Have you seen other productions of Sunset or the film?
I certainly watched the film, my father was an old movie buff so I was made to sit through loads of old black and white movies as a kid. Sunset Boulevard was one of his favourites so I saw the fabulous performance by William Holden and Gloria Swanson and loved it. I had also seen Graham Bickley as Joe Gillis, at the Adelphi, in the original production, with the massive sets and cars that moved and all sorts of extraordinary effects. An astonishing achievement on stage with what they did with John Napier’s design. So all in all I knew the show really well but it is one of the few musicals of Andrew’s that I didn’t have the score to. Although I had seen it and loved it I didn’t know the music as well as perhaps I knew Phantom or Superstar, or The Beautiful Game!
How do you think your interpretation of Joe varies from others?
That’s a question that is easier for other people to answer! I don’t know, all I can say is that I wanted to approach it purely from the page and how it came to me by reading and listening to it. I didn’t want to listen to other versions of it because it is very easy in a vocal line to hear different nuances and to copy those and so, working with Sarah Travis and Craig Revel Horwood, I wanted very specifically for it to be fresh to us. I think what I wanted to achieve was to find a balance for Joe so that he wasn’t a victim but also that he wasn’t the master of his own destruction. It would be very easy to play him as a villain or as an under the thumb bloke, and I think what makes the character interesting is that he is fully aware of what he is doing but he just can’t stop himself.
Would you say Joe was a strong, or a weak character?
Wow! That’s a very good question! Characteristically I think he is a strong guy but, like a lot of men who are obsessed with their own ego, that incurs weaknesses. I think he is a strong guy but he has weathered the storm once too often and so he is leaving doors open that he maybe wouldn’t have done in his early 20s. I think his cynicism allows mistakes that he wouldn’t have made when he was younger.
Do you like him?
I like parts of him! I love his sense of humour and when he is making fun of a situation, using that acerbic wit that Don Black writes so well. It would be very hard to like him wholly as a character because he is so divisive. But in the parts where Don Black and Christopher Hampton allow you to see his lighter side I think you can see an element of the guy that he was before he got himself holed up in this mess and I think he was a loveable kind of guy. Very funny and very sharp which makes you believe he probably was a great writer before he got so embittered.
What do you think persuades Joe to make the pivotal decision to stay with Norma?
I can only tell you what goes through my/Joe’s head every night. It is an incredible mix of a sense of duty and a sense that there is no other way to go. I think he weighs up the options. Norma says to him to leave, but where is he going to go? He’s screwed, and he has been given the opportunity here with someone who he likes – he finds her extraordinarily frustrating, as she is – but at the end of the day he does like her. But as far as the decision goes I don’t think he has a choice. If you look at the story just as it comes off the page, what other options has he got?
Do you think Joe is ever in love with Norma?
I don’t think he loves her. I think that is what makes the decision [to stay] so dramatic. I think if the audience could see he was in love with Norma it would be an easy decision and therefore would make the story less interesting.
When we asked the question of Kathryn (Norma) and she said….
(Ben interjects)… She said she believes Joe loves Norma! Yes, I know she does and that is great that she thinks that. It would be wrong if she didn’t. Norma needs to think that Joe loves her and Joe is happy for Norma to think that.
What is it like working with Strictly Come Dancing’s Mr Nasty (Craig Revel Horwood?)
It’s very funny and I have talked about this with Craig, we are in fact great mates and have known each other since a previous show we did together at the Watermill. I have never seen Strictly so this whole Mr Nasty kind of panto baddie that he plays on that show I am completely bemused by. He is the most brilliant director, whose attention to detail is flawless. The way he manages to create fluidity when people are carrying double basses and saxophones around whilst not detracting from the story is an extraordinary achievement. So I can only comment as a friend and as a director and I love him as both. As far as the Mr Nasty stuff goes, you will have to ask someone who has watched the show! Actually…. I did watch a very brief clip of this with him once in Newbury and he said, “Oh darling, watch this it’s awful!” (Ben lapses into a very accurate impersonation of Craig!). “They are going to get me to do “Cha cha chaaaaaaa again…” and I was really confused about it, and said “but Craig it’s not you… I just don’t understand it!”. He said “It’s just another role, sweetheart”.
What do you feel are the advantages of such a scaled down production?
I think it is the story. From various pieces I have read about what inspired Andrew to write a musical of Sunset Boulevard, it is the story. It is, without question, an incredibly rich, brilliant piece of writing by Billy Wilder. I don’t want to say that the Adelphi detracted from the story but the sets were very apparent and when you have essentially got a story which is driven by four characters they can become swamped by a huge stage. The house became a character in its own right and I don’t think the house should have done. It’s not important enough and I think you can sense the trappings of wealth through things like a bracelet, through the faded grandeur which is a dusty stairway. The sense of claustrophobia that our small production has reflects how Joe feels all the time. And how Norma feels too, because she can’t branch out into her world anymore. It’s not really pared down in that the story is the same, it’s just by making the production a lot smaller, the story is allowed to be much bigger.
How does it differ playing it in the West End as opposed to Newbury?
I think the Watermill at Newbury is one of the most extraordinary theatres in the country and if I could play one theatre once a year for the rest of my life I would play Newbury. It is very good for an actor’s soul. It allows you to play in a way that you can’t on a big stage. The audience is so close. In fact at some points in the play I would be leaning forward and you can actually feel the breath of the person in the audience on you, it’s that close. For an actor it allows you to do acting which you would probably normally reserve for a camera. You can be very small and you can be incredibly real and it is not often with musicals, particularly with operatic scores like Sunset, that allow you to act in that way. You normally have to pay lip service to the sweeping scores that are put in front of you. So I love Newbury. However, what was very noticeable, and I think I speak for all of us, when we moved onto the bigger stage, it was as if all the stuff we had been holding back, all that tension on the surface we were allowed to release and personally, although I loved working at Newbury, the transfer gave this show an extra element which was needed. We wanted to keep it intimate, but here the music is allowed to soar. And that score, which I think is Andrew’s masterpiece, needs a bigger space to hit. For example, from my own point of view, doing the last big note in Sunset Boulevard, which is the crux of Joe’s thoughts on Hollywood. When it is travelling 15 metres to the back of the Watermill it is not as satisfying as when you hit it and you can hear it going right to the back of the gods… it’s a fantastic feeling because you really feel you are being allowed to release Joe’s passion to the full.
What is your favourite part of the show?
My favourite part is so tiny! It’s when Joe and Norma are first getting to know each other because it is such an extraordinary clash of characters. They are circling each other and my very favourite part is when she says “SIT down!” There is a kind of contract being offered, and then he signs it right there and then. Although as an actor it is not the most dramatic bit the contact that Kathryn (Norma) and I have at that time, I just love it. The other bit I love of course is the duet, Too Much In Love To Care, I love getting my teeth into that and playing opposite an actress so organic as Laura (Pitt Pulford, Betty Schaefer), where we can just chop and change and flow off each other.
Have you ever had any scary moments in the show?
Yes – do you want a list! You mean like actor scary? Oh god yes. There is nowhere to hide on that set if something happens. Particularly for Joe who hardly ever leaves the stage. He is always downstage centre, in the spotlight! I have done the most appalling – forgive me Don Black if you read this – lyric. Just last week I went to the front of the stage and I was supposed to say (sings) “I had to get out, I needed to be with people my own age…” just after Norma slaps Joe. I turned around to face the front and sang “I had to get out and… plah plah plaaaaah blah blaaah and hear the sound of the flah flaaah flah……” it was horrendous. I was in the spotlight just mumbling nonsense. I got my tongue completely tied. There is another line which is “You’re really gonna give it to DeMille?” and for about three nights in a row I just could not say it… I said “You’re really gonna give it to d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-de Mille…” I went all g-g-g-g-Granville. But I think in a part where he literally doesn’t stop for 2 hours I am allowed to make the very occasional mistake. But don’t tell too many people!
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