Sunset Boulevard: A HOLLYWOOD STORY

You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood, said Louis B. Mayer with disdain to Billy Wilder before the crowd of celebrities, studio heads and specially invited guests after a private screening of Sunset Boulevard, the 1950 film that exposed the darker side of the glamorized world of the Hollywood studio system.

Sunset Boulevard is a masterpiece of story telling complete with the ultimate femme fatale, Norma Desmond, a poignant victim of the Hollywood studio system. It is a bitter tragic-comedy about a fictional mega-star from the silent film era.

The character Norma Desmond, not unlike many actors from the studio era, was elevated to star status and glamorized for the studio’s financial gain and glory, only to be discarded when her popularity waned and the public’s desire for silent pictures ended. This insight into the studio system had never before been revealed to the movie going public; the studios spent millions glamorizing the images of the stars who worked for them, sending the message that the stars lived a life of luxury, glamour and were above all else, untarnished.

The studio system was the dominant means of producing and distributing films in Hollywood from the 1920s through 1954. Studios controlled not only the careers of contract performers, but also all public information about them as well. Potential scandals were stifled by studios, and in some cases, studio bosses arranged marriages between their stars for publicity. In addition the studios also owned all major theatres throughout the U.S., thereby controlling distribution. Despite the many negative aspects of the studio system, some of the greatest films in history were created during what is commonly known as the Golden Age of Hollywood. The demise of the studio system began in 1948 when the Supreme Court ruled many of its practices illegal.

Paramount Pictures originally had given Gloria Swanson verbal permission to proceed with a musical adaptation of Sunset Boulevard in 1952, but there had been no formal legal arrangement. In 1957, Paramount executive Russell Holman wrote Swanson a letter asking her to cease work on the project because "it would be damaging for the property to be offered …as a stage musical." In the early 1960s, Stephen Sondheim outlined a musical stage version, however, a chance encounter with Billy Wilder gave Sondheim the opportunity to ask the original film's co-screenwriter and director his opinion of the project. "You can't write a musical about Sunset Boulevard," Wilder responded, "it has to be an opera. After all, it's about a dethroned queen." Sondheim immediately aborted his plans.

Andrew Lloyd Webber was inspired to write a musical based on Sunset Boulevard when he first saw the film in the 1970s. The project however didn’t take root until 1991 when he finally felt ready to tackle the project. Together with Don Black and Christopher Hampton, who wrote the book and lyrics, he composed the music for the show that would become an international sensation. The musical premiered on London’s West End in 1993 under the direction of Trevor Nunn, choreographed by Bob Avian and starring Patti LuPone as Norman Desmond. The show later opened in Los Angeles with Glenn Close in the lead role. Glenn went on to open the Broadway premier, winning a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical. The show garnered six more Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book and Tony Nominations including Best Costumes Design - the same costumes featured in the Ogunquit Playhouse production. Billy Wilder attended both the London and Broadway openings, joining Glenn Close on stage for the curtain call in New York!

In bringing this fantastic American story to the stage, the Ogunquit Playhouse is truly blessed to have Stefanie Powers join us as Norma Desmond. Ms. Powers was not only one of the last contract studio movie actresses for Columbia Pictures, making fifteen films for the studio over five years, but counts many of the creators of Sunset Boulevard as dear friends; Gloria Swanson (an alumni of the Playhouse), Billy Wilder and William Holden are each storied parts of her remarkable life.