“Sunset Boulevard”: 25 years later
New York, a.d. 2019. Like its overwrought, murderous heroine Norma Desmond, the theatrical version of Sunset Boulevard is a survivor. This month, we celebrate its 25th anniversary as the longest-running show on Broadway — a high-camp Hamlet for American actresses. No fewer than 15 different Normas have descended that famous staircase, and just in time for the silver-anniversary festivities (President Huffington recently confirmed she will attend), five-time Oscar winner Sharon Stone Ovitz Baldwin Culkin, 61, will become Norma No. 16.
The old guard will recall that, back in 1994, both Patti LuPone and Faye Dunaway Nicholson were dumped from the show on the way to Broadway. (”That turban is mine, mine!” LuPone, 70, still insists from a rest home at an undisclosed location in South America.) But now let us reflect on the show’s blazing, sometimes violent, history.
Glenn Close, 72, Broadway’s original and perhaps finest Norma, recalls, ”It was a magnificent job. I got to frizz my hair and boil a bunny. Oh no, wait, that was something else.” Barbra Streisand Stephanopoulos was the first potential replacement for Close, but more than two decades later producers are still trying to cut a deal with Babs. Reached at her home in Georgetown, the 77-year-old Democratic senator from California insists that she can’t do the show, ”because it wouldn’t be fair to my constituents if I just took off to do a play.” (According to composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, though, the problem is slightly different: ”That monster is holding out for 20 percent of the gross.”)
Delta Burke Lloyd Webber succeeded Close, despite Kathie Lee Gifford’s venomous campaigning for the role. ”I do feel bad about saying on my show (Live With & Kathie Lee, 1988-2003) that Delta was too heavy for the part,” says a tearful Kathie Lee, 66, who finally became Norma No. 7 in 2007, and has been touring with the show ever since. ”Reege was about to dump me, and doing Sunset was all that mattered.” ”Kathie Lee was a hard act to follow,” sighs RuPaul (Norma No. 8), the ’90s drag singer who now peddles a successful shoe line, Heels for Him. ”I tried to make the role my own by changing ‘With One Look’ to ‘With One Tuck.’ But none of the tourists got it, and they fired me.”
Last year the role provided what many regarded as a much-needed comeback for 61-year-old Madonna Ciccone (Norma No. 15), an ’80s singing sensation. (She retired in the late ’90s, citing a dire thyroid condition.) ”If it weren’t for Sunset, I’d still be singing backup for that crazy old Whoopi (Goldberg Trachtenberg Katzenberg) at a Marriott in Portland,” says the portly chanteuse over a post-show snack of French fries and a martini. ”Plus, I lost 40 pounds doing the role. Maybe it’ll help Sharon take off a few, too. Don’t print that…. Oh, go ahead, what the hell. Could you hand me the ketchup?”