Music Box: Buckley’s Boulevard

Betty Buckley as Norma Desmond

I saw Glenn Close as Norma Desmond in the original Broadway production of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s flawed, erratic and overtly dismal SUNSET BOULEVARD the week it opened back in November 1994, and, despite her undeserved Tony Award win, it was not a very good performance (I saw her twice in the role just to verify/refute my initial reaction). They had to lower the key for her limited range, rearrange the score, and, more often than not, Close seemed lost in the grand spectacle of the staging, something she wasn’t used to as a more intimate stage actress. The show was beneath her skills as an actress. It needs to be said that Close was only one of two actresses nominated as Best Actress in a dim year for musicals (the other being Rebecca Luker for SHOW BOAT) and Broadway overall, so her Tony wasn’t unexpected.


How Close garnered the role is legendary in itself…I just finished reading an advance of Patti LuPone’s autobiography, PATTI LuPONE: A MEMOIR (release date is September 14 – if you’re a theatre buff, PRE-ORDER IT! It’s craaaazy!), who reiterates the horror that was the experience of the show – especially the back-stabbing and the mendacity attributed to the producers and, especially, Webber himself. The chapters of LuPone’s book were a mesmerizing read.

Once Close left the role, in stepped Betty Buckley – and I was astonished at what she was able to do bring to it. She resurrected Norma back to life. Long a Broadway legend for her supernatural voice, Buckley’s performance was stunning, each song a show-stopper.

According to LuPone, she was treated like garbage by Weber and his evil minions – and Broadway will never know what they missed in a Patti “Norma.” There are some YouTube clips posted of her performances that give us a minute taste of what this incandescent lady might have accomplished had she been given the chance.

And here’s a mere taste of what I experienced with Buckley in the role.  I’m not sure if this was from the London production, or from Broadway – I downloaded this clip from YouTube, and the poster didn’t say.  The audio was low, so I encoded it at a much higher rate.

To witness Buckley on stage is to be beholden to one of the greatest forces of nature…an unparalleled gale force.  From her Grizabella in CATS, to her staggering Emma in SONG & DANCE (she replaced the great Bernadette Peters), I’ve been enchanted by them all.  I was there opening night for the much-maligned CARRIE too, and, while the show is legendary for all the right/wrong reasons, I’ll never forget Buckley as Margaret White.  I adored her in the short-lived TRIUMPH OF LOVE in 1998, and of course in THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD a decade earlier.

Betty Buckley can easily brilliantly interpret even the most monumental banalities.  Like an Andrew Lloyd Webber score.



  1. Spot on. I saw Glenn Close in 1994 and, having memorized the soundtrack by that time, was horrified to hear what she did to the songs. Not to mention… she was batshit crazy from her first moment, which left her character nowhere to go. I also saw Betty Buckley a year later, and not only did she save the music, she also gave early Norma back a bit of charm, which made you invest in the character, instead of constantly being creeped out by her. Buckley held the audience in a way I’ve never seen anyone do on stage, not even the great Julie Andrews. She had them, from start to finish, and it was mesmerizing. I’ve seen a lot of Broadway shows, and her version of “As If We Never Said Goodbye” is probably the most thrilling moment (and the longest standing, screaming ovation) I’ve ever seen in a live performance. I also like that she stayed above the backstage drama and waited until the dust settled, then did her thing when she was called. It’s a shame for her that she didn’t open in NYC and therefore was ineligible for the Tony.

  2. It’s a pity that you were so blind when you saw Glenn Close in the part. Patti LuPone, God bless her, was terrible as Norma. I was excited by her being cast, but I was utterly disappointed when I saw her. The craziest and bitchiest of them all played a sedate Norma. Glenn Close was the perfect actress in the perfect musical. Andrew Lloyd Webber did a great job, no matter what you say. Your opinions are usually arrogant and prejudiced when it comes to his scores, anyway. But I digress. I agree with you at least in one thing: Betty Buckley was brilliant. I’d say she was as perfect as Glenn. A different interpretation, but perfect, nonetheless. Patti is amazing, but I too would have opened the show in NY with Glenn. I’m glad they did it. Patti should have followed Glenn in LA and then in NY. It would have been important for her to develop some humility and save face. Her book is a largely fictionalized account of what really happened, everyone in the business knows that. She never liked Glenn, after all Kevin Kline dated Glenn before dating her. She never got over Kevin, even now. But she was a great Evita and no matter how many times she tries to convince us that she had a miserable time during the original run, it’s all a big fat lie. Evita was the pinnacle of her career. Gypsy was the consolation prize. And Women on the Verge was the true crowning achievement, but not a lot of people were there to witness it. A pity.

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