At the start of Billy Wilder’s film noir classic Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood screenwriter Joe Gillis – the movie’s male lead and narrator – makes his first appearance floating face-down, dead, in an outdoor swimming pool.
Yet Kevin Pieper, the director and set designer for Quad City Music Guild’s new production of the Sunset Boulevard stage musical (running August 4 through 13), has some bad news. “I’ll let the cat out of the bag with you,” he says during our July 20 interview. “We don’t have a swimming pool. We thought about filling the orchestra pit, but that would kind of defeat the purpose.”
Indeed it would. Based on 1950’s three-time Oscar winner, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation, with its book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, is a largely faithful retelling of Wilder’s tale of an opportunistic writer who becomes a collaborator/friend/lover/captive to fading screen legend Norma Desmond. What Webber’s version adds, obviously, is music – luxuriant, grandly orchestrated anthems and ballads and up-tempo numbers that helped the show’s Broadway debut earn seven 1995 Tonys, including awards for Best Musical and Score.
But saying that the presentation of Music Guild’s latest comes with built-in challenges is putting it mildly. For one thing, while the material boasts humor and undercurrents of black comedy throughout, Sunset Boulevard is far darker than the organization’s – and the director’s – more traditionally lighthearted fare, with Pieper’s own Music Guild credits including 2009’s The Producers, 2010’s The Pajama Game, and last year’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
For another, the show has to compete with memories of what is, for many, an incredibly well-known and -loved movie, as even those unfamiliar with the film are likely aware of immortal Norma Desmond lines such as “I am big; it’s the pictures that got small” and “I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. De Mille.” On that note, any new Sunset Boulevard also has to compete with memories of the half-mad Norma, played on-screen by an iconic Gloria Swanson.
And, as Pieper says, the greatest challenge probably lies in the demands of the musical itself, the Broadway version of which attempted to replicate the experience of Wilder’s movie to the tune of a notorious $13-million budget. (Although Sunset Boulevard initially ran on Broadway for two years and 977 performances, that budget plus advertising and operational costs led to the production losing an estimated $20 million.)
“The show is so large,” he says, “at least as far as what’s expected. You’ve got sound stages, you’ve got a mansion, you’ve got cars, you’ve got a swimming pool ... . All that grandeur is really hard to convert to a stage – and especially ours [at Moline’s Prospect Park Auditorium], where we don’t have the hydraulics and the fly-space and all those types of things.
“Obviously,” Pieper continues, “the show was written for an unlimited budget. I mean, there’s a car-chase scene. And the script is very descriptive about about how the car chase should be done – how one car comes up, but then it backs off and another moves forward ... . So from a set designer’s standpoint, we’ve been trying to figure out how to fit in everything we can.”
Aside from building a façade of Norma’s sprawling mansion, Pieper says that he and his creative team are meeting the challenge of replicating the Sunset Boulevard film experience not through exorbitantly priced scenery, but rather lighting and projections, with Alex and Zachary Chaplain serving as lighting designers.
“At the opening of the second act,” says Pieper, “Joe is supposed to be lounging by the pool, so we’re going to try to do a little reflective lighting there to suggest that. But we’re also trying to tie in Norma’s connection to silent movies, which we’re doing through some of our slow fades – where a spotlight will close in on an individual actor and everything else will be blacked out, like a fade-out on an old silent movie that finally fades down to nothing.
“We’re also going to try to utilize some clips from the movie, and project those for the car chase. Our obstacle right now is where we’re going to actually put them,” he says with a laugh. “But it’s all about trying to adapt to what we can do versus what’s being called for.”
One thing that’s definitely called for is a performer with the requite presence and talent to at least momentarily erase memories, and expectations, of Gloria Swanson. But with Music Guild’s Norma Desmond being played by Christina Myatt – an area-theatre veteran whose credits include such demanding roles as Gypsy’s Mama Rose and Les Misérables’ Fantine – Pieper says that’s one aspect of his production in which a significant challenge will be handily met.
“When she came into the audition,” says Pieper, “she was obviously very well-prepared. She knew the character, she knew the story. And Christina had the vocal abilities and interpretation of the character we were looking for. She just hit it right on, and we were very excited to have her take the role.” Although perhaps not as excited as Myatt herself.
“Sunset Boulevard is my favorite Lloyd Webber,” says Myatt, referring to a theatrical catalog that includes Phantom of the Opera, Cats, and Jesus Christ Superstar. “The grandeur of the music just captures that film noir style perfectly. And it’s the most challenging of his to sing, too. I’ve done other Webber shows and they’re pretty straightforward, but this one has a lot more grit for a musician in terms of the key changes, the time changes ... . It’s really challenging, and I find that exciting.”
Yet while Myatt loves her character’s “whirlwinds of emotion, going from happiness to sadness in just the snap of a finger,” the performer says that she and Pieper were determined to not make their Norma Desmond the same type of deliberately over-the-top nightmare figure that Swanson enacted on-screen.
“I’m sure there are things, both in Kevin’s direction and my portrayal, that will be reminiscent of the movie,” says Myatt. “But we had a long discussion about how Norma has to be likable, and real, or else you just watch the show thinking she’s crazy and ‘Serves you right!’ when horrible things happen.
“My mother-in-law just passed away,” she continues. “She was 96 years old, and she had started to lose some of her memories of the recent past. Old things she could tell you about in great detail. But newer things were starting to go and get disjointed in her mind. And that made her angry, because she wasn’t who she once was, and it wasn’t who she wanted to be.
“So I kind of tapped into that for Norma. As much as she’s a caricature, she’s a real person, and real people have to deal with this – where their heyday has gone and they can’t do the things they used to.”
Norma may be a more relatable, life-size figure in Music Guild’s Sunset Boulevard, but Myatt says that the splendor of the material remains intact.
“The costumes – oh my God,” sighs Myatt about designer Cathy Marsoun’s old-Hollywood gowns. “I have something like 13 costumes in the show, and they’re some of the most gorgeous things I have ever seen, and everything has a headpiece or a turban to match it. They really will be worth the price of admission all by themselves. I feel like a dress-up dolly and I love it.”
Even with less-dreamy outfits, though, Myatt stresses that Music Guild’s latest would deliver large-scale pleasure simply through Webber’s compositions. “I think the score enhances the story and gives it this really lush feeling. Especially considering we’re not on Broadway and don’t have this million-dolar budget, the richness of that score helps give it that opulence and grandeur you need.”
“We’ve got a challenge ahead of us,” says Pieper. “because a lot of folks don’t know the show. But hopefully we’ll get ’em there by word-of-mouth and doing – knock on wood – an excellent job.”
As for the ones who do know Sunset Boulevard, “I think they’ll really enjoy it. A lot of times people have asked, ‘Is it just like the movie?’ And I say, ‘Well, there are a lot of similarities, but there are differences.’ ‘Is the my-closeup line in there?’ ‘Yes, it’s in there.’
“‘What about the swimming pool?’” Pieper laughs. “‘Well, we’re gonna work around that a little bit ... .’”
Sunset Boulevard runs at the Prospect Park Auditorium (1584 34th Avenue, Moline) August 4 through 13, with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. performances on Sunday. For more information and tickets, call (309)762-6610 or visit QCMusicGuild.com.