Sunset Boulevard is a timeless classic in both film and theater featuring one of the most captivating and enigmatic characters in cinematic history: Norma Desmond. Portrayed in the 1950 film by Gloria Swanson and later brought to life by numerous actresses on stage, Norma Desmond remains an intriguing figure, embodying the complexities of fame, delusion, and the desperate pursuit of eternal glory.
Set in the fading glamour of Hollywood, the show explores Norma’s journey from once-beloved celebrity to a recluse, living in her decaying mansion, clinging to past glories. She was “the greatest star of all” in early Hollywood when silent films were predominant. However, with the advent of “talkies,” the industry underwent a transformation. Norma’s inability and unwillingness to adapt resulted in her decline. Following a series of rejections, Norma retreated from the public eye. She created a cocoon of delusion and nostalgia and surrounded herself with memories of her past glory, ultimately cutting her off from relevance in Hollywood entirely.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of Sunset Boulevard premiered in 1993. “Norma is one of the most demanding roles in musical theater requiring an actress with exceptional talent, vocal prowess, and an ability to navigate the emotional depth of the character. It demands vulnerability, grandeur, and an understanding of the complex psyche of a faded star,” said Webber. “It takes a special performer to bring the nuances of Norma to life.”
BNWAFC GLORIA SWANSON SUNSET BOULEVARD; SUNSET BLVD (1950)
Many “Broadway divas” have taken on the role of Norma, leaving their own mark on the character’s legacy. Patti LuPone starred in the original London production. Betty Buckley, Elaine Paige, and Diahann Carroll also stepped into this iconic role. Glenn Close, who played Norma in the original Broadway production and later in the 2017 revival, said, “Norma is a role of a lifetime. It’s like playing King Lear for an actress. I don’t think it gets better than Norma Desmond.”
Except for Diahann Carroll, Norma Desmond has primarily been played by Caucasian actresses; after all, the character was originally written as a Caucasian woman. Of course, this was a direct reflection of a time in Hollywood where white actors and actresses had more representation on screen than any other group. That said, casting choices are ultimately determined by the director of each specific production.
ACT of CT’s upcoming production of Sunset Boulevard will star Pearl Sun as Norma Desmond. Pearl, an Asian American actress who has appeared in numerous Broadway and National Tour productions, is likely the first Asian woman to play this role in the United States.
Daniel C. Levine, Artistic Director of ACT of CT (and director of the upcoming production) says, “If the musical were centered around a specific historical figure, then, to be historically accurate, it would naturally follow that the role should be played by someone of Caucasian decent. However, this is not the case. Norma Desmond is a fictional character based on an amalgamation of real-life Hollywood film stars (including Mary Pickford, Pola Negri and Clara Bow – all Caucasian.) Perhaps lesser known were the Hollywood actresses of Asian descent including Anna May Wong, Li Lihua, and Tsuru Aok; who faced their own challenges in Hollywood, albeit different than Norma’s. I’m excited to work with Pearl and to bring our specific Norma to life.”
“Any time a groundbreaking moment happens in casting, it is a triumph,” says Pearl Sun. “Being supported and acknowledged for my artistic ability along with my outward appearance is the stuff of dreams. I look forward to exploring with Daniel C. Levine, Bryan Perri, and the rest of creative team at ACT of CT, what new layers my identity might add to this powerful character and show.” •