It's no mystery to anyone familiar with this show that the American Premiere Recording bests this version on most levels. Nor is it surprising, considering the score needed a bit of work when this World Premiere Recording was made. Audiences knew it. Critics knew it. Even Andrew Lloyd Webber knew it, which may explain why -- to a greater extent than ever before -- he made some rather sweeping revisions before bringing the show to America, then later incorporated those changes into the London production.
All the tweaking and tightening paid off, it seems. Each change is a major improvement, and the score - and show - that premiered in Los Angeles in 1995 starring Glenn Close is far superior to the one seen by London audiences almost two years earlier. The American Premiere Recording benefits from those improvements, and boasts heightened production values that deliver all the necessary panache of a Broadway cast recording without ever descending to the silliness or slickness of pop opera. Sunset Boulevard remains musical theater in every sense of the word.
So, if the American recording is so vastly improved over this one, why even bother with it? Perhaps the answer lies in the freshness and naivety of a new score - the thrill of the gamble: will this show become the stuff of Broadway legend, or a soon-to-be-forgotten flop? There's only one chance at this kind of excitement; once the singers know they're recording a hit, the fragile bubble is burst. There may be subsequent recordings that far outshine the original, but there's still only ONE original. This World Premiere Recording of Sunset Boulevard suffers from a score that still needed work, a horrid supporting cast, muddled sound mixing in many places, and lack of completeness. But it is STILL the original, and the later recordings have benefited from the 20/20 of hindsight.
Only Patti LuPone shines as the twisted, tragic Norma Desmond, a monster of an ex-movie queen, obsessively trying to recapture a hey-day as irrelevant and irretrievable as the primitive technology upon which it depended. LuPone's was a performance dominated by her big voice, a magnificent instrument capable of lovingly caressing a melody with an eiderdown shudder, or blasting to the second balcony with equal dexterity. As pure ear candy, the Patti LuPone cuts on this recording stand as definitive.
But, in the theater, a good voice - even a phenomenal voice like Miss LuPone's - does not guarantee a proper fit between character and actress. The singing voice is part of the performance, and, thus, must fit the character. It is in this respect that Patti LuPone was miscast, and no matter how glorious her vocalization, there is no escaping the fact that she was clearly wrong for the role.
As interpreted by LuPone, Norma Desmond was anything but a has-been. After all, anyone who could sell a song that well could certainly sell the studio executives on the idea of resurrecting the long-forgotten genre of silent films, and Cecille B. DeMille on directing it. That the story line dooms Norma to failure in her venture is at odds with LuPone's interpretation of the role: this Norma simply would not fail. After all, with that voice, how could she?
Other than her vocal prowess, major hindrances to LuPone's believability were her age and beauty at the time of production - right around 44, and a vibrantly attractive woman, obviously very much in her prime. Perhaps the blueprint for portraying Norma Desmond should be Gloria Swanson's creation of the role in the 1950 film. Although herself a handsome woman, Swanson chose to show Norma as a grotesque creature, exaggerating the make-up and screen queen mannerisms so that she resembled a cross between a debauched transvestite and a hideous medusa. No man in his right mind would take up with such a revolting woman - unless substantial compensation was involved. Hence William Holden's "selling out" was made perfectly clear. He was in it for the money. Swanson also made Norma's eventual descent into homicidal madness all the more captivating; not only was she a walking sideshow, she was nuts, to boot.
Patti LuPone's Norma was no grotesque creature. This is obvious, not only from the production photos included in the CD booklet, but in her lusty renditions of several songs - most notably "The Lady's Paying." In this number, Norma, the quintessential control freak, hires an exclusive men's clothier to remodel Joe into her vision of the well-dressed man. Her almost lascivious reading of several lines ("I love flannel on a man" is rife with double entendre.) makes it clear to all but the pre-pubescent that Norma is hard at work turning Joe into her personal boy-toy. While this adds a comic dimension to an otherwise infuriatingly manipulative woman, it robs the upcoming New Year's Eve scene of its dramatic punch. It's at THAT point we're supposed to find out that Norma's a horny old broad with indecent designs on the youngster. But Patti's already given that away in the previous scene. And, given her sensuous portrayal up to that point, why would Joe bother to refuse?
Being unceremoniously dropped from the upcoming Broadway premiere was, undoubtedly, heart-breaking to Miss LuPone. And, Webber, undoubtedly, was pulled down a peg or two in the eyes of the theater community. Still, there's no denying he made the right choice. Perhaps, had Miss LuPone the benefit of the revised score and script, her performance might have clicked. We'll never know. What we have, instead, is a recording that preserves the work of one of the greatest female vocalists the stage has ever known, and a show - in its infancy - on its way to being the solidly consistent work that premiered in America two years later. As a souvenir of a work in progress, this World Premiere Recording stands unparalleled.