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The Very Last Sunset

 It’s rare for me to cry.

It’s rarer for me to cry in public.

Yet there I sat, in the third row of the Palace Theatre on Broadway for ‘Sunset Boulevard‘, tears streaming down my face and no tissues to wipe them away, as Glenn Close took her final ‘Perfect Year’ waltz as Norma Desmond. I don’t know what came over me – well, I know, but I am still incredulous that it all happened like that. As they started the scene, the heft of two decades of living with my adulation and adoration of Norma came crashing into overwhelming relief, and the tears just started rolling.

I thought back to the first time my Mom and I saw the show in 1995 – it was so popular that we could only get tickets for the last row in the gargantuan Minskoff Theatre. It didn’t matter. Ms. Close had a presence to fill the grandest space, and her take on Ms. Desmond was so intense it electrified everything up to the rafters. I was not quite twenty years old then. I knew little to nothing of life, and while I thought I understood what it was to have a broken heart, the truth is that I simply didn’t know what love was. That didn’t mean I didn’t want it, or do everything in my power to capture it. It also didn’t mean I couldn’t think I was love in someone just because they didn’t treat me like shit or ignore me.

It was ‘The Perfect Year’ that touched me the most then. The moment that Norma Desmond, the faded yet glamourous star, believes she is in love with Joe Gillis, who doesn’t quite love her back, moved me immensely. I knew what it was like to want someone that badly, to believe so fervently and ferociously that this one person was the one, and that you could make them happier than they had ever been if you were only given the chance. I knew the hopefulness of that place. I knew the futility of it too. I wept for all those times I began that dance.

As time went on, my relationship with Norma shifted. What was first an obsession with her campy persona, extravagant costumes, and unrequited love became something more. I got older. I felt the ticking of time. I could begin to relate to her desperation. I also recognized the desire to recapture the best parts of one’s youth, and the attempts to go back and revisit the glory. An indulgence in nostalgia, as much as I tried to fight it, was a comfort.

It was a chance to start over again. It was as if we were given another shot. It was… as if we never said goodbye. The second round of tears were about to let loose. The spotlight found her on stage again – Norma and Glenn and the second act show-stopper that elicited wild applause before it even began. With one look, she stunned the audience into rapt wonder and joyous rapture. It was her last goodbye, and this second-bloom, always more delicate and precious than the first, was a gift. Starting over again at this stage of her career, she still retained the exuberant optimism of youth. Always, the hope of something better. The grand return. And, as much as she may have disliked the term, the triumphant comeback. As she finished the last note of ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’, we erupted into a thunderous standing ovation. She let the love wash over her – it was the kind of ovation usually reserved for the final curtain call – and we were both crying.

By the time the last scene arrived, I was ready to bid Norma farewell. Ms. Close took her bows, overcome with emotion, and through her tears told the story of how she auditioned for Andrew Lloyd Webber over two decades ago. (He also made a surprise appearance on stage to deliver an enormous bouquet of red roses.) She recalled sitting on the edge of her bed, wearing her grandmother’s ring, and realizing that she was at a juncture where her life was going to go one way or another. She thanked him for giving her the chance, and I was very grateful it went the way it did, for her portrayal of Norma Desmond is one of the greatest theatrical feats I’ve ever witnessed.

She went on to extol one of the underlying reasons for my love of Ms. Desmond over all these years, explaining how she was one of those characters who forces us to check in with how we treat others. Norma, from her youngest years as a star to her last days as an eccentric recluse, would always be different. She would always be ‘other’, someone whom most people would view as strange or demented or grotesque. That’s missing everything that makes her human. That’s losing her to the caricatured gargoyle of glitter and turbans and histrionics that masks all the frailty and delicacy beneath the surface. It’s a way of ignoring what she might actually feel.

Ms. Close eloquently reminded me that we aren’t as careful as we should be with each other. We don’t take the time to look behind the smoke and the sunglasses to see whether a person is hurting or happy or lost. We lose ourselves in the glamour and the façade of someone like Norma Desmond and assume that she has everything she could ever want. We see people who are different or unconventional and shrink away from them, even as we watch their every move.

How strange to come to such a realization this late in the game, but how wonderful too. I’ve finished the first act of my life. Norma Desmond saw me through every step of it. It’s silly and it’s grand, it’s tender and it’s touching, and perhaps it’s just a little bit mad. Yet for all of it, I wouldn’t change a thing. Hand-in-bejeweled-hand, we walked down that boulevard one final time.

I’LL BE BACK WHERE I WAS BORN TO BE…

WITH ONE LOOK, I’LL BE ME!

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