The six Aristotelian elements of drama are, plot, character, thought, diction, spectacle, and song. According to Aristotle, the most important of these are the first two.
This is a story about the last two ...
Note – This article could not have been written without the hard work of others including Heather Beal at Constellation Creative, Scott Zeiger and Playbill.com, Vogue, Variety and Frank Rich.
BITN is generously supported by Big Image Systems. BIS had the honor of working with PRG Scenic Technologies to help realize the vision of Designer James Noone for the latest production of “Sunset Boulevard”. Heather Beal of Constellation Creative has written a terrific Newsletter on the process and you can read it on our Facebook page.
But when I sat down to add a BITN spin on it I had the chance to dig deeper into the history of this show and in particular the story of the set. The evolution of the set of Sunset Boulevard, from it’s spectacular beginnings, to it’s latest, minimalist incarnation is a testament to scenic design, and to the broader world of theatre.
It’s a story about spectacle and song. The spectacle that brought audiences to their feet and proved too much to bear, and the enduring power of song, that allowed the show to survive and continue to evolve.
IN THE BEGINNING …
On November 17th, 1994, after debuts in both London and Los Angeles, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard” opened at the historic Minskoff Theatre on Broadway in New York City. The story, based on Billy Wilder’s classic film about the flip-side of fame in Hollywood, was embodied by Actress Glenn Close, as past her prime actress Norma Desmond, alone and ignored, trapped both mentally and physically, unable to face her new reality.
The Production Design that surrounded Norma and embodied her once grand but now melting sanity was made physical by acclaimed set designer John Napier.
Napier, the legendary designer behind such spectacles as Cats, Les Mis and Miss Saigon, unleashed his full arsenal on the design of Sunset Boulevard. The resulting set was a visual masterpiece, a behemoth of melted gothic madness, in keeping with the slow degeneration of Norma’s mind.
The word “minimal” was not in the dictionary. Aside from the dark, soaring, cathedral like grotesqueness of Norma’s mansion, the set was a mechanical marvel, filled with rising stages and moving scenic elements which fit seamlessly within the catacombs of the main set and propelled the show as it moved from the studio backlots of old Hollywood, to a remote garage, to a pool and even a car chase on a dark California road.
READY. SET. OKAY HOLD UP …
The history of Sunset Boulevard is legendary fodder for the theatre crowd. Rife with its own drama, (lawsuits, rewrites, tepid reviews, rave reviews, more lawsuits etc), the show nonetheless opened on Broadway to great success, propelled by the mix of Close as Desmond, The magic of Lloyd Webber’s score and Napiers jaw-dropping design. Running for 977 performances, the show nabbed several Tony Awards including Best Actress, (Close), Best Actor, (George Hearn), best Book and Score, (Webber), and a slew of technical awards including best Set Design by Napier
With the success of Sunset Boulevard, the musical’s initial U.S. tour began a projected six year journey on July 10, 1996. Less than one year later, the tour came to a complete halt after playing only a handful of venues, when it was discovered that the set, impressive as it was, cost a small fortune to transport from place to place.
“During the first tour, it was physically too heavy,” said Scott Zeiger, president of PACE Theatrical Group, which produced the tour with Columbia Artists.
Zeiger explained that Sunset’s original road company actually did remarkably well, when compared to the box-office income of comparable touring shows, but was sunk by load-in costs. Fully $1 million was spent every time the original set was ferried from one city to the next. Such expense made it imperative the show remain at each tour stop for a minimum of five weeks in order to make up the cost.
“In a mid-sized market like Tampa, the show grossed $2.5 million over the run,” explained Zeiger. “But spread out over five weeks, when the break even point is $500,000, that’s terrible.”
With the show on hiatus, Webber tasked director Susan Schulman to retool the show into a leaner more tour friendly production. Schulman brought Designer Derek McLane on board to re-imagine Napiers behemoth of a set.
McLane, no slouch in his own right, kept the dramatic bones of Napiers original set and stripped away the gothic bulk and eye-popping mechanics. McLane left the iconic staircase but opted to replace the solid, opulent decay of Napiers original with lighter weight elements like Scrims, Drapery and Backdrops.
The new, sleeker set design by McLane was met with positive reviews by critics. As Don Shirley, Los Angeles Times Theatre Critic remarked;
“It’s the look of Derek McLane’s set that will most surprise previous “Sunset” viewers. Gone is the levitating mansion, replaced by a more conventional grand staircase and plenty of drapery. The design isn’t just a matter of trims. By framing most of the stage pictures with images from movie technology, Schulman and McLane introduce the notion that all of what we see is part of a movie. They apply this idea lightly, never taking it to the point that it might confuse.”
By the end of its first official US tour, Sunset had gone down in Broadway history for a couple of reasons. From an audience standpoint, the show had become a new classic. From a financial standpoint, however, the show had become what critic Frank Rich had described as a “Flop-Hit”. The troubles over multiple lawsuits, never-ending changes, and the initial costs of transporting the set ultimately contributed to what Rich described as “Sunset Boulevard setting the record for the most money lost by a theatrical endeavor in the history of the United States. “
According to Rich, operating costs soared far beyond the budget, and the “Broadway production has earned back, at best, 80% of the initial $13 million”. For example, during the week of 2 July 1995, “it cost $731,304 to run Sunset Boulevard, including… advertising fees of $138,352 (which had been budgeted at $40,000 a week).”The road companies also generated large financial losses. Rich put the final figure near or above $20 million lost.”
READY FOR HER CLOSE-UP … AGAIN
22 years later …
In 2016 Glenn Close once again decided to don the sequined turban and descend the iconic staircase into madness. Unlike its ancestor, the design of this new production would be stripped to its chassis. This time around there was a determination to take McLane’s set and go even further, even more minimalistic, allowing the book and lyrics and performers tell the story.
In stark contrast to the epic journey of the original production, the new version was put on a lightning fast production schedule, (by Broadway standards), with only four months of pre-production and one week of previews before it’s official opening.
The new design became the job of Designer James Noone. Noone, a respected award-winning New York Scenic designer, used as his inspiration the scaffolding, metal catwalks and trussing of a studio soundstage. Dominating this maze of metal are two interwoven staircases, which Noone Describes as the metaphor for Norma’s predicament in show business; the stairway up to the pinnacle of success or the descent into madness.
Following more in the footsteps of McLane, Noone and Kyle Crose, project manager of PRG Scenic, the shop responsible for construction of the set relied on softer scenic elements in order to help with scene changes, rather than the eye-popping operatic mechanics of Napiers original.
Quality and schedule were especially important because Close’s public relations team took time to meticulously review and approve the final digital art. This compressed the schedule for producing the large-scale prints on soft materials during the normally slower holiday season.
Crose contacted Big Image Systems to produce two banners with the studio numbers 27 and 30 printed on them and a “Kabuki Drop” that featured a photo of Close’s face.
I AM BIG. IT’S THE SET THAT GOT SMALL …
The story of the evolution of the set of Sunset Boulevard is a fascinating glimpse into the world of theatrical design. Almost three decades ago Designer John Napier conceived the world of Sunset Boulevard in the most literal terms possible at the time.
While models are still created today, at the time there was little to no technology to aid in the design process. The opulence of Napiers creation was wholly physical. The intricate mechanisms, the transformational aspects of the massive set were designed, and controlled by motors and hands and ropes and weights, by men and women in the wings, in the pit, squirreled away in the secret spaces on the stage. As Susannah Herbert of the Daily Telegraph remarked in 1993;
“The shows warmest reception was reserved for the set-designer John Napier… He said staging Sunset was “the hardest thing I’ve ever done”… For Sunset he decided the magnificent gothic-Victorian-baroque mansion inhabited by the ageing start, Norma Desmond, would be “Hollywood Mad”. But how could he get there after a sequence involving a studio back-lot, a car chase and a deserted garage complete with vintage car?…. His coup lies in making the story’s transitions -so easily done in the original 1950 film – work seamlessly on stage despite tons of fallible machinery and sliding pallets that shot off in the wrong directions at three times their normal speed in the technical rehearsals.”
Three decades later, the world of design has been transformed by rapidly advancing technology. The latest incarnation of Norma’s tale is conceived in a different way;
Computer aided design, rendering software, new intelligent theatrical machinery and advances in theatrical elements such as printing have enabled today’s designers to save time and budgets by working within the virtual world before the first piece of scenery is created. 21st century tools allow designers the freedom to explore and preview ideas with a speed and precision that would have been impossible 30 years ago.
But even as technology advances, at the heart of all of it is the imagination of the Designer and the strength of the work. Sunset Boulevard will continue based on it’s plot and character. And as long as it continues to entertain and delight audiences, designers will continue to be inspired by these elements to create the world of Norma, Joe, Max and Betty.
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