Singer learns to love `Sunset' role

At first, '60s pop star Petula Clark found it terrifying

By Rich Copley

If you're having trouble picturing the woman who sang perky hits such as Downtown playing the fading silent-film star Norma Desmond, you're not alone.

Petula Clark needed some convincing, too.

Trevor Nunn, who directed Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard in London, called Clark and asked her to come see him about the leading role.

``I spent three hours in his office arguing with him, telling him it really wasn't a good idea to do it -- that I wasn't right for the part,'' Clark said.

``He just kept saying, `Of course you are.' ''

She took the role with much trepidation.

``I don't actually remember saying `Yes, I'll do it,' '' Clark said. ``For the first month, I really didn't enjoy it. It was terrifying, it was absolutely terrifying. It was all I could do to remember my lines and not trip over the furniture.''

Then something started happening.

``I began to fall in love with Norma,'' Clark said. ``And when the show was over (in London), I found myself missing her.''

So Clark didn't hesitate to sign on for a U.S. tour of Sunset Boulevard. The show comes to Louisville's Kentucky Center for the Arts on Tuesday, playing through Sunday, Jan. 3.

``I said, `I'll get to see Norma again,' '' Clark said.

Sunset Boulevard is based on the 1950 film starring Gloria Swanson and William Holden. It is the story of a fading and delusional Desmond and her improbable relationship with struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis.

Joe happens upon Norma's house one day while fleeing repo men. When Norma finds out Joe is a screenwriter, she persuades him to stay and help her revise a script for Salome, which she believes will be her comeback role.

When the script is finished, Joe prepares to leave, but Norma pleads with him to stay because she has fallen in love with him. He reluctantly agrees, setting a manipulative, twisted, tragic affair in motion.

The original stage show in New York and London featured rooms on hydraulic lifts and other special effects. But that sort of elaborate equipment doesn't travel well, so director Susan Schulman trimmed the show.

But Clark is insistent that this Sunset is not ``a potted version of what it was.''

``From the audience's point of view, I think it is better,'' she said. ``I thought the London production was magnificent, and that was the flagship, but people will be more touched by this. You're able to get more emotionally involved.''

Getting emotionally involved is what endeared Desmond to Clark.

``The tendency is to play her as this gargoyle,'' Clark said. ``But who cares about her if she's a gargoyle. She's actually quite fragile.''

What's more, we shouldn't think of Petula Clark as just that Downtown girl.

``I'm not bright and perky all the time,'' she said. ``Putting people in pigeon holes is foolish anyway.''

That goes for pop singers -- and characters in musicals.

If you go

Sunset Boulevard. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday at the Kentucky Center for the Arts, Louisville. Tickets, $24.50-$47.50, available by calling (800) 775-7777.