Carla McDonald understands the kind of disassociation expressed by William Holden in Billy Wilder's classic Hollywood noir Sunset Boulevard, as he observes his own body floating facedown in a swimming pool. McDonald, a familiar face on regional stages, is playing Nora Desmond, Wilder's eccentric queen of the silent screen in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical adaptation of Boulevard. And while she understood the character intellectually, it just wasn't her. Until, suddenly, it was.
"We weren't rehearsing with mics yet," McDonald says, "and I told [director] Bob Heatherington that it reminded me of when we used to perform without mics, when we were trained to fill the room and project our voices to the back wall. Kids today are trained to use mics." She follows this remembrance with a recitation of lyrics inspired by the film's original dialogue: "Now they put some talentless unknown beneath their sacred microphone. We didn't need words, we had faces."
"There's so much more than just the drag-queen diva icon," McDonald says, considering the roles time and technology play in Wilder's film and Webber's musical translation. "I didn't understand when I was 30. Now I'm 47 and working hard to stay relevant." She describes the hard-bodied twentysomethings she shares the stage with with a healthy mix of awe and envy. "They have their whole lives ahead of them," McDonald quips more tenderly than the desperate and delusional Desmond ever could.
McDonald's no stranger to playing familiar characters, having channeled Little Edie in Grey Gardens a few seasons back, but says she prefers to build characters from scratch with nothing but the script as a guide. With Desmond she hopes to split the difference by fulfilling her audience's expectations and building on them.
Sunset Boulevard at Playhouse on the Square, January 25th-February 17th, playhouseonthesquare.org