Sunset Boulevard

Andrew Lloyd Webber's musicalization of he classic film. At the Shubert theatre (247 College St., New Haven) April 20-May 2. Call 562-5666 or 1-800-PROTIXX.

By Christopher Arnott

Like many fans of the 1950 Billy Wilder masterpiece Sunset Boulevard, I've been reluctant to see Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical version of this astonishing film for fear that no adaptation could do the original justice--not even with a script by Christopher (Les Liasons Dangereuse) Hampton and a starring role that every stage diva of our time has clamored to play. Wilder's masterpiece captured the final fade of the glory days of early Hollywood, through the eyes of a jaded screenwriter and his egomaniacal patroness, the washed-up yet still implacably imperious onetime silent screen goddess Norma Desmond. On film, Norma was defined by Gloria Swanson, and Wilder's work spoke directly to the medium in which it was created. Any apprehensions I have about the overall qualities of Andrew Lloyd Webber's score pale next to these qualms about how Sunset Boulevard can be taken both out of its time and out of its medium.

Well, it's finally inescapable--two weeks of Sunset in New Haven starting April 20, and a further fortnight in Hartford a few months hence. A phone chat this week with the vivacious and sweet-voiced Petula Clark, who starred in the show for over a year in London and now powers the current national tour, has allayed many of my concerns.

For starters, she had a healthy skepticism about Sunset Boulevard herself--and remember, this is a show for which Faye Dunaway sued the producers (Really Useful Productions) so that she might play in it on Broadway. "I had seen the show on Broadway, when Glenn Close was doing it," Clark told me, "and was totally blown away with the set, but wasn't particularly moved. I thought it was splendid, just wasn't moved. Then I basically forgot about it, until Trevor Nunn"--who directed the Broadway and London productions of the show--"called and told me they wanted me for it. So I spent three hours in the office at Really Useful, with me protesting why I didn't want to do it." Nunn won her over when he suggested that Clark could bring "vulnerability" to the part. This surprised her, since she'd found the starring role of Norma Desmond not just unmoving but thoroughly unlikeable. Now, she says, "there will always be people who compare this to the movie. But there can be many different Norma Desmonds. It's a bit like Hamlet, where you might prefer Laurence Olivier, or Kenneth Branagh, or even Mel Gibson."

All the famous stage Normas--Close, Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley, Elaine Page, Linda Balgord--have had outstanding theater careers. But Clark is the only one who was actually making movies (albeit in her native England, not America) during the Hollywood period in which Sunset Boulevard is set. Clark even met Gloria Swanson once: "She was a formidable lady, but a tiny tiny woman." But Clark does not consciously reference Swanson, or any of the musical Normas who've preceded her, in her own performance.

Judging from the reviews, Clark's is one of the lighter, giddier interpretations. One of the motifs she draws from her portrayal is embedded in that old song "Everything Must Change." "Whether we like it or not," Clark says, "everything does change. Some people don't see that. Norma doesn't."

A previous U.S. tour of Sunset Boulevard proved too unwieldy for many theaters, largely due to the hydraulic lifts needed for some awesome scene changes. The current production is less technically excessive, yet Clark insists that "the design's still pretty magnificent. Andrew Lloyd Webber finally saw it a few weeks ago in Detroit, and said it played better now that the production brought more to the people; the set had overpowered it."

That humanity, and that discipline, are what continue to draw Petula Clark back to the rigors of live theater. And unlike the Norma Desmond she has grown to understand, Clark's own multi-faceted career has overcome and embraced seismic changes in popular music and the performing arts. She was an actress with over a dozen films on her resumé before her singing career took prominence in the late 1950s. Her popularity as a concert attraction has never waned. Her pop records, particularly the batch penned for her by Tony Hatch in the 1960s (including "Downtown," "I Know a Place" and her personal favorite "Don't Sleep in the Subway"), have become classics. "They're great songs. They stand up. They aren't full of outdated references. I don't feel silly doing them. I mean, if I were stuck with 'Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini...'" she muses, then laughs out loud when told that ditty is supposedly Andrew Lloyd Webber's favorite pop song of all time.

Petula Clark's previous appearance at the Shubert, playing the poverty-stricken Mrs. Johnstone in Willy Russell's Blood Brothers, demonstrated her estimable acting abilities. She mentions that her next stage project will mix both her acting and singing personae--a one-woman show based on her own life, which Clark is working on with a member of Cirque du Soleil.