What better way to occupy one’s mind at these times than dream-casting projects that will in no way materialize? In this spirit, may I present The Actors Fund One Night Only Benefit Concert of “Sunset Boulevard” starring all the Normas as they interchange scenes and songs (ala the Funny Girl concert Seth Rudetsky did in 2002).
(Speaking of Seth, in response to COVID-19 and all the performers who are out of work, he and his husband James Wesley host a daily live stream concert at 2 pm and 8 pm with Broadway stars to raise money for The Actors Fund. Learn more here.)
Let me tell you. Assigning these songs and scenes against the lineup of divas who’ve played Norma in the original productions around the world is, well, daunting. Tough decisions had to be made. But I’m down for a challenge.
Much like that Funny Girl concert, we’ll have one guy playing Joe Gillis. And it’s original Broadway Joe, Alan Campbell. I could go bigger and choose someone like Hugh Jackman who played Joe in Australia, but let’s give this to Alan, who played Joe the entire Broadway run. And this night should be about the Normas anyway. Having a star Joe throws things off.
We’re still negotiating who Max would be, but for the 22 year-old Betty Schaefer, I quite liked Britney Coleman when I saw the revival a few years ago. Let’s have her do it.
So. Here we go!
- Surrender: This might be interesting, but I’d like to give this to Ria Jones. She was the workshop Norma Desmond when the show was being developed — well before any other Normas sang the score. She’s also played the role in a recent UK tour and understudied Glenn Close in the English National Opera production in London a few seasons ago. A nice homage to the originators as we start things off.
- With One Look: Building off this, we’re moving to the World Premiere Norma, Ms. Patti LuPone. As she demonstrated in her basement recently, she has the gown and turban already, and it’s no question that she has the voice, which sounds better than ever at 70. Let’s have her sing it in the ORIGINAL KEY without the modulation, and end on a good, clean ME.
- Salome: I’d love to hand this to first national tour Norma, Linda Balgord. Based on what I’ve seen, her Norma was intense AF, and she was one of the few who sang the score in the original keys. Let’s let her have this moment to shine.
- “Put it back” scene: This is the scene where Norma fights with Joe about him doing his job – editing down her massive script. It’s a hint at what’s to come in terms of Joe dealing with all her extra. I’d love to get Carol Burnett in here. Because she knows how to work a costume, and, let’s face it, that leopard print gown is the best outfit of the show. And, as you may recall from the ’95 Tonys, which were held in the Minskoff Theatre where Sunset was playing, Carol, who was presenting best musical, looked up at the magnificent staircase and said “I would’ve given my eye teeth if the producers had allowed me to come down those stairs.” So let’s let her have this moment. Oh, and yeah – we’re having the full floating mansion set because this is MY FANTASY PROJECT.
- New Ways to Dream: Betty Buckley. Hands down. This is a crucial moment for Norma’s characterization. It’s the first time we see her at her most vulnerable — and not manipulative vulnerable. It’s honest and raw. It requires serious acting chops to let us get a glimpse of her former glory (and we will NOT have any ghost Normas running about to fill this in for us). This is all about Norma showing us what a great actress looks like. Because, IMHO, Norma IS a great actress. Betty’s got this.
- The Lady’s Paying: What fun would it be to see Rita Moreno take this one? Rita, who played Norma for a hot second during the West End run, has energy for days, and seeing her in a blazing red power suit (yes, I’m requiring all the original Anthony Powell costumes) with a black turban yelling at her man to dress to impress practically screams MORENO!
- The Perfect Year: This scene is all about manipulation, desperation and delirious joy. Norma’s in LOVE. But it doesn’t go well. It’s a roller-coaster of a scene, and I think West End royalty Elaine Paige should run with this. Elaine is flirty and funny and isn’t afraid to go big or go home.
- Final first act scene: What’s original Aussie Norma Debra Byrne up to these days? From what I’ve seen, her Norma was very much like a fragile crystal flower ready to shatter at any minute. I think that energy would close out Act 1 marvelously.
- The Perfect Year/reprise: Petula Clark. She closed the West End production and was in an (odd) tour that I saw in Lansing, MI. Her naturally effervescent personality would kick off Act 2 nicely.
- The drive up to Paramount: It’s a small scene, but let’s get Alice Ripley in there. As the original Broadway Betty Schaefer who recently transitioned to Norma at North Shore Music Theatre, I want to hear her milk the line “Jonesy, open the gate. And teach your friend some manners. Tell him without ME there wouldn’t BE any Paramount Studio!” It’s an important line because it embody’s Billy Wilder’s point: These silent movie stars helped build the empires that ultimately abandoned them. And good on Norma for calling it out!
- As If We Never Said Goodbye/follow-up scene: This may be a wild card, but I’m going with the original German Norma Desmond, Helen Schneider. She’s among my favorite Normas, and her rendition of this song is a sensation. The power, the intent, the specificity in her performance. I’m not sure at this point if I’d have her do it auf Deutsch or in English (Helen began as an American – as well as a chart-topping pop rock singer in the ’80s, but that’s another story). At any rate, this is a long-overdue debut for Helen on a major NY stage.
- Eternal Youth is Worth a Little Suffering and follow-up scene: It’s such an odd scene, let’s auction this moment off for a Norma wannabe to make some additional money for The Actors Fund.
- Confrontation scene/shooting: Step on up, Karen Mason. This is your moment! This amazing beltress stood by for Glenn during the original Broadway run, and it would be a nice hand-off to the next scene…
- Surrender/Final scene: Ok. It’s all about Glenn. No one does MAD like Ms. Close. And that kabuki dance she does after the “And now, Mr. De Mille? I’m ready for my closeup!” is downright haunting.
- Final tacky but required moment: In the final “This time, I’m staying, I’m staying for good…” all Normas come front and center and finish it together. OK?
What do you think of these choices? The hardest part was not being able to include my first Norma, the great, late Diahann Carroll. What a powerhouse she was.
And while this benefit concert may never happen, you can still donate to The Actors Fund, which supports all professionals who make their living in the performing arts – including stage managers, production designers, writers, etc. Times like this reinforce the importance of the arts to connect us and make us whole.