Tony Award winner Alice Ripley said that playing Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” is like trying on a vintage garment and feeling it was made just for her.
“I woke up today thinking I’ve never had such a good fit,” she said.
The musical, which is based on the film from 1950 and features a score by Andrew Lloyd Webber, is onstage at North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly through Oct. 6.
Ripley played Betty Schaefer, who reads scripts at Paramount Studios, in the original Broadway production of the musical, from 1994.
But this is the first time she has played Norma Desmond, which Ripley said is a “dream come true,” in part because the role has always been on her “bucket list.” The timing of this production also seems just right.
“It’s a 25-year anniversary of when we did the Broadway show with the original company,” she said. “I think it’s what everybody wants right now. It feels like a double helix in a way because Norma’s coming back in a way, and in a way, I’m coming back, too.”
Not only is Ripley coming back to “Sunset Boulevard,” but this production marks her return to North Shore Music Theatre, where she appeared in “Sweeney Todd” in 1994, just before finding out she was going to be in “Sunset Boulevard” on Broadway.
That was the second time she had been in “Sweeney Todd,” which she also appeared in 10 years before that, in college.
“You revisit a show and play a different role — I’ve only done that three times, and two of the three times are at North Shore Music Theatre,” Ripley said.
Norma is a once-great movie star from the silent era who never made the transition to talking pictures, but clings with desperation — and a fair amount of delusion — to her former glory.
When a struggling writer named Joe Gillis stumbles into Norma’s life, after pulling into the driveway of her mansion by chance, he becomes entangled in her fantasies.
Norma’s home is an important presence in any production of this story, and Ripley said that audience members at North Shore Music Theatre will feel like they are inside the dwelling, which is almost a projection of the woman who owns it.
“At one time, Norma’s house was ostentatious, but it’s really got a crumbling splendor and it’s intimidating, and that’s where it becomes Norma,” Ripley said. “She does have a split personality.”
While this appearance represents a return to “Sunset Boulevard” for Ripley, her career contrasts sharply with Norma’s, because she has worked steadily in a series of high-profile shows.
Along with her role in “Next to Normal,” which won a Pulitzer Prize while earning Ripley a Tony in 2009, she also appeared on Broadway in “Rocky Horror Picture Show” from 2000 to 2002 and in “Side Show” from 1997 to 1998, a musical about conjoined twins.
Ripley said that she has been inspired in this new role by all the actresses who played Desmond before her. But she was especially impressed by the performance of Glenn Close, to whom she listened while backstage on Broadway.
“Somebody like Glenn, she defines the role for me,” Ripley said. “It’s smart for me to look at what she did and go, ‘This is the bible, how can I make it my own?’”
The role that Ripley played in the Broadway version of “Sunset Boulevard,” Betty, is being played in this production by Lizzie Klemperer, who last appeared at North Shore Music Theatre in “Les Miserables” in 2014.
“Before the audition, I saw that Alice Ripley was going to be doing this show, and I thought, wow, anybody who gets to do that show is lucky,” Klemperer said.
As “Sunset Boulevard” unfolds, Betty ends up competing with Norma for Joe’s attention, although the two never cross paths.
Betty is nearly the opposite of Norma in many ways, but most obviously in her attitude toward show business, which she knows is built on deception but hopes to use as a vehicle for getting at the truth.
Betty’s lack of illusion is due in part to the fact that her parents worked behind the scenes in show business, which somewhat parallels Klemperer’s own background.
She said she is “distantly related” to Otto Klemperer, the great conductor who led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the 1930s and whose son was Werner Klemperer, the actor who played Col. Klink in “Hogan’s Heroes” on television during the late 1960s.
Otto’s cousin Victor Klemperer was an academic whose reflections on Nazi culture rule are famous documents of that era.
But more directly, Klemperer’s father is a violinist who has been playing for the Syracuse Symphony for 50 years, while her mother is a semi-retired opera singer.
Lizzie Klemperer recently appeared on Broadway in “School of Rock,” which also features music by Webber, whose work she admires.
“I watched an interview of his once where he said his first criterion is to get a good story,” Klemperer said. “I think that’s what has made him so popular — he chose good material to write, and his melodies are so beautiful.”
She said that musicals today are often written for the upper range of “belty” voices and reflect the popularity of rock ’n’ roll, but Betty’s vocals in “Sunset Boulevard” are reminiscent of composers like Rodgers and Hammerstein.
“There are very few contemporary roles where you get to use a legitimate soprano voice, and this is one of them,” Klemperer said. “It’s a perfect mesh of my classical background and the theater.”
She said that, while she doesn’t think of herself as middle-aged, she doesn’t usually get to play younger roles and enjoys stepping into Betty’s shoes.
“Of course, she’s smart, and un-jaded,” Klemperer said. “She has a backbone, too, which is great.”
If you go
What: “Sunset Boulevard”
When: Sept. 26 and Oct. 1, 2 and 3 at 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 27-28 and Oct. 4-5 at 8 p.m.; and Sept. 28-29 and Oct. 2, 5 and 6 at 2 p.m.
Where: North Shore Music Theatre, 62 Dunham Road, Beverly
How much: $61 to $86
More information: 978-232-7200 or www.nsmt.org