"Clark takes a spin on 'Sunset Boulevard': The international recording star
shines as Norma Desmond"
by Nina Garin
San Diego Union-Tribune, July 22, 1999
As the great Norma Desmond she's a bitter fading living legend. But when she wipes away the caked-on makeup lifts off her glamorous red wig and steps away from the spiral staircase Petula Clark returns to her ordinary life as the great Pet Clark.
Call her "great," not only because she's starring as one of theater's classic leading ladies in a touring production of "Sunset Boulevard," but because she's also an international recording star, best known in the United States for her 1964 Grammy-Award winning hit "Downtown."
And call her ordinary, because, when least expected, the British-bred Clark isn't too proper to let loose and sing with some R&B bands at a neighborhood bar.
"I've gone to some amazing cities on this tour," she said from a hotel room in Dallas. "When the cast performed in Memphis, we just had a party. We went out to watch these blues bands and we were getting up, jamming and singing with everybody."
It's not surprising that Clark can pick up and perform in uncommon places. Since her childhood days during World War II, the fresh-faced singer entertained troupes of all kinds with her innocently sweet voice.
That eventually led to a contract with the English studio Arthur J. Rank Organization, where she made dozens of movies. Then came her music career with hits like "I Know a Place," "This Is My Song" and "Don't Sleep in the Subway."
And then, almost 30 years and some West End and Broadway credits later ("Someone Like You" and "Blood Brothers") - came Norma Desmond.
"I was very surprised when (director) Trevor Nunn approached me about the role; I had no desire to play her," Clark said about the musical's heroine based on Billy Wilder's 1950 film. "I asked him, 'What makes you think I can pull it off? I've never played anything like this in my life.' "
But pull it off she did. She performed the part of the tormented silent screen idol under Nunn's direction in London for two years. And now she's taking the role on the road with a new director (Susan H. Schulman) and a revamped set.
"This production has a fresh look. The set is gorgeous. It doesn't come out of the ceiling and wave around all over the place," she said. "When I first saw the musical in New York with Glenn Close, I was distracted. My eye was going away from what I was supposed to be watching and focusing on the set - all I could think was, 'How the hell did they do that?'"
A grandiose stage isn't the only thing Clark was happy to change about the musical. Something else was disturbing her.
"I was strangely unmoved when I saw 'Sunset Boulevard' in New York," she said. "It bothered me, because I liked to be moved one way or another. I felt I didn't like Norma enough, and if you really dislike her, you don't give a damn about what happens.
"I've tried to make Norma likable by giving her some humor - if you can find something funny, it breaks down the resistance a bit. But she's become one of those roles like Hamlet; there are many different ways of playing it. You can have a favorite way, but my feeling is that I want to be moved when I go to the theater."
Perhaps Norma's new vulnerability is why Clark misses the character when she takes breaks between performances. Though, she's quick to add that unlike other roles, she leaves this one in the dressing room after the curtain goes down.
"It takes about 20 minutes to come down each night, but I definitely don't take her home with me," she laughed.
But home for Clark has always been a relative word. Though she was embraced in France when she moved there with her husband, she's been touring worldwide since her days as a girl in bobby socks.
And she intends to keep going.
Though her contract with "Sunset Boulevard" is up in 2000, she said she doesn't plan on leaving anytime soon. And the same can be said about her music career. She recently released a new album, "Here for You," a collection of show tunes and pop songs.
"Singing and acting are very much alike," she said. "There's a lot of music and acting and a kind of rhythm and music to language. But if I had to choose, I think it would be singing. The whole physical act of singing is something very spiritual and beautiful - it's not just getting the notes out; anyone can do that - it's a means of communication that's very precious if you're able to do it."