New Documentary Shines A Spotlight On First ‘Sunset Boulevard’ Musical

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Gloria Swanson performing as "Norma Desmond" in the final scene of 'Sunset Boulevard'. (Photo by ... [+] Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

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The first musical adaptation of Sunset Boulevard is finally getting a close-up.

Next month, a new documentary about the earliest efforts to bring the iconic film to the Broadway stage will premiere at the Outfest Los Angeles Film Festival. Named Boulevard! A Hollywood Story, the film expands upon a little-known footnote in musical theatre history, and “it is very weird how close to the original movie this whole thing played out,” stated the director Jeffrey Schwarz.

In 1953, two songwriters named Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley were putting together a musical revue about Time magazine, and they wanted a well-known performer for the lead role. They approached Gloria Swanson, who portrayed the forgotten film actress “Norma Desmond” in the Paramount Pictures movie Sunset Boulevard.

Swanson had appeared on Broadway in the play Nina a year earlier, and the critics did not like her performance. She was still upset with the poor reviews, and told that the team that “I just will not ever do another Broadway show.” “Well,” she continued, “not unless somebody writes a musical adaptation of Sunset Boulevard.

Swanson was not ready for her swan song.

Like how Desmond hired the struggling screenwriter “Joe Gillis” to work on the screenplay for her big return to the silver screen, Swanson hired the struggling songwriters to work on the book, music, and lyrics for her big return to the stage.

“We were wildly excited about this incredible project,” recalled Dickson.

After the pair prepared some songs, Swanson excitedly called up her old pals at Paramount to tell them about the new project and secure the live stage rights. “Don’t worry,” she told the songwriters. “I have known [studio executive] D.A. Doran forever, and he always gives me everything I want,” Swanson said, mirroring how Desmond believed that her old director Cecil B. DeMille would direct her comeback film.

Like in the film when Desmond goes to speak with DeMille on the studio lot, Swanson insisted on going to the studio to present some songs from the show. Resembling Desmond, “she was really dressed up with a veil and everything else,” Stapley remembered, and the Paramount executives agreed to give Swanson a year to continue developing the musical.

But, nothing was ever signed, and “it was always her personal assurance from D.A. Doran, probably as much as anything not wanting to make her unhappy,” recalled Stapley. Similar to how Paramount in Sunset Boulevard did not want to disappoint Desmond in letting her know that it had no desire to produce her screenplay, Stapley suspected that Paramount did not want to disappoint Swanson in letting her know that it had no desire to approve her musical.

The team continued to work on the show in Swanson’s Park Avenue apartment. The former film star spent at least $20,000 (about $202,004 in 2021) in development costs, and lined up a pair of Broadway producers to take it to the Great White Way. Swanson even sang a few songs from the show for executives from the Shubert Organization, which owned more than half of the theaters on Broadway.

But, behind the scenes, working as a group to adapt the motion picture was far from picture perfect.

Similar to how Desmond develops feelings for Gillis in the movie, Swanson developed feelings for Stapley. “She was so in love with me, you couldn’t imagine,” Stapley recalled.

But, like how Gillis was in love with his screenwriting partner, “Betty Schaefer,” Stapley was in love his songwriting partner, Hughes. He did not return Swanson’s signs of affections, and “she was very upset,” Stapley said.

As with Gillis in the film, Stapley felt that he needed to escape the love triangle.

“I just wanted to get out,” he admitted. “It was awkward staying at home [in Swanson’s apartment], and it was affecting my own private life,” he explained. Stuck in the same predicament as Gillis, “I was beginning not to know me,” Stapley said, and “it was affecting my relationship with Dickson.”

To make matters worse for the team, Paramount soon decided to quash the production. The studio planned to reissue the film, and believed that “it would be damaging for the property to be offered to the entertainment public in another form such as a stage musical,” explained one executive in a letter to Swanson. “I am, of course, very sorry to have caused you shock and disappointment,” the executive continued.

“It all blew up,” commented Stapley, and “I was devastated,” added Hughes. Swanson’s musical adaptation of Sunset Boulevard had become a boulevard of boulevard of broken dreams.

Years later, Broadway producer Hal Prince teamed up with Sweeney Todd bookwriter Hugh Wheeler and tried to get Stephen Sondheim and then John Kander and Fred Ebb to write the score for a musical adaptation of the film starring Angela Lansbury. But, everybody passed on the project.

It was not until 1993, forty years after Stapley and Hughes first started working on their musical, that a musical adaptation of Sunset Boulevard made it onto the stage. Featuring music and lyrics from Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, the show won the Tony Award for the Best Musical, and closed after two years at a loss.

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