Heitor Villa-Lobos / Sunset Boulevard

Rick Rogers Modified: May 28, 2013 at 12:06 pm •  Published: November 17, 2012

On this day in classical music: Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos died at age 72 in Rio de Janeiro in 1959. Arguably the most popular South American composer of the 20th century, with Alberto Ginastera his nearest competitor, Villa-Lobos was enormously prolific, turning out hundreds of works for orchestra, chamber ensembles, piano, voice and ballet. While his early works showed a strong European influence, Villa-Lobos gradually began incorporating folk songs of indigenous South American cultures into his works. He composed a set of nine works titled “Bachianas Brasileiras,” works that reflected his Latin heritage while paying tribute to Johann Sebastian Bach. The standouts of this series are No. 2 which includes “The Little Train of the Caipira” and No. 5 for soprano and eight cellists. Listen to soprano Amal Brahim Djelloul perform the aria from “Bachianas Brasileiras.”

Heitor Villa-Lobos
Heitor Villa-Lobos

On this day in the musical theatre: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard” opened on Broadway in 1994. Based on the Billy Wilder screenplay about Norma Desmond, a popular film star during the silent era, “Sunset Boulevard” opened in London a year earlier. Desmond is living in her Los Angeles mansion when aspiring screenwriter Joe Gillis happens upon her residence during a rainstorm. Desmond sees Gillis as a way to make her comeback to the big screen. The two have a brief affair but things turn tragic because of Desmond’s jealousy about Gillis. A scandal erupted when London’s Norma Desmond (Patti LuPone) was fired after being promised the role when the show transferred to New York. LuPone sued Lloyd Webber and received a settlement reportedly close to $1 million. When casting was announced for the Broadway production, Glenn Close was tapped to play Norma. The Broadway production earned seven Tony Awards, including best musical, best score, best actress (Close) and best featured actor (George Hearn as Norma’s butler Max). Other notable Normas have included Betty Buckley, Elaine Paige, Diahann Carroll, Petula Clark and Rita Moreno. Despite long runs in New York and London, “Sunset Boulevard” failed to recoup its investment because of its enormous running costs. Listen to Glenn Close perform “With One Look” at “The Royal Albert Hall Celebration” honoring Lloyd Webber.

Sunset Boulevard - Original Broadway Cast
Sunset Boulevard - Original Broadway Cast

Musical musings: “Sunset” tries very hard, arguably to the point of artistic imprisonment, to be faithful to Mr. Wilder’s acerbic masterpiece. Much of the film’s plot, dialogue and horror-movie mood are preserved, not to mention clips used to illustrate those sequences in which the faded silent-film star, Norma Desmond (Patti LuPone), and her kept young screenwriter Joe Gillis (Kevin Anderson), travel by car. Ms. LuPone is a gifted actress whose vocal pyrotechnics are especially idolized by the British, not least because their own musical-theater stars can rarely match them. Yet despite her uncanny mimicry of Gloria Swanson’s speaking voice and her powerhouse delivery of the score’s grand if predictable ballads, she is miscast and unmoving as Norma Desmond. Even in her showy, final mad scene, Ms. LuPone does not snap in the heartbreaking Blanche DuBois manner called for and instead finds her strenuous efforts vulgarized by one of many garish Anthony Powell costumes, the sudden and baffling appearance of a red ribbon as a maniacally waved prop, and echo-chamber sound effects. – Frank Rich writing about the London production of “Sunset Boulevard” in The New York Times


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