Petula Clark's Voice to Color Musical 'Sunset' Downtown

by Whitney Smith, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee)

Petula Clark will indeed head "downtown" when she returns to Memphis next week - but not to sing her 60s hit by that name.

The British entertainer will come back to the city, where she recorded Memphis for producer Chips Moman, to play Norma Desmond in the Andrew Lloyd Webber stage musical Sunset Boulevard at the Orpheum.

If you're thinking that the role of the fading silent film icon a stretch for Clark, you may not be alone.

The 66-year-old entertainer who got a late start in musicals in the early 1980s said she has spent her own fair share of time, trying to dissuade directors from casting her as Maria in The Sound of Music and as Norma Desmond.

"I hesitate about a lot of things," said a bemused Clark by telephone from Louisville, where she was opening in Sunset. "When they first asked me to do Sound of Music I sort of laughed. They said, `Why are you laughing?' and I said I was totally wrong for Sound of Music.

"First of all, it's Julie Andrews. I know Julie very well. We grew up together. It's that lovely, fresh high voice. I sing about a tone and a half lower than her. I'm a very different person.

"At that time, I had never seen Sound of Music so I bought the tape and thought she was wonderful. Then I said there was absolutely no way but they kept insisting."

After the score was reorchestrated for her, Clark performed it during the 1981-82 season. She said Maria von Trapp, a member of the singing family that fled the Nazis and inspired the story, attended a show and seemed pleased with Clark's "earthy" take on the role.

Clark was also skeptical when Sunset Boulevard director Trevor Nunn approached her about playing Desmond. Many well-known performers, including Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley and Glenn Close, have played the pathetic has-been who falls for a would-be screenwriter and sees their collaboration on a script as a comeback.

"I spent about three hours with Trevor," Clark said. "It's a pity it wasn't taped. Looking back now, it was amusing. It was me, trying to convince him it was not a good idea and him being absolutely charming and convinced it was."

In 1989 Clark opened in a musical she composed and co-wrote. Although it was eventually rewritten into a love story such that it no longer resembled the show she envisioned, Clark said she remains interested in the subject matter. Set in West Virginia during Reconstruction, it focused on a British nurse who marries a circuit preacher and ministers to soldiers from the North and the South. Clark said she is not expecting a revival anytime soon.

"Unfortunately, the British didn't know anything about the Reconstruction period," she said. "They thought they were going to see Gone With the Wind. They did not.

"We did a tour of the UK, which was very successful, and then the director decided he wanted to bring somebody else in to rewrite. She knew absolutely nothing about the Reconstruction period and I thought I had a great feel for it. The whole American Civil War just moves me."

Based in Geneva, Switzerland, Clark also lives in London, Paris and New York. She was born in a suburb outside London and became a child entertainer on the BBC. She performed in several movies in the 1940s and '50s.

Apart from her musical theater work, she continues to perform a one-woman musical act. She also continues to record; her latest album is "Here for You."

It's as a pop singer that Clark is probably most widely known in the United States. Hits include With All My Heart in the '50s, I Know A Place and Downtown.

"I had had a career long before Downtown," Clark said, "but that's possibly when Americans first heard of me. The song made such an impact that it kind of got stuck in people's brains."

WHAT: Sunset Boulevard
WHERE: The Orpheum
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 8 p.m. Jan. 15; 2 and 8 p.m. Jan. 16; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 17.
PRICE: $15 to $60 plus service charge
CALL: 525-1515