'60s pop star turns Lloyd Webber diva

By JUDITH EGERTON The Courier-Journal
From Dec. 27, 1998

Petula Clark
Petula Clark played "Sunset Boulevard's" Norma Desmond in London.
For those who came of age in the 1960s, the name Petula Clark recalls the clear ripply voice of "Downtown," "I Know a Place," and "Don't Sleep in the Subway."

Or perhaps you recall the English singer's portrayal of Peter O'Toole's loving wife in the 1969 movie "Goodbye, Mr. Chips."

But to Clark, who has been performing on stage and screen for more than 50 years, the 1960s played only a small part in a long, accomplished career.

"The '60s were great, but I was around before the '60s and I've been around since -- I'm not stuck in a time warp like that," Clark said in a recent telephone interview.

In concerts, she sings her '60s hit songs, but they're only part of her repertoire. "I love all kinds of music, rhythm and blues, jazz, classical," she said. Of her '60s recordings, her personal favorite is "Don't Sleep in the Subway."

At 66, Clark still holds a place at the top of the fickle entertainment business. And this week she'll appear for the first time in Louisville at the Kentucky Center for the Arts as Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard," part of the PNC Bank Broadway Series.

The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical is an adaptation of Billy Wilder's 1950 movie, which starred Gloria Swanson as a once-great film star and William Holden as her lover and victim.

Clark is a stage veteran who's played Norma Desmond before.

Born in Surrey, Clark began acting before she was a teen-ager. She has kissed Alec Guinness, danced with Fred Astaire and shared tea with friend Charlie Chaplin, who wrote "This Is My Song" for her.

In recent years she starred as Maria in "The Sound of Music," performed concerts throughout the world and appeared on Broadway in "Blood Brothers." For more than a year, she played Norma Desmond in the London production of "Sunset Boulevard" at the specific request of Lloyd Webber and director Trevor Nunn.

The current U.S. touring production isn't radically different from the London show or the Broadway version with Glenn Close. The music, costumes and dialogue are the same. However, the musical was modified so that it's easier to move. The elaborate staircase in Desmond's mansion, seen in an earlier aborted tour of the show, has been simplified. And the story itself has been made clearer, Clark said.

"Norma is this rather monstrous, unpleasant person, and Joe is a money-grabbing gigolo," Clark said. But under Susan Schulman's direction, the relationship between the two flawed characters is more clear and understandable and therefore, more moving, she said.

"And the music is gorgeous, just exquisite," she said. But she noted that Lloyd Webber "is merciless with singers. He writes stuff that is very beautiful but very difficult to sing."

She particularly likes singing "Salome" in a scene where Desmond explains a screenplay she has written that she hopes will return her to stardom. The "most charming song" in the show is "Perfect Year," said Clark, adding that she also likes "With One Look" and "We Never Said Goodbye."

Clark's last movie role was "Never, Never Land" in 1981. Although she enjoyed acting in films, theater suits her better. "With a stage performance, you take that journey for 21/2 hours and you go from A to B, and, of course, there's an audience. For me, the whole business of entertaining is basic. It's having an audience."

And how does a down-to-earth, friendly actor-singer with a beautiful home in Switzerland and three adult children transform herself into a desperately lonely, manipulative old vamp?

"I start preparing by putting my makeup on," she said. "As I put on the makeup I feel myself starting to change. By the time I'm dressed I'm no longer Petula. She (Desmond) sort of takes me over. She is neurotic, she is deluded, but I actually think she is a great lady."

Shedding Desmond's persona is more difficult, Clark said. "It takes me a good half hour to really get back to normal."

If you go . . .

"Sunset Boulevard," part of the PNC Bank Broadway Series, begins Tuesday, Dec. 29, at the Kentucky Center for the Arts and runs through Sunday. Curtain times are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday.

Ticket prices range from $24.50 to $47.50. Call the KCA box office at 584-7777 or, toll-free, (800) 775-7777. Tickets also are available at Ticketmaster outlets at Kroger stores and Disc Jockey Records.