When it was announced that Sammi Cannold would helm a new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black, and Christopher Hampton’s Sunset Boulevard, she got a text from a friend that said: “Can’t wait to see your feminist production of Sunset Boulevard.”
Responds Cannold to Playbill: “I guess the fact that I am a young woman gives me the ability to uniquely, just by virtue of who I am, have a distinct point of view on pieces. I don’t disdain the fact that the musicals I direct were written by men. I relish in the opportunity as a woman to add another layer of perspective.”
Sadly, it is pretty notable to see a major Sunset production being led by a woman. It’s a story that has almost exclusively been written and directed by men, whether we’re talking the original 1950 film or the 1994 stage musical adaptation, both its original production and its major subsequent revivals.
For the uninitiated, Sunset Boulevard centers on Norma Desmond, a faded silent film star that Hollywood has passed by. She lives in near seclusion in her palatial 1920s-style mansion with no one but her devoted butler, Max. When Joe, a young and struggling screenwriter, impulsively stashes his car in her open garage while trying to ditch debt collectors, Norma rekindles her plans for a triumphant screen comeback in an epic film adaptation of Salomé. She persuades Joe to move in while he works on revising her unwieldy screenplay. The further Joe is taken into Norma’s world, the more delusion and madness he finds. And the longer he stays, the more unlikely it seems he’ll ever be able to break free at all.
The original film, and Gloria Swanson’s Academy Award-nominated performance, is heightened to the point of near operatic proportions. Its screenplay, co-written by director Billy Wilder with Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr., is eminently quotable. “Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” one of Hollywood’s most referenced quotes of all time, is Sunset Boulevard’s iconic final line. Add in a few soaring Lloyd Webber power ballads for the stage version and you’ve got the recipe for some real diva worshipping audiences. As with many projects whose heightened sensibilities border on camp, fans of Sunset both on stage and screen can find themselves wondering if what they’re watching is intended to be dramatic or humorous—and if the latter, whether they’re being invited to laugh with Norma or at Norma.
But Cannold is anything but intimidated. And she certainly knows her way around here when it comes to bringing a female—and yes, feminist—point of view to classic musicals with tricky central female roles. Kennedy Center’s upcoming revival of the musical—which runs February 1-8 at the D.C. venue—is not even her first time doing so with an Andrew Lloyd Webber score. She staged Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita for a week-long run at New York City Center in 2019, where she split the role of Eva Peron between two actresses (the younger, innocent Eva and the more experienced, ambitious Evita). Cannold's take on the controversial Argentinian First Lady was so well received that the production is getting a future life. Her next project after Sunset is more a fully realized production of her Evita at Massachusetts’ American Repertory Theatre that starts in May. And there may be life for the production after Boston, as well.
According to Cannold, it’s no mistake that both reimagined revivals have featured scores by Lloyd Webber. “Andrew is really open to additional points of view. He understands that for work to live on, you have to figure out what new generations are going to respond to,” she shares.
Those points of view are central to Cannold’s desire to work on revivals at all. She cites advice she got while working as an associate for Tony-winning director Rachel Chavkin, who told her, “You shouldn’t direct a revival unless you have something new to say about it.” In a field overwhelmingly dominated by male writers and directors, Cannold’s “something new” is baked into who she is.
And yet, when that friend texted about her feminist Sunset Boulevard, Cannold’s first reaction was to wonder what exactly that would look like for this piece. Working with her Norma, Tony winner Stephanie J. Block, Cannold decided to focus on bringing nuance to Norma Desmond, highlighting elements of the show’s text that illuminate how she came to be in the mental state in which we find her. “It’s about humanizing her as much as we can,” says Cannold. “As I was reading about silent film stars like Gloria Swanson, I learned that for much of them, their careers ended when they gained too much weight or had too many wrinkles on their face." That theme continues into today; Every season, body types and cosmetic procedures go in and out of fashion with lightning speed.
Muses Cannold: "The entertainment industry continues to have a very toxic relationship with women and their bodies, and it’s something that I think this show gives us the opportunity to talk about. We are exploring why she’s no longer working, what it is that caused her to leave the industry. I want to engender empathy towards her and make us understand her, to not see her as a creature. Here is a woman who has gone a little off the deep end—but it’s because of what this system did to her.”
Part of that story plays out in its casting. Norma Desmond has become a role that is cast with grand dames of the theatre, with a roster that has included Patti LuPone, Elaine Paige, Betty Buckley, Rita Moreno, Diahann Carroll, and Petula Clark, to name but a few. When Block brought the idea of starring in Sunset to the Kennedy Center’s Vice President Jeffrey Finn, the first reaction she got was that she wasn’t old enough. Block pushed back, pointing out that at 50 years old, she’s the exact age Swanson was in the original film.
More importantly, bringing the role back to that age is integral to Cannold’s nuanced take on the material. Her Norma is not an elderly woman, someone audiences might write off as suffering from dementia. As a damaged woman in her 50s, it is clear that Norma is the product of an industry that has thrown her out when it decided she was no longer useful—something still relevant considering the lack of leading roles in entertainment for middle aged and older women. “Stephanie is coming at it from a very authentic perspective,” shares Cannold. “She knows what it’s like to be 50, to be in this industry, to be fixated on how the industry sees her.”
According to Cannold, this new POV won’t require any changes to the text. She’s hoping her take on the piece will highlight what’s already there in a piece that she’s always loved. “I love the way it makes us think from different points of view than our own,” reflects Cannold. “It holds the capacity to make audiences think, to challenge audiences in a way that a lot of musicals don’t.”
And don’t worry. Though she’s shifting some focus and hoping to deepen audiences’ understanding of Norma’s character, Cannold knows she has to keep part of what’s made Sunset Boulevard a cult classic all these years—some of that camp is just baked in. “Our production still gives Stephanie J. Block in 72 different outfits—I mean, it’s Stephanie J. Block!” The greatest star of all, indeed.