Behind The Song: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’ from Sunset Boulevard

Joe Stilgoe
Thursday, February 15, 2024

Musician Joe Stilgoe explores the contradictions in diva Norma Desmond’s imagined comeback – the show’s standout moment, aided by lyricist Don Black in collaboration with Christopher Hampton

Glenn Close portrays Norma Desmond at the London Coliseum in 2016 (photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Glenn Close portrays Norma Desmond at the London Coliseum in 2016 (photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Don Black has a notebook filled with rhymes he hasn’t used yet. I know this because he shared it with my dad a few years ago when they were curating a concert of the best of his songs, and Don asked Dad if he could use them all in one song. Maxine/vaccine, Pernod/inferno, analyst/panellist… It’s a lovely porthole into the mind of the jobbing lyricist. Someone who has to find the right words for the right moment, or the tune might be another forgotten masterpiece (that’s a whole other story for another time, of composers having ‘suitcase songs’ – tunes that never found a home).

I mention this because ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’ has some of my favourite Don Black lyrics. If you don’t know the song and the show, Sunset Boulevard is the story of Norma Desmond, a silent movie star with her career well behind her, reclusive, eccentric and mostly sad, living in a huge house somewhere in the hills of Hollywood.

The lyrics here are for the character, not the audience, or the ego of the writer

Based on the 1950 Billy Wilder film, it was a theatrical enterprise years in the making; many had attempted to get the story on to the stage, including a certain Stephen Sondheim (who was apparently warned off the idea by Wilder himself). Lloyd Webber first talked to Don about it in 1979; 14 years later, they revisited it, with the composer also bringing in the playwright Christopher Hampton.

So to the song. Norma is back on set. This isn’t work, but what is it? A delusion or a dream?

‘I don’t know why I’m frightened / I know my way around here.’

She’s in her space, her métier, back where once she was adored and revered in equal hysterical measure. ‘The cardboard trees, the painted seas, the sound here’ – the lyrics quickly fill in the blanks. This is why lyrics are Musical Theatre’s secret weapon – they can fulfil exposition in one line that might require a whole scene in dialogue. These lyrics suggest quiet tragedy, which becomes more apparent further into the song as Norma details how much she’s missed this world, but it’s set against this beautiful tune, which has a stoicism and grandness that elevates the words so we can now believe that she was indeed the star of all stars.

The second verse is my favourite – ‘whispered conversations in overcrowded hallways’. Now comes one of the great ‘Don Black RhymesTM’– ‘the atmosphere as thrilling here as always’. First the internal rhyme – atmosphere/here, then the feminine rhyme hallways/always. Doesn’t sound earth-shattering, does it? You might well think you can pummel me into the rhyming corner with a Howard Dietz, ‘Where a ghost and a prince meet, and everyone ends in mincemeat’ or a Larry Hart, ‘Sir Paul was frail / he looked a wreck to me / At night, he was a horse’s neck to me / So I performed an appendectomy’, but those are grandstand rhymes intended for a laugh.

This is more subtle – the lyrics here are for the character, not the audience, or the ego of the writer.

Now back to the music – the whole song is a magnificent build. Lloyd Webber is always brilliant at this as he instinctively writes theatrically and in Sunset Boulevard he was given licence to write those huge melodies that sweep the action along and recall the glory days of the Hollywood score. Coming halfway through Act Two, the audience knows Norma well, but the grandness of the music and the oblique lyrics might suggest she really is making a comeback. Is she?

Now she’s coming out of make-up, the cameras are ready to go and the key change emphasises this. She declares ‘this time will be bigger and brighter than we knew it’. Like all great comebacks, there’s a whiff of madness about it – they’re rarely driven by public desire but by an unscratched itch. If we didn’t know the context it might be a triumphant statement, but in reality it only heightens the tragic loss of this part of her life. It turns out this was her life. And that’s why this song is the burning core around which the rest of the show spins.

I love songs that are slightly incongruous, that suggest one thing but under closer inspection reveal another. I suppose this show, already a contradiction in itself being a theatre show about cinema, is a great exposition of the artifice of Hollywood. At the time Norma would have been a star, performers were treated with cold disdain by studio bosses if their glow ever showed signs of fading, and for every Chaplin there were hundreds more who were forgotten. As the film Singin’ in the Rain shows, what if these stars made a horrible noise when they opened their mouths? What if we ever heard them?

We hear her now, and as we approach the climax of the song we’re whipped up in the magic of the moment. We can believe it might happen – she might be given one last shot. It’s as if she never said goodbye. 

This article originally appeared in the December 2023 / January 2024 issue of Musicals magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today