Sunset Boulevard

SUNSET BOULEVARD AUSTRALIA 2024 Robert Grubb Sarah Brightman Tim Draxl photo by Daniel BoudIn 1989, Billy Wilder’s iconic 1950 black comedy movie, Sunset Boulevardfeaturing Gloria Swanson and William Holden – was selected for preservation amongst the first group of films for America’s National Film Registry. That same year, Andrew Lloyd Webber decided it was the subject he had to compose next. 

Four years later, Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard premiered on the West End starring Patti LuPone. The following year it opened on Broadway with Glenn Close and less than two years later, in 1996, Melbourne’s Regent Theatre reopened in style with the original West End production starring Debra Byrne. 

And now, set to spoil a new generation of audiences after opening at the Princess Theatre Wednesday night, Opera Australia and GWB  Entertainment have created a lavish new production directed by Paul Warwick Griffin, headlining Sarah Brightman. 

Lloyd Webber’s lush score with book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton – neatly adapted from Wilder’s film while retaining all of its classic lines – is, overall, given absorbing and energetic momentum under Warwick Griffin’s direction.

Three gunshots ring out, followed by the image of Gillis’ floating dead body in the Sunset Boulevard mansion pool, to set the story rolling in film-honouring fashion. 

Similarly, the 1940s Hollywood era is captured splendidly by set and costume designer Morgan Large from the opening at the familiar Paramount Studios gates and its studio interiors to the neon-lit simplicity of popular hangout Schwabs Pharmacy. 

SUNSET BOULEVARD AUSTRALIA 2024 Sarah Brightman photo by Daniel BoudBut it is the exotic and breath-taking construct of the Spanish-influenced interior of Norma’s mansion with its ornate carvings and grand staircase that is the show’s pièce de résistance. Mark Henderson’s dramatic, predominantly noirish lighting is also a winning signature along with video designer George Reeve’s evocative projections.

Sunset Boulevard‘s magnetic focus is the delusional, faded queen of silent movies, Norma Desmond, frozen in her self-obsessed world of celebrity fame and wealth, cut-off and unable to process realities that face her. When they do, she responds with manipulative tears and, tragically, suicidal attempts. Worse, she is capable of and commits murder.

With the spotlight on her, the role of Norma deceives as being the story’s star but the true star is narrator and struggling script writer, Joe Gillis, who becomes entrapped in her world and her arms. Gillis is the engine that keeps Sunset Boulevard running and, nailing the role in outstanding form, Tim Draxl is the complete and convincing package. 

SUNSET BOULEVARD AUSTRALIA 2024 Tim Draxl photo by Daniel BoudDraxl excellently essays Gillis’ outwardly confident suavity and candid approach, with Gillis’ underlying insecurities and unease with his own opportunism supported by Draxl’s powerfully shaded and dynamic voice.

Opening Act 2 with the title song, Sunset Boulevard, Draxl deservedly brought the house down on opening night – and it wasn’t for his six-pack-revealing good looks. 

Despite looking every bit the glamorously endowed star, disappointingly, Brightman’s performance might be considered memorable for what it misses. Much of the time is limited to sweeping the air with swirling gestures – no doubt channelling Salome, the subject of Norma’s hopeless script for a Hollywood comeback – the crazed, psychotic and creepy Norma rarely surfaces and the voice lacks uplift and colour with diction lost in persistent vibrato. 

Brightman does make Act 2’s oft-performed show tune, As If We Never Said Goodbye, a poignant moment as she sings in Cecil B. DeMille’s Studio 18. What feels to let it down is the lengthiness under the spotlight, seated, with the studio team stiff in the background when the opportunity was there for Norma to work the room. It makes seeing the alternative Norma, Silvie Paladino, grappling the role a more exciting prospect. 

The two leads are surrounded by talent in truckloads. Norma’s butler and later to be revealed first husband and director, Max Von Mayerling, who made Norma a star and sings The Greatest Star of Allis wonderfully characterised by Robert Grubb with a glacial facade and a voice spanning much from gravelly resonance to paper thin finesse. 

The ambitious and optimistic script reader Betty Shaefer – in a relationship with affable and upbeat Artie Greene, who Jarrod Draper plays handsomely, but falls in love with Gillis – is illuminated by Ashleigh Rubenach’s delightfully breezy performance and fine sweet voice. 

There are solid performances from Troy Sussman as Gillis’ smug, hardball agent, Sheldrake, Paul Hanlon’s diplomatic Cecil B. DeMille and, as part of Ashley Wallen’s eclectically choreographed sequences, Dean Vince leads a dapper contingent of outfitters in the camp and cheesy, The Lady’s Paying

The Company of SUNSET BOULEVARD AUSTRALIA 2024 photo by Daniel BoudThe ensemble shine throughout and step in perfect time or pad the story with great vigour, beginning with the infectiously melodious Let’s Do Lunch. And the 16-piece band led by musical director Paul Christ belie their size, with a rich and full sound emanating from the pit. 

Lloyd Webber relies on much repetition in his mostly sung-through score, especially with two little melodies of less than a couple of dozen notes that seemingly define it. They’re certainly endearing on the one hand but do wear thin on the other. 

Nevertheless, it’s a punchy, entertaining show, somewhat less dark in its portrayal of Norma’s troubled mind than expectations, and bound to win new fans. And, if you haven’t seen Wilder’s classic film, have a few drinks with friends and sit yourself down for it. 

Sunset Boulevard
Princess Theatre, 163 Spring Street, Melbourne
Performance: Wednesday 29 May 2024
Season continues to 11 August 2024

Following the Melbourne season, Sunset Boulevard will play the Sydney Opera House from 28 August 2024. For more information, visit: for details.

Images: Robert Grubb, Sarah Brightman and Tim Draxl star in Sunset Boulevard – photo by Daniel Boud | Sarah Brightman stars in Sunset Boulevard – photo by Daniel Boud | Tim Draxl stars in Sunset Boulevard – photo by Daniel Boud | The Australian Company of Sunset Boulevard – photo by Daniel Boud

Review: Paul Selar