Alice Ripley is ready for her closeup. But before the spotlight beams down on her glamorous visage as faded silent film goddess Norma Desmond in the North Shore Music Theatre’s production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard,” Ripley is taking a stroll into the past and marveling at the serendipitous path her career has taken this year.
Not only is the Tony Award-winning actress returning to the North Shore Music Theatre for the first time in 25 years, but she’s coming back in a show that helped boost her Broadway career. In the summer of 1994, she played the title character’s captive daughter Johanna in “Sweeney Todd” at North Shore, then followed that up with her first principal role on Broadway, as aspiring screenwriter Betty Schaefer in “Sunset Boulevard” when it debuted in New York that fall. The show featured a star turn by Glenn Close as Norma Desmond.
“I think it’s a really cool full-circle story about how I’m here with ‘Sunset,’ ” says Ripley, now 55, by phone after a recent rehearsal. “The memories are now flooding back to me from the original production.”
Ripley recalls being enraptured as she watched Close from the wings of the Minskoff Theatre performing “As If We Never Said Goodbye” — Norma’s powerhouse ballad about yearning to return to the bright lights of Hollywood stardom. “I was mesmerized by her performance,” Ripley says. “I loved to watch her before I would go on, and I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to just scour everything that she does with the character.’ ”
When Close returned to the role again in the 2017 Broadway revival, Ripley and a group of her former castmates from the 1994 production went to see the show and visited Close afterward. Ripley pulled her aside and asked how she was able to raise the bar on her already iconic performance. “She said, ‘I guess it’s been marinating in me all these years.’ And then she giggled. That’s kind of how it feels for me right now. I’ve been waiting for this, and I’m honored to step into a role that I feel, to steal Glenn’s word, I’ve been marinating in for 25 years.”
In the intervening two decades, Ripley has carved out a career as Broadway’s cool-girl powerhouse who performs cabaret shows and occasionally moonlights as a guitarist in a rock band. She nabbed her first Tony nomination in 1998, alongside costar Emily Skinner, as conjoined twin Violet Hilton in the cult favorite musical “Side Show,” inspired by the real-life sisters who became staples on the 1930s vaudeville circuit. She played Janet Weiss in “The Rocky Horror Show” and appeared in “James Joyce’s The Dead,” both on Broadway. But Ripley’s role of a lifetime arrived with the edgy, rock-flavored Brian Yorkey-Tom Kitt musical “Next To Normal,” for which she won a 2009 Tony award as Diana Goodman, a suburban wife and mother struggling with bipolar disorder and the effects of electroconvulsive therapy.
She played the part off-Broadway, on Broadway, and in a national tour. “[The role] was so demanding,” Ripley says. “It was overwhelming just to get the show established at the tone where it needed to be, and then by the time that it happened, she had possessed me. So Alice disappeared for a few years.”
Like Diana, Norma is “in a very bad place emotionally,” says Ripley. She’s spent years secluded in her decaying Hollywood mansion following the demise of silent films. Based on Billy Wilder’s classic film noir from 1950 starring Gloria Swanson, the story follows the broke and desperate screenwriter Joe Gillis as he winds up under the sway of Norma after she hires him as a script doctor on a clunker of a screenplay she’s writing, which she envisions as her long-awaited big screen return.
But when she insists that Joe move into her mansion while they complete their work, the depth of Norma’s delusions soon become clear. Resentful of his status as a “kept man,” Joe begins secretly collaborating on an original screenplay with Betty, a Paramount Studios script reader with whom he’s fallen in love. When he tries to push Norma away, her fragile psyche begins to crack.
“She’s manipulative and she will do whatever it takes to get what she wants. I love playing those Sybil-like quick-changes of mood. I think that’s a hallmark quality of the character,” Ripley says. “At the end of the first act, I’m kind of destroyed, and Joe comes in and he’s trying to save me. When I hear him, my tears stop — almost immediately — and I smile a little bit, like, oh, I can’t believe he came back. Like, yes, I got what I wanted.”
Ripley played Betty in “Sunset” throughout its two-year-plus run, first opposite Close, then Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige. So she acknowledges there might be elements of their performances that have seeped into hers.
“I don’t think that there’s any way that I could not steal from them, because they each defined the role in a unique way,” Ripley says. “But I put it into my own instrument, so it’s different because I’m different from each of them. I’m not going to imitate or copy [them]. And Glenn established it — and won a Tony! So those are probably good choices that she made.”
Director Kevin P. Hill says he’s long been a Ripley fan. “She was at the top of our list since Day 1,” he says. “It’s been brewing inside of her all of these years. She steps on that stage, and you can’t take your eyes off of her. We were staging ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’ on Sunday, and the ensemble was just in tears watching this moment.”
Over the years, Ripley would perform that song in her cabaret act, and sometimes she would half-joke in interviews about hoping to play Norma someday. Even as a young actress watching Close perform the role 25 years ago, she wondered if she’d have the chops to bring the character to life one day.
“I think there was a part of me that thought, ‘I could totally play this role someday.’ I mean, it was 25 years ago. How much did I really know about anything or about myself. But I did have that inkling of, ‘Yeah, if I really keep at it, maybe someday I’ll have the chance to play Norma. Boy, wouldn’t that be incredible?’ And now I’m here! And I feel like it’s a natural role for me. So I’m thrilled.”
Presented by North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly, Sept. 24-Oct. 6. Tickets start at $61, 978-232-7200, www.nsmt.org