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“Sunset Boulevard” sets mutually assured destruction to a catchy tune

In Hear ThisA.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, in anticipation of Jersey Boys, we’re picking our favorite songs from musicals.

As a teenager, I spent a fair amount of allowance money on musicals: seeing them, buying the posters, buying the double-CD sets and learning every word. Sure, Phantom Of The Opera was great, but I also loved discovering the less-famous musicals—well, less famous for an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical—like Sunset Boulevard.


Taking its story from Billy Wilder’s 1950 film of the same name, Sunset Boulevard tells the story of an aspiring screenwriter and a fading silent-movie star. The former, the down-and-out Joe Gillis, makes a deal with the devil: He’ll write the script for Norma Desmond’s comeback vehicle (though it’s a return, not a comeback), and she’ll give him a place to live. Though Desmond provides quite a bit more than just room and board, it’s not exactly the dream of patronage that a young artist might hope for.

The script, both film and musical, is a self-parody of Hollywood’s cruelties, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s title score drives that home with a haunting minor-key melody followed by musical bombast and an overwrought string section. Whereas Lloyd Webber can be rightfully accused of being over the top in most everything he writes, it’s exactly the right tone to take here. The tune is unavoidably catchy, even as the lyrics explore the mutually assured downfall of Joe and Norma: “And if I’m honest / I like the lady / I can’t help being touched by her folly / I’m treading water, taking the money / Watching her sunset”—and then, the winking kicker: “Well, I’m a writer.”

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