By R. J. Donovan
Special to the BIR
When Tony Award-winning actress Alice Ripley opens in “Sunset Boulevard” at North Shore Music Theatre later this month, she’ll be returning to a show she knows very well.
Twenty-five years ago, she performed in the entire Broadway run of the sweeping musical, playing the supporting role of Betty Schaefer for more than 900 performances.
Now, at North Shore, she’ll be taking on the musical’s starring role, playing faded silent film icon Norma Desmond.
“Sunset” first emerged on our cultural landscape in 1950 as a black and white Billy Wilder film starring Gloria Swanson. Norma Desmond is a once-famous film goddess, now a recluse in her shadowy Sunset Boulevard mansion. She clings to the fantasy that audiences still long for her, never realizing she has been largely forgotten.
By accident, she crosses paths with Joe Gillis, an out-of-work screenwriter. She persuades him to help her with a script she sees as her glorious career comeback.
She gives him a place to live, elegant clothes, and the promise of a luxurious life. He’s initially seduced, but knows his heart lies with another woman – Betty Schaefer. When Joe attempts to escape Norma’s clutches, he pays the ultimate price.
The stage version is based on the film. Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black, and Christopher Hampton, the musical opened in London in 1993, coming to Broadway a year later. The score includes “With One Look,” “As If We Never Said Goodbye” and the title number.
Alice Ripley, who has “an Irish streak on my mother’s side,” was born in California and grew up in Ohio. The middle child of 11, she was raised in a household reminiscent of “Yours, Mine and Ours.” She began singing at around the age of ten. Even then, she visualized life as an actress.
Was there a moment she realized she might actually earn a living as a performer?
“Well that’s always a question I’m trying to answer,” she said with a laugh during a recent interview. “But when I was growing up – I must have been about around 12 or 14 – I was at a little pub grill at the mall. I’m sitting there having a snack and there’s a guy playing piano, keyboards, and singing, entertaining us. I remember what he was singing: Billy Joel’s ‘Just The Way You Are.’ I remember thinking to myself, that is so cool. That guy gets to sing that song and play, and that’s his job! I have yet to actually stand and play and sing ‘Just The Way You Are’ in a pub in the mall. Maybe I will some day, but I have somehow managed to carve out a living.”
That’s an understatement. Ripley received the Tony as Best Actress in a Musical for her starring role in the Pulitzer Prize-winning rock opera, “Next to Normal.” In addition to her extensive stage work (“Side Show,” “American Psycho,” James Joyce’s “The Dead”), she’s had a diverse career in film, on television, and as an accomplished musician.
This past summer, she starred in the acclaimed, one-woman, off-Broadway play, “Pink Unicorn.”
During her original Broadway run of “Sunset,” she appeared opposite a bevy of legendary leading ladies playing Norma, including Glenn Close, Betty Buckley, Karen Mason, and Elaine Paige. “They were all incredible,” she said. “I love them all and they all had a completely different take on Norma . . . They didn’t really get a chance to play her until they were ready. At that point, it’s just a matter of who they are and what their instrument is, meaning their body and their soul . . . I kind of hold a torch for all of them.”
The North Shore production of “Sunset” was less a case of planning than happenstance. Ripley's agent received the offer the same say another project cancelled.
While it may have been perfect timing on the calendar, was it also perfect timing in terms of her career? “I think so," she said. "I do think this is coming at a good time – the right time. I feel like I’m Norma’s actual age. Norma’s lived life. And she’s got a lot to say. We have a lot in common.”
When she was mid-way through her long run in the Broadway production, she had an interesting backstage encounter with Andrew Lloyd Webber. The urban legend is that there’s been a long-standing rivalry between Stephen Sondheim and Lloyd Webber. True or not, the legend holds.
Ripley was set to audition for a production of Sondheim’s “Company” at Roundabout Theatre. She planned to sing “Another Hundred People.” “I really wasn’t looking for a different job,” she said. “I just wanted to nail the song in the audition, that’s really what it was.”
“So I’m between shows in my dressing room. Everybody else is at dinner, so I felt like it was okay to put the cassette in my tape player – that shows you how long ago it was. I’m practicing, belting at the top of my lungs. And I hear this knock-knock-knock on my door.”
She envisioned a complaint about the noise. “I open the door and it’s Andrew Lloyd Webber standing there, I want to say, with his jaw hanging open . . . He’s peering around my shoulder . . . And he’s like -- ‘Is. That. Stephen. Sondheim?' I turned red . . . and back-pedaled.”
Her response was rushed and rapid fire. “I tell him, ‘I have an audition but I’m only going to the audition. I don’t want to get another job. I like this song but I like THIS song of YOURS.’ It was this long monologue!”
After so many years, she said, “I hope that maybe some day he’ll see me do Norma. I would love to have him in the audience. I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life to play this role.”
R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com.
“Sunset Boulevard,” Sept. 24 – Oct. 6, North Shore Music Theatre, 62 Dunham Rd., Beverly. 978-232-7200, nsmt.org.