Sunset Boulevard is a musical with book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Based on Billy Wilder’s Academy Award-winning 1950 film of the same title, the plot revolves around Norma Desmond, a faded star of the silent screen era, living in the past in her decaying mansion on the fabled Los Angeles street. When young screenwriter Joe Gillis accidentally crosses her path, she sees in him an opportunity to make her return to the big screen. Romance and tragedy follow.
Sunset Boulevard the musical – synopsis 1993
Hollywood, 1950. Joe Gillis observes his own dead body in a swimming pool as he remarks that a homicide has been reported (“Prologue”).
We flash back to six months earlier. Struggling screenwriter Joe has a meeting at Paramount Studios with big boss Sheldrake about his script Bases Loaded. The appointment goes badly when Sheldrake’s assistant, Betty Schaefer, eviscerates Joe’s work. Sheldrake also refuses to lend Joe $300 for car payments (“Let’s Have Lunch”).
Betty suggests that she and Joe work together on one of his earlier stories, Blind Windows, as she believes he has real talent (“Betty’s Pitch”).
Joe is spotted by repo men who are after his car and bolts (“Car Chase”). He gives them the slip on Sunset Boulevard by pulling into the garage of a palatial but decaying mansion. Joe is summoned into the house by a butler, Max, and an older lady, Norma Desmond. They have confused him with a funeral director, who had been summoned to bury Norma’s much-loved pet monkey (“After Car Chase”).
Norma sings a lullaby to the chimpanzee (“Surrender”). Joe finally manages to communicate that he’s not there for the monkey. He realizes he recognizes the woman—she is the once legendary film star Norma Desmond. “You used to be in pictures; you used to be big,” Joe observes. “I am big — it’s the pictures that got small!” retorts Norma (“Once Upon a Time”). Joe reveals he is a writer. Norma sings of how with her on-camera skills she doesn’t need words to convey a story (“With One Look”).
Norma tells Joe that she has been writing a very important (dialogueless) script about Salome, which will be directed by Cecile B. DeMille. She is intending to play the teenage temptress herself. They strike a deal that Joe will edit the work and he moves into a room above the garage (“Salome”).
Max sings of Norma’s previous fame and how obsessed her fans had been with her (“The Greatest Star of All”).
Young Hollywood meets at Schwab’s Drugstore and commiserates about how tough the movie business is (“Schwab’s Drugstore”). Betty is there with her fiancé Artie, waiting for Joe, who is late. When Joe arrives, it transpires that he and Artie are friends. While Artie takes a call, a jaded Joe and optimistic Betty discuss Blind Windows. Joe gives Betty the project to do herself over her objections (“Girl Meets Boy Part I”). Artie returns and invites Joe to his New Year’s Eve Party (“Girl Meets Boy Part 2″).
Joe heads back to the house and is scolded by Max, who reveals that Norma is fragile and has been suicidal at times. Max admits that he writes all the fan letters Norma still receives. Joe sets to work on Salome, which is a fragmented mess, however Norma is reluctant to make edits (“I Started Work on the Script”).
Joe and Norma watch one of her old movies together, which has become a regular occurrence (“New Ways to Dream”).
The rains come in December and through the roof of Joe’s room so he’s moved into the house, to what Max calls “the Room of the Husbands.” Joe has finished work on the script but his car has now been found and taken away by the repo men—and he’s still yet to be paid by Norma. Max delivers the script to DeMille at Paramount in Norma’s old grand car. Joe makes moves to leave but Norma won’t hear of it. She says the script is just at the first draft stage and that she needs his full support. He agrees to stay until they hear back from Paramount (“Transition to the Lady’s Paying”).
Norma gifts Joe a new wardrobe for his birthday. He is reluctant to accept but Norma is determined he will be properly attired from now on. Norma insists that Joe attends her New Year’s Eve party instead of Artie’s (“The Lady’s Paying”).
At Norma’s New Year’s Eve party, it transpires that she hasn’t invited anyone apart from Joe (“New Year Tango”). Her possessiveness overwhelms him (“The Perfect Year”). Joe leaves (“I Had to Get Out”).
Joe reconnects with Betty at Artie’s New Year’s Eve party. She asks for more help on Blind Windows and he agrees he’ll assist. The party guests fantasize about all the success the New Year will bring (“This Time Next Year”). Joe calls the house so Max can deliver his belongings to Artie’s. Max tells him that Norma has attempted suicide (After “This Time Next Year” (Underscore)). The clock strikes midnight (“Auld Lang Syne”).
Joe returns to the house—and to Norma…
We open with Joe lounging by Norma’s reopened swimming pool. He admits he’s become a kept man (“Sunset Boulevard”).
A representative from Paramount calls the house; Norma presumes that it means DeMille wants to work with her again on Salome (“There’s Been a Call”). Three days later, after Norma has consulted her astrologer, she dresses up, and has Max drive her and Joe to Paramount in her old car (“It Took Her Three Days”).
Norma arrives at Paramount and heads to Studio 18 to find DeMille. Joe waits outside. De Mille settles Norma into a director’s chair. An old lighting grip, Hogeye, recognizes Norma and moves his spotlight onto her. Moved, Norma reflects on her return to the movie world (“As If Never Said Goodbye”).
Joe runs into Betty on the lot and he promises he’ll call her about Blind Windows. An assistant approaches Max and reveals that he’s the one that’s been calling as they want to use Norma’s car for a film. De Mille and Norma briefly reminisce. Max tells Joe the real reason why Paramount has been calling (“Paramount Conversations”)
De Mille reflects on Norma and her early career and how she’s never known the meaning of surrender (“Was That Really Norma Desmond”).
Joe and Betty work on Blind Windows together (“Girl Meets Boy” (Reprise)). Artie is stuck shooting a movie in Tennessee.
Norma is on a strict beauty regime to get in shape as she’s still deluded that the Salome project is happening (“A Little Suffering”).
Norma discovers Betty’s phone number amongst Joe’s possessions and confronts him. He says he hasn’t done anything. After Norma departs to bed he reflects how he should have remained at the mansion that night but he had to finish Blind Windows with Betty (“I Should Have Stayed There”).
Betty and Joe complete the script, her first. They go for a walk on the Paramount lot and admit they’ve fallen in love with each other (“Too Much in Love to Care”).
Back at the house on Sunset, Max discloses to Joe that he was one of Norma’s early directors—and her first husband. Max gave up his career to look after Norma when talkies came in (“New Ways to Dream (Reprise)“).
A paranoid Norma calls Betty. Joe intercepts the call and tells Betty to come to the house on Sunset (“The Phone Call”).
A confused Betty arrives at Norma’s mansion (“Betty on the Road”). Joe breaks up with her and tells her to go back to Artie. Betty leaves (“What’s Going on Joe?”).
Joe tells Norma the truth: Paramount will never make Salome, Max writes Norma’s fan mail and that he’s leaving her to go home to Ohio. Norma fatally shoots Joe as he exits the house and he collapses into the swimming pool. Early the next morning, the police and TV cameras await at the foot of the staircase for Norma, who has been driven to madness. Max convinces Norma to come downstairs by telling her she’s on the Salome set. As she finishes her descent she announces: “And now, Mr. DeMille, I am ready for my close-up” (“The Final Scene”).
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics: Don Black and Christopher Hampton