Speaking With... Christine Sherrill 02.01.13
By MIRIAM DI NUNZIO firstname.lastname@example.org January 31, 2013 9:58AM
Christine Sherrill stars as the aging silent film star Norma Desmond in Drury Lane Theatre’s production of “Sunset Boulevard.”
♦ Through March 24
♦ Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
♦ Tickets, $30-$68
♦ (630) 530-0111;
Updated: January 31, 2013 12:04PM
‘We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”
Movie buffs will immediately identify those words with legendary actress Gloria Swanson, whose character, Norma Desmond, spoke the line 51 years ago in the iconic Billy Wilder film “Sunset Boulevard.”
In 1993, Andrew Lloyd Webber put his musical spin on a stage version of the movie, which tells the tale of an aging silent screen star who descends in to madness after she is cast aside by Hollywood studios who have moved on to talking pictures and much younger stars. Along for her downward spiral are an out-of-work screenwriter (played in the film by William Holden) and Desmond’s mysterious chauffeur/caretaker Max (played by Erich von Stroheim).
The musical (which has played to mixed reviews over the years, with book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, is one of the most expensive and demanding to stage, which is why the production at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Center is a rare treat, indeed. Stepping into the role of Norma is veteran actress Christine Sherrill, taking up the mantle from the likes of Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley, Petula Clark, Diahann Carroll and Glenn Close.
Sherrill spoke to the Sun-Times recently about bringing a bona fide diva to life
Question: You just finished a critically acclaimed performance as the boozy, wicked, very funny Miss Hannigan in “Annie” at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. You’ve also portrayed the wacky Lina Lamont in “Singin’ in the Rain!” Two classic comedic stage musical roles for women. Which comedians did you draw on for your inspiration and spot-on comedic timing?
Christine Sherrill: As a little girl I was obsessed with watching Carol Burnett on her TV show. Not because I was trying to hone a skill, but I was just so enamored of her. I loved that she was always so human and that everything looked like she was actually having fun. You could watch her and want to be her friend and hang out with her. Lucy [Lucille Ball] was my other inspiration. Both Lucy and Carol were brilliant. I think comedy takes a lot of intelligence to make it work and look so effortless.
Q. Segueing from comedy to drama, are you a fan of the movie “Sunset Boulevard”?
CS: To be honest it had been at least a decade since I watched it. What really turned me on to this project even more than the film itself, which I do like, were the things I had read about the making of the film and that whole Hollywood era. Everyone assumes the film is really about Gloria Swanson’s life. As I started my research I learned that at the time, some thought it was about Greta Garbo. Others thought it was about Mary Pickford. I learned that they even considered Mae West at one point for the role of Norma. Learning the backstory of the film got me excited about the stage project.
Q. Did you find Norma to be terribly tragic as so many do, or did you look for another aspect of her for your characterization?
CS: The one thing Bill [director William Osetek] worked on was mining the joy in her character. She can be considered really tragic, but the truth is you can’t really get to great tragedy without a little bit of joy. Otherwise you have nowhere to fall. That’s what was so appealing to me about Norma. I think what she represented is something to be celebrated and appreciated and adored, and that part of her life is so joyful. Norma, beyond tragedy, is about joy and vulnerability.
Q. The storyline of “Sunset Boulevard” includes the arrival of Norma’s far younger “kept man,” the screenwriter Joe Gillis played so unforgettably in the film by William Holden and in the Drury Lane production by Will Ray. I suppose we could call Norma ONE of, if not THE earliest big screen cougar!
CS: Isn’t that funny! There was no coined phrase back then for that sort of relationship. Now it’s so common. I think it was easier to age back then in Hollywood that it is now. Or perhaps women just did it more gracefully. I know that right after she finished the film, Gloria went on to promote a skin cream line with the [catchphrase] “When you’re 52 you can look like Gloria Swanson.” I’m only 40, but I love that I get to chase around this gorgeous young man for two and a half hours on stage. That’s awesome, isn’t it? Will is an amazing actor and not too shabby to look at, either.
Q. “Sunset Boulevard” has been called one of the toughest stage musicals to perform. Would you agree?
CS: Most definitely. It’s a very tough score. Roberta [Duchak, Drury Lane’s resident music director] keeps saying, “Don’t forget, this is an opera!” And it really is. The underscoring never stops. The time signatures are consistently changing. It’s quite challenging. It’s definitely the toughest role I’ve done to date. Vocally it’s definitely an exercise in stamina and emotion. Right now I will be doing all eight performances a week. But we’ll have to see how that goes after the first week.
Q. So do you have to do serious vocal rest, such as not talking, to keep your voice in shape?
CS: I’ve actually eliminated all talking unless it’s rehearsal or performance. I haven’t talked to my friends in weeks. I do a lemon-Echinacea concoction and tea with honey. I do not warm up my voice, I’m embarrassed to say, because of the track of the show. In this particular case my warm-up is the natural progression of the show.
Q. After all these years, why is the character of Norma Desmond still so fascinating?
CS: It’s this struggle for her to find grace as she moves through her life, to hold on to grace and hope as those things are slipping away from her that I think a lot of people can relate to. When she starts surrendering to the inevitable, that’s when it becomes impossible for her to retain her sanity. I feel like she’s anyone’s story; it’s not a show about an aging actress. There’s a great line in the show, perhaps my favorite, that says “Everyone needs new ways to dream.” That’s everybody’s story.