Following the relatively intimate and commercially disappointing Aspects of Love, musical theater composer Andrew Lloyd Webber has sought another blockbuster on the order of Evita or Phantom of the Opera in Sunset Boulevard, an adaptation of director Billy Wilder's 1950 film noir classic about the relationship between a cynical, down-on-his-luck screenwriter and a deranged, middle-aged silent-film star. As set to music here, it actually comes off as a cross between Evita and Phantom of the Opera, with an unsympathetic female star at its center and a backstage story. And Lloyd Webber, working with lyricist-librettists Don Black and Christopher Hampton (with three others mysteriously credited in little boxes in the CD booklet for their contributions to the "development" of the show), copies much of the structures of those works, or perhaps has just found a story that has similarities. As in Evita, the female star is contrasted with a wise-cracking man who narrates the story. This time it's Joe Gillis (Kevin Anderson), played by William Holden in the film, which also used the narration (even though Gillis is floating dead in a pool at the start of the movie, which proceeds in flashback). As in Phantom of the Opera, the main character's obsession with a younger protégé leads to madness and tragedy. Nor has Lloyd Webber shied away from repeating himself musically. In fact, it is often possible to cite a song from his earlier works he's rewritten here. "Girl Meets Boy" owes something to Aspects of Love's "Love Changes Everything"; "This Time Next Year" is a variation on "Any Dream Will Do" from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat; and, like "Rainbow High" in Evita, "The Lady's Paying" is a celebration of shopping for clothes. Lloyd Webber does evoke Hollywood movie music with one of his recurring themes, and "Let's Have Lunch" is set to a period swing band arrangement. But much of the music is essentially recycled.
Happily, the singing actors are excellent, starting with Anderson, who is really the central figure, despite the hoopla surrounding the character of Norma Desmond, the aging movie queen. Anderson's Gillis is not just a musical version of the Holden portrayal; he has a little less of Holden's hard edge, a little more sympathy for the other characters. But he is just as hard on himself. In secondary parts, Meredith Braun and Daniel Benzali are equally impressive. Best of all is Patti LuPone, who, having won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Eva Peron in Evita, knows her way around Lloyd Webber and how to play an anti-heroine. Lloyd Webber has written her some big ballads, the show's best music -- "With One Look," "New Ways to Dream," and "As If We'd Never Said Goodbye." And with her powerful, expressive voice, she navigates them easily. But her acting, documented on a double album full of dialogue, also comes across well, as she fills out the character of Norma Desmond. Again, her portrayal is not simply a singing Gloria Swanson, her film predecessor, but a completely realized, personal portrayal of the deluded star who actually does become at least a little sympathetic by the end. The cast is enough to partially mask Sunset Boulevard's status as second-drawer Lloyd Webber.