Petula Clark close-up / Singer of '60s pop is ready for her role as silent screen star


Sunday, November 29, 1998

Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

Petula Clark told us to go downtown, then warned us not to sleep in the subway, in her pop-music heyday in the '60s.

Now the veteran British singer-actress is telling us that Norma Desmond is "a fly in amber."

"Norma's stuck there," Clark said recently by phone from New York, where she was rehearsing to star as Norma in a 47-city tour of "Sunset Boulevard" that will open a six-day run Dec. 8 at Richmond's Landmark Theater.

Clark ought to know.

She played Norma -- the has-been silent-movie queen in the pop opera that Andrew Lloyd Webber fashioned from Billy Wilder's 1950 movie -- the last two years of the show's London run.

She played Norma long enough to know that she and Norma could hardly be more different.

Norma (Gloria Swanson on the screen) lives in a secluded Hollywood mansion. She dreams of making a comeback in the age of talkies. She latches onto penniless young writer Joe Gillis (William Holden on film), who becomes her unwitting gigolo, script-writing collaborator and eventual victim.

She's more than a little mad.

Clark, a thoroughly modern woman who turned 66 two Sundays ago, speaks in cultured British tones, laughs easily and carefully considers a question before answering.

When she isn't touring America in musicals -- she starred in "Blood Brothers" three years ago at the Carpenter Center -- she's giving concerts somewhere in the world. (Yes, she still sings "Downtown" and "Don't Sleep in the Subway" in every gig.) She calls London, Paris and Geneva home.

"When I started playing Norma, I didn't like her much," Clark confided from her suite in New York's Grammercy Park Hotel.

"She's a woman who lives in the past, and that's something I don't go along with. She's deluded. She's fabricated this fantasy that she's still in demand, and she is not a particularly pleasant lady. She's used to getting her own way. All in all, I didn't much like her.

"Not like I liked Mrs. Johnstone in 'Blood Brothers,' " Clark continued.

"Mrs. Johnstone was fairly close to me even if I was playing an impoverished Liverpool housewife who had seven children and was expecting another. I felt connected to Mrs. Johnstone as a mother. I understood the emotions Mrs. Johnstone must have felt."

Norma is a monster, then?

"No," Clark said after one of her long pauses.

"If Norma is just a monstrous personality and Joe is just a gigolo, there's really nothing very interesting about that. I've seen 'Sunset Boulevard' played along those lines, but I'm not going to say where.

"We don't have to like Norma, but I think we should feel a lot of things for her. She has a sense of humor, and that should come across. I think we should see that she was truly once a great star. She's had other lovers, and we should understand why.

"Norma is a different kind of character for me. Before Norma, I had never been asked to portray hate, fear, jealousy and madness. I find it emotionally very draining because I really am using emotional stuff inside me."

Clark starred in the original London production, which, like its Broadway equivalent, floated Norma's fantasy mansion on hydraulic lifts. She'll be wearing the same Anthony Powell costumes in Richmond, but the scenery, the direction and the rest of the cast will be different.

This "Sunset Boulevard" will sound different, too.

"This is a different version," Clark said. "Lloyd Webber hasn't rewritten it, but he's quite keen on seeing it set on a more human level. It's still musically very demanding, but not all of it is sung in this version. [Director] Susan Schulman has put a lot of the dialogue back into speech.

"It's much more demanding than 'Blood Brothers.' When I first started rehearsing the music in London, the musical director said to me, 'You know, Petula, if you keep doing it like this, you won't last two weeks.'

"He was right.

"I'm used to being very free in my singing. In 'Blood Brothers,' I would sing the songs differently every night. As Norma, I can't do that. The music is so complex that I realized I had to decide how I was going to sing those songs and sing them like that every night.

"When you do that, it's like feeding information into a computer, singing it the same way night after night. Your throat and your breathing become accustomed to the same way of singing a song."

Clark won't miss the spectacular floating effects created by those hydraulic lifts.

"The original production was magnificent and in some ways was overshadowed by that magnificence," she said. "This version concentrates more on the characters, on fleshing out what's really going on in the story.

"But what's on the road is not a cheapo version. I haven't seen the decor yet, but I've seen the sketches and maquettes, and it doesn't seem scaled down much to me. What we don't have, mainly, is that huge hydraulic house."

You might think that Clark would approach a 47-city tour through the year 2000 with some trepidation at an age when many people are content to sit back and collect their pensions.

After all, that's essentially living out of a suitcase in at least 47 different hotels.

If Clark is apprehensive, she doesn't let on.

"I adore touring America," she said. "This may sound corny, but it's still a big adventure to me. Let's face it. I'm a foreigner."

© 1998, Richmond Newspapers Inc.