Songs from Musicals: #35 “The Greatest Star of All,” from Sunset Boulevard

Honorable mentions: “New Ways to Dream,” “This Time Next Year”

Like Jeremy Jordan, Sunset Blvd  (as I’m going to call it to avoid confusion) has gotten thorough treatment on this blog in the recent past. And while Sunset Blvd and Sunset Boulevard aren’t the same thing at all, they are devilish close. One occasionally wonders how Don Black and Christopher Hampton actually got away with the theft of the Sunset Blvd script; presumably, there was a car chase involved.

“The Greatest Star of All” is unusual among the songs in Sunset Boulevard. Most of the songs in the musical take a situation from the movie and then extrapolate, something like “Every Movie’s a Circus” or “This Time Next Year” or, most famously, “As If We Never Said Goodbye.” “The Greatest Star of All” however, pulls significant portions of dialogue from the movie and turns them into a song. It’s also unusual because Max gets to sing, one of just two opportunities the character has; most of the singing in this musical is centered on Joe (like “Sunset Boulevard”), Norma (like “As If We Never Said Goodbye”), and Betty (who doesn’t have any song to herself).

I’ve talked a lot about how Sunset Blvd is a movie about the past intersecting violently with the present, but Sunset Boulevard seems to emphasize the future more. Everyone but Norma knows that there’s no way her Salome will ever see pre-production, let alone paying customers, but in the film, Joe’s perspective dominates. Norma is foolish, delusional, narcissistic; her obsession to “return” is the careening force in Joe’s life, but for Joe her past is blighting the present. In Sunset Blvd, everyone is equally cognizant that Norma’s plan is doomed, and yet no one wants to say nearly as much about that little hitch. Joe utters the words “poor Norma” in a way that is authentically pitying; Joe from the film would never have been able to put that much emotion into his voice. And, of course, the fact that we get a showstopping solo from Norma, the “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” of Sunset Boulevard, to describe how it feels to be back on the set and ready to work again, lends more pathos to the exploding star. “There’s a world to rediscover,” she says.

And this time will be bigger,

And brighter than we knew it.

So watch me fly:

We all know I can do it.

Could I stop my hands from shaking?

Has there ever been a moment

With so much to live for?

And that same sentiment – that in the future, everything will come right – shows up in earlier songs too. “This time, I’m staying,” she says in “With One Look. “I’m staying for good. I’ll be back where I was born to be.”

Without “The Greatest Star of All,” those iconic Norma moments, the ones that people come to see the show for, don’t have much foundation. There would still be something to build off of: dialogue, for one, and prior knowledge. But a song like “The Greatest Star of All” provides evidence to back up the claims. She got those many thousands of letters, Max explains. And that maharajah “who hanged himself with one of her discarded stockings.” He can remember the young woman who took the world by storm, even if someone like Joe can’t appreciate that phenomenon now; he has a reason to build up her confidence, to write the fan mail, to shuttle her script to Paramount. The future which is so looked forward to in Sunset Boulevard is hardly baseless; a song like “The Greatest Star of All” gives credence to the facts of the glorious, receding past.

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