Billy Wilder, who co-wrote and directed the original film version of Sunset Boulevard said it best: “You can’t write a musical about Sunset Boulevard,” he insisted, “it has to be an opera. After all, it’s about a dethroned queen.” It was the early 60′s and Wilder was talking to – of all people – Stephen Sondheim who had just outlined his own version of a musical based on the classic story of a faded Hollywood legend. After talking with Wilder, Sondheim dropped the idea. He may have also sensed the intense possessiveness that Hollywood had for this picture. After decades of the film industry stealing creative ideas and talent from Broadway, the idea that Broadway (and London’s West End) would eventually scour old movies for new ideas was anathema. But the trend began nevertheless. Today, for better or worse, most Broadway musicals are now based on former films. Sometimes even with their screen music intact, as with Lion King. The famous Disney composer Alan Menken is right up there in the top pantheon of musical composers. Much of his work has transferred to Broadway brilliantly. And much of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music has made it to film. They really are two sides of the same coin.
Anrew Lloyd Webber was used to purloining old ideas for his musicals, as with Phantom of the Opera. So while Sunset Boulevard had a variety of writers and composers take a whack at it, he was successful in clearing all the hurdles, both creative and legal. But not without hitting some pretty big walls and writing some pretty big checks first. It’s been a long and rocky trek to finally get Sunset Boulevard to Cohoes, New York. And for Jim Charles, artistic director to sew up the rights to perform it is no small achievement. There’s been a lot of struggle before it got to be staged here.