Revisiting a classic role as Sunset Boulevard plays Worthing

Norma Desmond - Sarah Esser-Haswell
Norma Desmond - Sarah Esser-Haswell

You go somewhere absolutely fabulous on holiday. It’s always the same dilemma. Is it wise to ever go back there?

That was the dilemma facing Horsham-based Sarah Esser-Haswell when the chance arose to play Norma Desmond again in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s award-winning musical Sunset Boulevard.

Sarah resolved the question with an emphatic yes.

Four years after playing Norma in Redhill, Sarah is Norma again for Worthing Musical Theatre Company in Worthing’s Pavilion Theatre (Thursday, September 26-Saturday, September 28).

“I heard about it through Facebook and I just thought ‘Oooooh! Norma Desmond!’ but they had already had the first round of auditions. I thought they had probably found her, but then they opened it up for a second round of auditions. I was absolutely thrilled.

“Just before I go into auditions, particularly for something like this, I always have a chat with myself and tell myself that you have to go in there to express, not to impress. I had found out a little bit about Worthing and it all sounded good. I thought I would go down there and I would know when I walked in, and it was so lovely because halfway through the audition, I could see that a couple of them on the panel were getting quite emotional. I thought ‘Well, I believe in what I am doing… and now they are believing in what I am doing.’ And my feelings have turned out to be well-founded. They are such a lovely company.

“And Norma is just such a fabulous, fabulous role.”

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s award-winning musical is based on Billy Wilder’s film of romance and obsession. It tells the story of a faded silent screen goddess and a young man she manipulates to save her film career.

“Norma has got some wonderful songs to sing. She is eccentric. She is powerful. She is vulnerable. She is just not willing to let go of the fact that her once huge stardom really fell away once the talkies came in, and she has now become a bit of a recluse. She has shut herself away because she cannot accept that her stardom is over.

“But she still carries on. She still dresses beautifully. She has got 11 costume changes. I have had some fabulous leading roles before, but I have never had 11 costume changes before. It is a really fantastic part to play.

“I have been preparing to play Norma Desmond since I was 12, and I am now into my 50s! Being a drama teacher helps you understand character. With Norma, I am not playing a part. I really become Norma. She is incredibly, incredibly real. The only times she goes off is to change her outfit. There is no respite which is good because you never have a minute to break out of character. You have to completely immerse yourself in the character.

“I am classically trained, the more opera and operetta style, but I also do a lot of jazz and Barbra Streisand, and the two lend themselves very well to Norma Desmond who is something in between. She is an incredible woman.”

“But actually a lot of people think she was real, that she actually existed. She didn’t.”

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