On the 'Boulevard' with Petula

The nonstop career of the 'Downtown' singer brings her, at 66, to larger-than-life Norma Desmond

By Trilby Davis
Tribune reporter

     Although there are striking similarities between singer Petula Clark and the character she plays in "Sunset Boulevard," Norma Desmond is not Petula Clark.

7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Nov. 19, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Nov. 20 and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 21 at Popejoy Hall, UNM Center for the Arts. Tickets: $31.50-$56.50. Call 851-5050.

     Yes, they're both feisty; they're both glamorous; both in the latter half of life.
     But unlike Desmond, an aging silent star convinced she can make a comeback in talkies, Clark is still a star, appearing in more than 30 American and British films and consistently recording CDs.
     "I don't go around looking for work," Clark says. Work, she says, comes looking for her.
     "Sunset Boulevard," which garnered seven Tony Awards in 1995, arrives in Albuquerque next week for an eight-performance run with the famed British pop singer ("Downtown" and "I Know a Place") in the starring role.
     Based on the 1950 film by Billy Wilder, "Sunset Boulevard" tells the ultimately tragic story of Norma Desmond, a woman who refuses to face reality, living in a world consumed by dreams of fame, love and youth regained.
     Into this dream world stumbles Joe Gillis (played in this production by Lewis Cleale), a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who becomes her reluctant lover and kept man. Gillis, Desmond believes, will provide a bridge to her future.
     "Sunset Boulevard," which Wilder wrote and directed and which starred Gloria Swanson and William Holden, won three Oscars in 1950, including one for best story and screenplay going to Wilder.
     More than four decades later, in July 1993, Andrew Lloyd Webber transformed the cynical story of soul- crushing compromise and twisted dreams into a musical, his 10th.
     Although stars from Glenn Close to Patti LuPone have played Desmond on the stage, Clark never wanted to play Desmond.
     "It took me a long time to fall in love with it (the role)," she says from a hotel room in San Francisco. "I didn't fall in love immediately with Norma. She's a difficult character, an acquired taste, shall we say.
     "I didn't want to play the role at all, but I was talked into it by Trevor Nunn, who directed it on Broadway and London and L.A. He's one of the greatest directors in the world.
     "I kept saying 'No, no, no,' and he kept saying 'Yes, yes, yes,' and I guess he was just better at it than I was," Clark says. "I haven't regretted it, though."
     Clark played the fading star in a London production, and now in a tour across the United States that runs through the year 2000.
     Originally, the musical opened in London with LuPone -- who received stinging notices. Close fared better when she played Desmond in Los Angeles.
     Close, who won a Tony as best actress for the role, opened on Broadway late in 1994 with $37.5 million in ticket sales, the highest advance sales in Broadway history. (The record was previously set by "Beauty and the Beast.")
     By the time "Sunset Boulevard" hit Broadway, Webber, the first person to have three musicals running concurrently in New York and London, was something of an institution.
     The winner of six Tonys, including two for "Sunset Boulevard" (best score and best musical), Webber built a reputation on long-running, moneymaking, star-studded productions with sweeping stories -- often inspired by literature or history -- captured in pop-inflected operatic scores.
     You probably know the titles even if you've never heard a note of the music: "Evita," "Phantom of the Opera" and "Cats," the longest running musical in West End and Broadway history.
     Unlike these epics, though, "Sunset Boulevard" tells an intimate story writ large by Webber's lush score and Desmond's larger-than-life character.
     "I am big," Desmond declares to Gillis soon after meeting him. "It's the pictures that got small!"
     Petula Clark is the latest in a line of doyennes to give voice to la diva Desmond.
     "Andrew said 'Sunset Boulevard' is the only show where we need a star to play a star. It gives it that added buzz to it.'
     "And I think I agree," Clark says.
      "I've seen it played by almost every well-known person (who played the role) and by three understudies, who were wonderful in the role but the audience didn't feel that buzz.
     "And in one case, the understudy was better than the woman who was playing it," she says conspiratorially, "but I'm not going to tell you who that was."
     Desmond presented special challenges to the actress-singer. "I had never been asked to play anybody like her, and I wasn't sure I could do it," Clark says. "She's a formidable character, and the role demands a great deal of an actress and a singer."
     She pauses, gathering her thoughts.
     "I think there are people who come to see me in it who are surprised as well," she says. "They aren't expecting me to be this bizarre. I think it takes them a little while to accustom themselves to it. This is not the Petula Clark they know."
     In a time when Hollywood actresses older than 30 bemoan the difficulty in finding work, the 66-year-old entertainer says hasn't experienced that problem.
     "I didn't ask for this show; they came and twisted my arm to do it," she says.
     "I think it probably is a problem," she says of growing older, "and not just in this business, but personally it hasn't affected me."
     Perhaps Clark hasn't been affected because show business is the only life she's known.
     "What can I say?," she says laughing. "I can't remember anything else, I started when I was 6."
     She pauses again, this time for a little dramatic emphasis.
     "I don't actually have goals or ambitions," Clark says. "I like to enjoy my life from day to day. . . . I don't look back and I'm not nostalgic. I have been criticized for that, I know. But I think today is the important day."
     Soon after "Sunset Boulevard," however, Clark will be looking back, "but not in too sentimental a way" in a one-woman show that will be as close as she says she will ever get to her performing own life story.
     "It will be a concert," Clark says. "You know I've been asked to do my own life story, an autobiography, and I've never, ever wanted to do it. This is the closest I will get to that.
     "I'll be doing my 60s songs and movies, and talking about my French career, which not many people know about, and my love of jazz. It's kind of a cocktail of what I like and what I am."
     But even with these commitments penciled in, Clark won't be pinned down.
     "If there's something else that comes up that I want to do," Clark says simply, "I will."