December 17, 1998, 01:31 p.m.

Theater: A `Sunset' of a different color

Revamped mega-musical travels light for new tour

By EVERETT EVANS
Copyright 1998 Houston Chronicle


THE sun is rising again on Sunset Boulevard. But it'll shine, with any luck, on a leaner, nimbler touring production than the London and Broadway leviathan that's stumbled onto the road in 1997.
Unlike most touring musicals, the Sunset opening Tuesday at Jones Hall will not be a re-creation of the original production directed by Trevor Nunn and designed by John Napier.
While the music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton remain the same, this edition has a new physical production directed by Susan H. Schulman and designed by Derek McLane.
Petula Clark stars as screen legend Norma Desmond, a part she played for 18 months during the London run.
The factors that led to reconceiving Sunset for the road exemplify the costly, complicated process of producing mega-musicals.
Much ado accompanied Sunset from the beginning, with Lloyd Webber expected to apply his Midas touch to the musical version of Billy Wilder's classic 1950 film.
Faithful to the screenplay, the musical follows Joe Gillis, a young, needy screenwriter, as he becomes ensnared in the strange world of Desmond, a reclusive former silent-movie star plotting an unlikely comeback. First hired to collaborate with Desmond in writing a screenplay for her return to the cinema, Gillis soon becomes the star's lover.
After receiving mixed reviews in London and on Broadway, Sunset took off at the box office and seemed a likely candidate for the now-and-forever status of those indefatigable Lloyd Webber cash cows Cats and The Phantom of the Opera.
But Sunset proved not to have such long legs. Both productions closed in spring 1997, in London after 3 1/2 years, on Broadway after 2 1/2 -- healthy runs but disappointing for a Lloyd Webber show expected to be a mega-hit.
A tour re-creating the Broadway production, but without a star in the lead, was bedeviled by the bottom line. The show was so expensive to transport and set up that it needed to play to full houses just to break even. After just four cities, it shut down. The touring Show Boat replaced it in Houston during summer 1997.
Les MisÚrables, Phantom and Cats have toured without big stars. But Sunset is about a larger-than-life star and requires a famous persona with box-office pull.
Much of the show's publicity centered on its choice of stars. Patti Lupone originated the role in London and was expected to play it on Broadway. But after Glenn Close opened the Los Angeles production, Lloyd Webber wanted her to star on Broadway as well.
Then, after announcing Faye Dunaway to replace Close in Los Angeles, Lloyd Webber decided to close the Los Angeles production, releasing Dunaway. Lupone and Dunaway engaged in legal battles with the composer, compounding the sense that this hit was troubled.
Sunset's triple closing on Broadway, in London and on tour was part of a 1997 downturn for Lloyd Webber, whose new Whistle Down the Wind folded in Washington, D.C., after a poorly reviewed tryout. He has not enjoyed an unqualified success since Phantom opened on Broadway in 1988.
The irony is that Sunset is one of Lloyd Webber's strongest, most mature works. Yet, like its predecessor, Aspects of Love (which boasted his loveliest score), it lost money. Perhaps Lloyd Webber's fate is that he will never be quite as popular when he casts aside the gimmicks of cats, trains and falling chandeliers to tackle more grown-up subject matter.
Despite its problems, Sunset is one of the biggest "name brand" offerings of recent seasons, winner (by default, as the only new book musical, but still ... ) of the 1995 Tony for best musical. Surely someone could find a way to tour this eagerly anticipated show without bankrupting its producers.
Enter the Houston-based PACE Theatrical Group, lead producer of the current tour, which premiered in Pittsburgh earlier this month.
"This is a brand-new production," PTG president Scott Zeiger said from New York. "It doesn't have that giant levitating mansion. This is a production capable of moving, that can play one- and two-week runs. It is not cumbersome. The set can load in over a two-day period, instead of over a 10-day period. ...
"We got new talents to reconceive the show physically," Zeiger said, praising Schulman, McLane and choreographer Kathy Marshall. "They have created a fresh new take that gives a different but still beautiful surrounding to the story. And we have kept the Broadway production's spectacular costumes by Anthony Powell."
Elaborate musicals are increasingly being rethought and restaged for the road. Aspects of Love toured in an effective production that was quite different from Nunn's London/Broadway edition. Big was not only restaged but also considerably rewritten for the road. Livent (U.S.) Inc.'s financial woes suggest that its touring productions of Ragtime and Show Boat may have to be scaled down as well.
Schulman -- whose directorial credits include Broadway's The Secret Garden, the off-Broadway musical Violet and the current revival of The Sound of Music -- tells Sunset's story within the framework of a Hollywood soundstage, as a film in the making.
Her lighter production comes properly equipped with a star who needs no introduction.
Clark grew up a child star of radio, recordings, films and the concert stage and became a worldwide sensation in the 1960s, knocking the Beatles off the top of the charts with such hits as Downtown and I Know a Place. She starred in the film musicals Finian's Rainbow and Goodbye, Mr. Chips as well as in the hit London revival of The Sound of Music and on Broadway in Blood Brothers.
Yet for all her experience, when Nunn approached her about taking over the lead in London's Sunset, Clark had trepidations. She most often has played unaffected, down-to-earth women and did not see herself as the grande dame Norma.
"I didn't want to do it," said Clark. "I tried to convince Trevor Nunn that it was not a good idea. He wouldn't take no for an answer. The next thing I knew, I was rehearsing the darn thing. One of the great things about Trevor is that he sees things in actors they can't always see in themselves. He told me not to watch the movie, to do it my own way.
"When I asked, `What do I have to give to this role?' he said, `Your vulnerability.' That is the key. I don't see Norma as a monster, and I don't play her that way. Yes, she behaves badly and is rude to people -- but I know a lot of people who behave like that, and I don't consider them monsters. I really feel for Norma. And as soon as I get that makeup on and those clothes on, I really am her. It's no longer a stretch for me."
It is, however, a culmination of sorts -- the most demanding role Clark has played.
"Andrew writes beautiful music. It is not always kind to singers, and he knows that. But those vocal demands are what make it so interesting to sing."
Dramatically, the role encompasses a vast range and calls for grand style.
"I don't think Norma is roaring mad from the start, just totally deluded," Clark said. "She's obsessed with the idea of her comeback, her `return.' She eventually goes mad because of all the things that are thrown at her -- finding she has no audience and her movie will never be made. And to top it off, finding that this young man is not in love with her.
"The way I play her, she retreats, goes back into being who she was before, when she was this sweet, loving and great movie star. It's touching to see who she was."
Sunset is a show with a great deal of dark humor, Clark said.
"Often with these grand, impressive shows, people are not sure whether they are allowed to laugh. This production makes that easier, because it is more intimate and has a lighter touch. ... This production is more about the people than the set."
Tour organizers plan to keep Sunset on the road for two years. Clark is committed to the first.
"They asked me to extend beyond the first year, to see the show into the new millennium," she said. "I may do it. I love touring. But we'll see how this first year on the road goes."