I’ve been going to the theater since I was 12 years old, but until recently I had never been to a final performance. Okay, for the many years I was a theater critic, I did attend some final performances—because the shows opened and then closed almost immediately.
But this Sunday matinee of Sunset Boulevard starring Glenn Close was very, very different. First and foremost, it was an Event, a celebration of Glenn Close’s magnificent portrayal of Norma Desmond, the aging and delusional star of silent movies who believes she can–and should–return to the silver screen.
Ms. Close sets the tone of her performance in the earliest scene, after writer Joe Gillis (played by Michael Xavier), says: “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be big.” She delivers the next memorable lines with the hauteur of an empress: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
When the play opened (during a snowstorm) on February 9, 2017, critics gave the show so-so reviews, but they were unanimous in recognizing the breathtaking scope and virtuosity of Ms. Close’s performance.
The Chicago Tribune said: “It’s a very tart and terrifying performance at the core of one of the more lush, sentimental and absurd musicals of the later 20th century, and it is quite magnificent.” And from the New York Times: “Ms. Close deploys the declarative physical vocabulary of silent-movie acting to convey a genuine grandeur of spirit and an equally outsize force of will.”
Yet during the final performance of the show, with an audience that was prepared to adore her, somehow Ms. Close delivered even more, as if she reached deep inside herself to take Norma Desmond to even greater heights, showing us with her eyes, her hands, the sweep of her body, the painful reality of a woman who will not accept that her time is over. And almost after every song, especially the iconic “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” the audience thundered its applause, in a two-way conversation that was reminiscent of Italian opera, where the audience unabashedly communicates its emotional reaction to a performance.
As the show marched towards its inevitable conclusion, the audience seemed to hold its collective breath, waiting for Norma to tell an imaginary Cecil B. DeMille that she was ready for her closeup. And when Ms. Close delivered the line, the audience rose as one and with its applause and shouted “Bravas,” told her that she had given them everything they had come for–and more.
The curtain calls went on and on, as if the audience just would not Ms. Close go. In the surprise moment of the evening, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber himself appeared from the wings to present his star with a bouquet of flowers. Ms. Close thanked him for allowing her to learn how to sing–and then noted, to the audience’s great delight, that Sunset Boulevard opened during a snowstorm and closed on Gay Pride Day.
It was one of the most exciting Broadway experiences of my life.