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How 'Sunset Boulevard' Got the Whiz-Bang Musical Treatment : The spooky and pathetic Norma Desmond. The creepy mansion on Sunset. The cynical, busted screenwriter. Andrew Lloyd Webber's vision of the classic film about Hollywood makes its U.S. debut in the town that spawned the original

December 05, 1993|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer

That's nothing, of course, compared to the set of Desmond's mansion, which weighs 30,000 pounds and is 32 feet high. They started building the Los Angeles set even before "Sunset" opened in London, and did so in chunks all over the country because no one scenic shop could handle it.

"Most shows complete don't weigh what this house alone weighs," says technical supervisor Arthur Siccardi. "I can say without blinking an eyelash that it's the biggest set that's ever been built."

Housing that enormous set is the newly revamped Shubert Theatre. Los Angeles didn't work as a world-premiere venue for the show, Lloyd Webber has said repeatedly, because the Ahmanson Theatre was tied up with "Phantom of the Opera" and planning renovations, and he wasn't happy with the Shubert's seating configuration.

The Shubert Organization has put $5 million into redoing the theater, says Chairman Gerald Schoenfeld, representing the first structural changes to the theater since it opened in 1972. The mezzanine has dropped four rows closer to the stage and gone from conventional center aisles to "continental" seating, which has more legroom but side aisles only, and some box seats have been added.

Lloyd Webber says the theater is now "much more intimate" than when four of his other musicals played there. And although the production is not using some of the balcony's top rows, Edgar Dobie, executive vice president of the Really Useful Co., doesn't seem worried. He figures the show could pay off its capitalization on 1,800 seats at the Shubert in the same 40 weeks it took "The Phantom of the Opera" at the 2,000-seat Ahmanson.

By the time it does so, Lloyd Webber and his creative team will no doubt be doing the same sort of preparations for "Sunset Boulevard's" next incarnation as they have been doing here these past weeks.

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Lloyd Webber says his "ideal, best scenario" was to have opened on Broadway next March or April and have the show going in three major cities "quickly." But things didn't work out that way. For one thing, director Nunn was unavailable; he starts rehearsals next month for Leos Janacek's "Katya Kabanova" at London's Royal Opera, a commitment he says has been in his diary for four years.

Nunn expects work to begin on the show's New York production next fall, but nothing's carved in stone. Lloyd Webber has continuously declined to commit himself, saying several times that the show's next company could "open anywhere." Reporting interest from such cities as Chicago, Toronto and Sydney, the composer says, "We have to assess the next best place, and I strongly hope it will be New York in autumn."

At both a press conference and during an interview at his home, Lloyd Webber insists that he is happy with LuPone in London and will stick with her in New York. In both settings, he used the verb baffled to express his sentiment about persistent rumors that he wanted to replace her on Broadway.

"Patti LuPone is a very talented performer," he told reporters. "She created the piece in Sydmonton. She gets standing ovations every night. We don't understand what this is all about. As far as I'm concerned, there's no need to change the plans with Patti whatsoever."

Meanwhile, the composer's show is already generating spinoffs. Composer-lyricist Dickson Hughes says Gloria Swanson's "Starring Norma Desmond" tape, which has circulated among collectors for years, will be released as a CD next year. And the creation of that show by Swanson, Hughes and Hughes' partner Richard Stapley is the subject of a musical called "Swanson on Sunset," which Alan Eichler hopes to produce early next year.

Paramount, an investor in both the London and Los Angeles productions of "Sunset," has rights that could lead one day to a film of the musical of the film. And Lloyd Webber has greater interest than in the past, he says, in getting some of his other shows on the big screen.

"Over the years, I've made a lot of friends in the movie community," he says. Then, with a rare smile, he continues, "maybe because I've never done business with them."*

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