Tall actors take big screen movie to big stage in 'Sunset Boulevard'

Carla McDonald stars as Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard" at Playhouse on the Square. Bill Andrews is her butler, Max.
Christopher Blank Special to The Commercial Appeal

Carla McDonald stars as Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard" at Playhouse on the Square. Bill Andrews is her butler, Max. Christopher Blank Special to The Commercial Appeal

Jan. 21, 2013 — Carla McDonald stars as the aging film star Norma Desmond in the musical "Sunset Boulevard" at Playhouse on the Square. Bill Andrews is her faithful servant Max. Photo by Christopher Blank.

Jan. 21, 2013 — Carla McDonald stars as the aging film star Norma Desmond in the musical "Sunset Boulevard" at Playhouse on the Square. Bill Andrews is her faithful servant Max. Photo by Christopher Blank.

More about the show

"Sunset Boulevard"

8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 17 at Playhouse on the Square, 66 South Cooper. All opening weekend tickets are $22. Call 901-726-4656.

How often has the label "larger than life" been applied to stars of the silver screen?

If Hollywood is a land of giants, then the stage at Playhouse on the Square is living up to the myth in more ways than one.

The cast members in "Sunset Boulevard," the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on the classic 1950 film, prepared for their roles by studying the glamour and sophistication of the era. But few casts have also been so well-equipped to embody the cinematic scale.

"This is without a doubt the tallest cast I've ever worked with," said director Robert Hetherington. "It just happened that they all ended up in the same show."

Actor Justin Asher, the show's protagonist who is a struggling screenwriter, stands 6-6. His love interest, played by Claire Hayner, is 5-10.

When the screenwriter shows up at the home of a wealthy former movie actress, he is greeted her towering butler, Max, played by the 6-6 Bill Andrews.

Finally, emerging from her lair of nostalgia, is the focal point of Billy Wilder's film noir murder mystery.

Carla McDonald, in the role of Norma Desmond, stands 5-10 before any heels or head wraps have been added. Every sequin seems to make her taller.

The longtime Playhouse company member frequently gets the roles that demand a big personality from her stature — from Miss Hannigan in "Annie," to Little Edie in "Gray Gardens," to the tipsy title role in "The Drowsy Chaperone."

"Being in this cast makes me feel of average height for the first time," she says. "They had to consider our height in the design meetings. They had to make the columns taller so we didn't dwarf the set. Norma Desmond is a big character. She's very seductive. I have to wear heels in this show. She can't come out in flats."

McDonald knows she has a penchant for camp, which only gets easier when her co-stars are shorter.

Hetherington says that Norma Desmond, like "Streetcar's" Blanche DuBois, is an easy character to parody because both are such legendary divas.

"Both of them are tragic, middle-aged women who've lost their grasp on reality," Hetherington said. "They both have great exit lines. Blanche leaves on, 'I've always depended on the kindness of strangers.' Norma Desmond, of course, goes out on: 'I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille." McDonald quips that another famous Norma Desmond line is more appropriate for this cast: "I am big; it's the pictures that got small!"

Parody wasn't Lloyd Webber's goal in writing "Sunset Boulevard," which opened on Broadway in 1994. Rather, the musical is a faithful homage to the film.

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