Sunset Boulevard

by | May 30, 2024

Review by Bronwyn Cook

“Madame is the greatest star of them all.”


Said of Norma Desmond, the same applies to Sarah Brightman.


My maternal grandparents always had music playing in the house. Sometimes it was classical, sometimes it was musical theatre soundtracks. I grew up listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber. My most beloved shows are Andrew Lloyd Webber shows. Seeing any of his shows is always a joy for me, but to see his long-time muse Sarah Brightman star in one of them…well, I can tell you it’s a core memory now safely locked away.

After its Australian premiere at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne in 1996 (starring Debra Byrne and Hugh Jackman), this new, incredibly lavish production of Sunset Boulevard is presented by Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment by arrangement with The Really Useful Group.


It also marks Brightman’s return to the theatre stage for the first time in more than three decades, marking her global debut as faded silent-movie star Norma Desmond, a role made famous by Glenn Close and more recently played by Nicole Scherzinger.


Even though Sunset is based on a 1950s film, many of its core themes ring true today. At what price comes fame? How long can you cling to fame? What lies – white or otherwise – do we tell loved ones to protect them? At what cost comes love?

If you’ve not seen any iteration of Sunset Boulevard before, here is a quick synopsis.


Hollywood, 1949. Joe Gillis (Tim Draxl) is a down on his luck screenwriter trying to find work at Paramount Studios. In an attempt to hide from debt collectors, Gillis crashes into a mansion on Sunset Boulevard, where he is greeted by Max Von Mayerling (Robert Grub) and ushered into the house. Here, Gillis meets Norma Desmond (Sarah Brightman), a movie star clinging onto her glory days, living in a land of delusion and sadness. Desmond asks Gillis to help her re-write her comeback movie “Salome”, and after initial resistance, Gillis gradually succumbs to the lavish life of comfort offered to him by Desmond. He has glimpses of real life from his friends Artie Green (Jarrod Draper) and Betty Schaefer (Ashleigh Rubenach) but spurns them to return to Desmond. However, as Desmond’s reality unravels, and Gillis learns the truth about Von Mayerling, he flees into the arms of Schaefer. There is no Hollywood happy ending, as Desmond descends into madness.


Lavish is the word I have for this production. The sets and costumes (Morgan Large) are breathtaking, especially Norma’s wardrobe, which I now highly covet. They ooze Hollywood glamour, and luxury, and decadence, but at the same time the sadness and underlying darkness of the show, with lighting design by Mark Henderson.


The choreography from Ashley Wallen is sharp and crisp, and was especially delightful during the more humorous number “The Lady’s Paying” (in which ensemble members Dean Vince, Peter Ho and Tom Sharah nearly stole the show away). Side note: Tom Sharah is playing the same role (Sammy and others) his father, Sal Sharah, originated in the 1996 production.

Even though this was my very first time seeing Sunset Boulevard (in any form), I was surprised at just how many of the songs I knew. I know that comes from the previously mentioned music playing in my grandparents house, and from being a lifelong ALW fan, but I think it also comes from how musically similar I found Sunset to be to Phantom of the Opera. Like Phantom, Sunset has very little straight spoken dialog, with the majority of dialog set to reprises and melodies from the songs. And given that Sarah Brightman was the muse for Christine in Phantom, and it has been stated that Norma was written musically for her voice, the similarities are to be expected.

Bringing Lloyd Weber’s glorious music to life, alongside the book and lyrics from Don Black and Christopher Hampton, is the Melbourne orchestra, with musical direction from Paul Christ and Associate Musical Direction & Keys by Simon Holt and Matthew Carey. The 20+ piece orchestra were sublime, as haunting and powerful as the lyrics and acting themselves.

As well as the more well known numbers of “With One Look”, “Sunset Boulevard”, “The Perfect Year” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye”, I highly enjoyed the aforementioned “The Lady’s Paying” and “This Time Next Year”.

There are some interesting discussions on Sarah Brightman’s performance and voice. Reviewing is subjective, as it should be, and everyone’s opinion both matters and is valid and different. What is undeniable of Brightman’s performance is the sheer gravitas she brings to the stage. You could hear a pin drop during all of her numbers and she moves far more sprightly than people half her age. For me, personally, whilst the lyrics in some numbers were hard to comprehend (performing can sometimes overshadow singing), this is overcome by when she soars during “As If We Never Said Goodbye”, her overall acting, stage presence and her inhabitation of Norma Desmond.


And the fact that she is, undeniably, musical theatre royalty and Australian audiences are so extremely lucky to see her on-stage.


Tim Draxl has a voice as smooth as silk and plays the tormented Gillis with panache, style, charm and grace. It has to be a challenge to partner with someone like Brightman (and our very own Silvie Paladino, as the Norma Desmond alternate), but he meets the challenge aptly.

Ashleigh Rubenach is fastly making the Princess Theatre her second home, having just concluded playing Nancy in Groundhog Day. As Betty Schaefer, Rubenach is a pure delight, with a beautifully clear voice and lovely timing with both Draxl and Draper.

As Artie Green, I found myself wishing and willing Jarrod Draper to have more stage time, but you can’t rewrite the book! For when he is on stage, Draper is magnificent and is cementing his place in the leading men of Australian musical theatre. Draper also serves as an inspiration & leader for Indigenous performers in musical theatre and is a proud Wiradjuri man.

It’s not often you get to perform in the premier of a show, and then nearly 30 years later, be in the same show as one of the principle cast. But that’s exactly Robert Grubbs journey. In the original Australian production he was Sheldrake, and in this production he is Desmond’s butler, chauffeur, secret-keeper, enabler and companion Max Von Mayerling. I’ve seen Grubb in a few productions over the years, but his turn in Sunset may be his best year. His performance of “The Greatest Star of All” and “New Ways to Dream (Reprise)” were exceptional. It’s always a thrill to see an actor in a role that seems tailor made for them, as Grubb seems for Von Mayerling.

Sunset Boulevard rightly deserves its place as a musical theatre classic, and this iteration of it is no exception. It’s sumptuous, decadent, indulgent, dark and rich. It turns a lens on fame and fortune and asks “is it worth it”?


If I could, I would honestly give 6 stars, as a credit to everyone involved in this exceptional production.


Sunset Boulevard is now playing at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne’s East End Theatre District.

For more information and tickets:
Photo credit: Daniel Boud

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