CLO, working with a skilled union crew and directing a new show every week. "After you've done that, a Broadway musical seems like a piece of cake."

Still, Schulman had once despaired of ever getting a big Broadway musical. But in 1990 she had been hired to do a "chamber" version of "Sweeney Todd" and ended up with a critical hit and a Tony nomination. That led to "The Secret Garden," a breakthrough in many ways with its dreamy, psychologically layered staging and, not coincidentally, a creative team almost entirely composed of women. For this extraordinary work, though, Schulman did not get a Tony nomination, partly because, even after the show opened, she continued to tighten and refine it. "Unprofessional," sniffed the old boys network, whereas civilians (and audiences!) would admire her perfectionist drive.

Now there are a few woman directors on Broadway - Graciela Daniele ("Once on This Island"), Schulman, "Lion King's" Julie Taymor and, in London, Gale Edwards of "Whistle Down the Wind." Marshall is making a move to join these slim ranks herself, directing outside New York, as Schulman once did.

Schulman and Marshall have worked together several times since the CLO, most notably on the award-winning "Violet" and on pre-Broadway stagings of "Time and Again." Then the mentee was able to turn mentor: When Marshall was appointed artistic director of New York City Center's Encores! Series of concert musicals, she hired Schulman to direct last year's "The Boys from Syracuse."

"I hired her," Marshall says, "and then she hired me. 'Do you want to direct it?' 'OK. Do you want to choreograph?' "

They work well together. "On 'Violet,' " Marshall says, "the nicest compliment was that you couldn't tell where her work ended and mine began."

"We talk exactly the same way," says Schulman. "I felt that instantly doing both 'Boys' and 'Violet,' which are so different stylistically."

An observer can see the similarities - intense, focused, voluble. Schulman is more wry, more nervy, and Marshall maybe a shade cooler, though hardly cool. Marshall has the additional strength of a memory for detail that would challenge a computer. Both are Broadway insiders, now, who know the score.

"We're both great believers in pre-production," says Marshall. Schulman began to work on "Sunset" a year ago. (Maybe because women have had to struggle, they really do work harder.) Then Marshall came on board.

Together, they must be the equivalent of Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell and the Joint Chiefs combined.

"We both squinted our eyes at each other," Marshall recalls of starting on "Sunset." "What does this mean? What do they want us to do?"

It turns out that Really Useful and PACE wanted a practical way to tour, and they embraced the idea of giving a whole new look to the show. But they also wanted to use Petula Clark as their star.

"Sunset" had diva troubles from the start. It began with Lu Pone in London, then Close in L.A. When Lloyd Webber broke Lu Pone's contract by bringing Close to New York, it supposedly cost him a million, though the battle royal may have been worth that much in publicity. Betty Buckley followed Lu Pone in London and then Close in New York. Elaine Page played in both cities, and Clark was the last Norma in London. But there was another squabble over the tour: Buckley said she wanted to do it, but they opted for the cheaper Linda Balgord. Her lack of a star name is another reason sometimes given for the tour's failure.

So this time, the producers wanted Clark.

"I felt trepidation," Schulman admits. "I really wanted to start fresh. And Petula also felt trepidation. We spoke for a long time. Then she turned to me one day and said, 'You mean, we can create it together?' I saw the idea land all at once - she could create her own Norma."

Before, Clark had been doing the role as pioneered by others; now it is hers.

"You know, she was a major movie star as a child in London," Schulman points out, "so she has a lot to draw on for this role."

The director and choreographer bring a lot to the table, too.