Let me take you back six months, I was at the bottom of the barrel.

Tim Draxl is singing the first few lines from Let’s Have Lunch the opening number of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard.

“It just swings,” he says, humming a few more bars. “There are so many great 1950s jazz references.”

We’ve met to talk about Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment’s new production of the Tony Award-winning musical, in which he is about to perform the role of Joe Gillis opposite Sarah Brightman, who plays Norma Desmond.

Tim Draxl as Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard. Photo © Ben King

With just three days to go until rehearsals begin in Melbourne, Draxl is in high spirits.

“This is me. This is my world!” he exclaims.

Watching the Logie-nominated actor and musical theatre star snap his fingers as he jitterbugs around his Sydney apartment, it’s easy to see why The Sydney Morning Herald dubbed him Australia’s best male cabaret artist in 2016.

Given the choice of any musical, Draxl says Sunset Boulevard has been at the top of his list for as long as he can remember.

“It’s always been in my mind as the one show I’d love to do, because of the legend of Hugh Jackman doing it in Melbourne, and also because I’m a baritone.”

“I always knew that it sat in my register. In most musicals, the male leads are tenors, so it’s the one show I knew I could sing.”

“But beyond that, the original film has always been one of my top 10 favourites.”

Released in 1950 and directed by Billy Wilder, Sunset Boulevard was a prime example of art imitating life, with Gloria Swanson starring as Norma Desmond, the silent movie star desperate for a comeback after the advent of sound plunged her into obscurity.

Alongside Swanson, William Holden played Joe Gillis, the jaded scriptwriter co-opted into helping Norma achieve her goal, while Erich von Stroheim played the mysterious butler Max von Mayerling.

Wilder’s black comedy was perceived by many in Hollywood as a betrayal of the system that had given him so much, and an apoplectic Louis B. Mayer even called for him to be run out of town.

Nevertheless, the film was a hit and plans for a musical quickly followed, including one with a happy ending that was spearheaded by Swanson herself.

Legendary Broadway producer and director Hal Prince also acquired the stage rights for a while, with thoughts of turning it into a vehicle for Angela Lansbury. Hugh Wheeler, John Kander and Fred Ebb were all approached before the project landed in Stephen Sondheim’s lap.

He quickly dropped it after Wilder told him it should be an opera, not a musical.

Instead, it was Lloyd Webber who eventually gave the film its theatrical treatment, and Wilder was impressed, praising the way it focused the audience’s attention without relying on camera shots and lens choices.

“It’s a perfect match between the story Billy Wilder wrote, which is a cinematic masterpiece and what I think is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most beautiful score, hands down,” Draxl says. “It’s certainly his most cinematic.”

During a recent trip through Egypt, Draxl admits he couldn’t get the overture out of his head and even used it in his holiday posts on Instagram.

“There’s something grandiose about it,” he explains, likening it to Nino Rota’s score for the 1978 film Death on the Nile and Maurice Jarre’s theme from Lawrence of Arabia.

“It’s so emotive and just sweeps you away. Even when I listen to the soundtrack now, it transports me to another world. There’s not a lot of shows that do that right from the get-go.”

Tim Draxl. Photo © Johnny Diaz Nicolaidis

Lloyd Webber’s own fascination with Sunset Boulevard can be traced back to the early 1970s, when his initial ideas for the title song found their way into his film score for Gumshoe starring Albert Finney.

He also discussed the idea of a musical adaptation with Hal Prince while they worked together on Evita, but nothing came of it.

Ultimately, Lloyd Webber had to wait until after 1989’s Aspects of Love when, together with lyricist Don Black and playwright Christopher Hampton, he realised his dream of bringing Wilder’s film noir to the stage, complete with the title song he’d penned almost two decades earlier.

As Joe Gillis, Draxl can’t wait to sink his teeth into the Act II opener, despite its notoriously challenging key signature and 5/8 time.

“It’s so complicated,” he declares, “but it’s also genius.”

“If you look at the score, all Joe’s songs are slightly erratic. They’re full of thoughts that leap out at you and there’s no sequence to them. They’re just random little snippets he comes up with as he’s observing things, which I think is so wonderful because he’s a writer.”

He adds, “Joe absorbs all this stuff and comments on it whenever he turns to the audience, which I think is one of the most brilliant aspects of the show.”

Not only are these Brechtian asides the theatrical answer to William Holden’s voiceovers in the film, but they also set Joe Gillis apart from the musical’s other characters who exist entirely within the context of the narrative.

Draxl is joining an impressive lineup of actors who have tackled the role of Gillis around the world. In addition to Hugh Jackman, they include Kevin Anderson, John Barrowman, Alan Campbell, Alexander Hanson and Uwe Kröger, all of whom appeared in replica productions of Trevor Nunn’s original London staging in 1993.

In this case however, Draxl will start with a clean slate as he shapes his portrayal of Joe Gillis in a totally new staging that opens in May.

“We so rarely get to do this in Australia,” Draxl says, “because all the big productions that come to Australia are cookie cutter and you’re locked in. It’s usually a case of, ‘Stand here, move on this word and raise your right hand on this line!’”

“This opportunity is so refreshing, and one of the reasons I’m excited to get to work is that we’re starting from scratch.”

“And I’ll be able to create a version of Joe Gillis that emulates William Holden’s original, rather than the caricature of a Hollywood writer I feel it’s become over the years.”

“Instead of being laid back and cool, it’s about leaning forward and being inquisitive, which is more of a writer’s attitude,” he adds. “I think Lloyd Webber’s aim was for him to be an active observer, in the way writers see everything as a potential story.”

Draxl also wants to bring more self-awareness to the role.

“There’s a particular moment in the musical when Joe accepts the bed he’s made and is prepared to lie in it. He’s confronted not only by his own opportunism but also by the extent to which he’s allowed himself to be taken advantage of.”

“It’s like that line at the end of the show – ‘Come see the taker being took’ – when he realises he’s stuffed up completely.”

Draxl says he is particularly looking forward to exploring the final scene in which he forces Norma Desmond to face reality.

“It has always come across to me as incredibly nasty,” he says. “Rather than just being vengeful or vindictive, I’d like to think Joe can be honest about what he’s done and accept some of the responsibility, while still trying to tell the truth to Norma as someone who cares.”

Tim Draxl outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. Photo supplied by the artist

Draxl is excited to be working with director Paul Warwick Griffin, who he says welcomes his ideas.

“Paul is very open to creating an original show and reinventing the characters. I told him I really want to go back to what Billy Wilder wrote, and I know there are things Sarah also wants to explore.”

He adds, “We definitely won’t be rehashing something that’s been done before.”

Discussing her unique understanding of Norma Desmond with The Australian Women’s Weekly, Sarah Brightman noted the age-appropriateness of the role, as well as the parallels between the technical advances of sound and AI, and their respective impact on the film and recording industries.

Like Brightman, Draxl plans to tap into his own experiences for his portrayal of Gillis.

And like the hopefuls in This Time Next Year, who dream of leaving their palm prints outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, he knows exactly what it’s like to arrive in Los Angeles with a suitcase full of dreams.

“A by-product of Hollywood is learning to enjoy the moment while you can, whether it’s a moment in the spotlight, being able to eat properly, or catching a bus to your last audition on your last dollar.”

And he knows how easy it is to unwittingly find oneself in a relationship of convenience.

“I’ve been in a situation where I naively thought someone was doing something out of generosity and kindness. It was like Joe says, ‘Now I have suits and she has hope, it seemed an elegant solution.’”

“I needed to be in LA to pursue my dreams as an actor. I had all these ambitions, but slowly I traded them for a comfortable life with my then partner. There were a lot of parallels between our relationship and Joe and Norma’s.”

“I woke up one day and thought, ‘This isn’t why I moved here.’ It ended up being incredibly toxic, but I think it’ll lend authenticity to my interpretation of Joe.”

Draxl prides himself on being an open book in rehearsals, and he has already discussed his Hollywood experience with Warwick Griffin.

“Paul was grateful I offered that up,” he reveals. “I’m incredibly open with that kind of stuff, because that’s what art is. Like Carrie Fisher said, ‘Take your broken heart, make it into art’.”

And just how raw is the rehearsal process likely to get?

“The rawer the better,” Draxl replies, “but whether you use it in the final version or not is where good art comes in.”

“To me, good art is taste, because you have to have taste to pick and choose what works and what doesn’t.”

“Exposing yourself enough in a rehearsal room to just go for it and make mistakes or go big and then pull it back is much more exciting than having to squeeze it out.”

For a musical that includes the immortal words, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small,” Draxl would appear to be right on the money.

Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment present Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre from 21 May and at the Sydney Opera House from 28 August.

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