Sunset Boulevard Suite
About this Piece
Two giants of Hollywood history, director Billy Wilder (1906-2002) and composer Franz Waxman (1906-1967), were born in the same year over a century ago.Wilder created several enduring classics of the American cinema, including Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Blvd., Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment. Waxman, one of the most important composers of the Golden Age of Hollywood, wrote the music for The Bride of Frankenstein, The Philadelphia Story, Rebecca, Sunset Blvd., A Place in the Sun, Rear Window, Peyton Place, and nearly 140 others.
Both Wilder and Waxman were part of the exodus of German film artists during the rise of Nazism in the early 1930s. They met in 1929, when Waxman (then Wachsmann) was playing piano in a Berlin jazz band called the Weintraub Syncopators. Waxman went on to arrange and conduct Marlene Dietrich’s songs in The Blue Angel (1930) and to score the music for Wilder’s first film as a director, Mauvaise Graine (1934), made in Paris before both departed for American shores and new careers in Hollywood. (One of their earliest American efforts was the 1934 operetta Music in the Air, for which Wilder wrote the screenplay. Waxman adapted Jerome Kern’s music, and the film starred Gloria Swanson in a diva role that presaged her work in Sunset Blvd.) They remained close friends, and collaborated on four films in the 1950s: Sunset Blvd., Stalag 17, The Spirit of St. Louis, and Love in the Afternoon.
Sunset Blvd. (1950) was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It won three, for its screenplay, art direction, and Waxman’s music. Wilder had an especially cynical view of Hollywood, and his screenplay for Sunset Blvd. (co-written with longtime partner Charles Brackett and ex-journalist D. M. Marshman Jr.) is certainly one of the nastiest looks at the movie business ever produced. While many in Hollywood applauded Wilder’s shockingly candid take on the darker side of Tinseltown, others – notably MGM’s L. B. Mayer, who stomped out of a screening – were furious with the film.
It is essentially told in flashback by struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (played in the film by William Holden), who at the beginning of the film has just been murdered by his lover Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson, in what many today consider the greatest role of her career), a once-famous silent-film star who lives in a ruined old mansion on Sunset and imagines herself on the verge of a comeback. Her protective butler Max turns out to be the director who long ago made her a star (and, in a brilliant casting stroke, is played in the film by legendary director Erich von Stroheim).
Tonight’s performance marks the concert premiere of the entire Sunset Blvd. score, and is also believed to be the first time that a complete orchestral film score has been performed live while actors perform the original script.
Waxman’s score is largely based on three themes that are subject to development and variation throughout: Norma’s theme, a slightly off-kilter tango that suggests both her 1920s popularity and her increasingly demented mind; Joe’s music, a jazzy, nonchalant motif that conveys his breezy attitude; and what might be characterized as the “love theme” for Gillis and his screenwriter-partner Betty (Nancy Olson), in reality a clever transformation of Paramount’s newsreel march, “The Eyes and Ears of the World,” into a lyrical piece heard to greatest advantage as the couple strolls at night on the studio backlot.
In addition to his considerable work as a composer for the cinema, Waxman wrote for the concert hall (including an oratorio, Joshua, and a song cycle, The Song of Terezin) and was an important part of the cultural life of Los Angeles. In 1947, he founded the Los Angeles Music Festival, which over two decades offered the West Coast premieres of dozens of works, including Stravinsky’s Histoire du soldat, Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, and Britten’s War Requiem.
Note by Jon Burlingame