A Special Talkin' Broadway Interview with

Petula Clark

by Harper Strom, Atlanta

As of May 3rd, 1998, Sunset Boulevard, Andrew Lloyd Webber's grandiose adaptation of Billy Wilder's classic Hollywood film, was essentially dead. After shuttering in New York, London, Canada, and on tour, the German production hung up its turban for the last time. However, less than eight months later, Sunset rose anew, opening its second national tour in Pittsburgh. Starring in the revamped, 47-city tour was none other than Petula Clark, renowned actress and pop vocalist.

Before a successful run as London's Norma Desmond in the original production, Petula was known in the U.S. mainly for her hit 60's songs "Downtown," "Don't Sleep on the Subway," and others. She has also graced the silver screen on several occassions, including Finian's Rainbow with Fred Astaire and Goodbye, Mr. Chips with Peter O'Toole. Being a great fan of Sunset and a certifiable "Norma D," I was thrilled to share a few moments with Petula prior to the Atlanta stop.

HS: Hello, Miss Clark. How are you enjoying Orlando?

PC: Very much. I had a great day yesterday, went to Disney World and had a really great time.

HS: Sounds like fun.

PC: It is fun, and the theatre here is beautiful. The audience was wonderful last night. Well, we only opened last night. Lots of opening nights! (laughing)

HS: I can imagine! The tour must be quite overwhelming. You've been doing it for months now.

PC: Well, this is our sixth month, yes. I played it for over a year in London on the West End, but that is sort of different because [in London] you are sleeping in your own bed and eating in your own, favorite restaurants. You can go out with friends and have a fairly normal life. Touring is different, but I happen to enjoy it. It is not a chore for me. I love touring.

HS: I have read so much about you. You have had quite an illustrious career, both in the US and Great Britain.

PC: (laughing) "Illustrious"!? You think so?

HS: Yes! I mean, you have been doing it for so long and won so many awards. It really is amazing. Could you tell me a little about your earlier career? How you got your spark in the theatre and all that?

PC: Actually, when I first went to the theatre, I think I was about six years old. My father took me to the theatre, and I saw a remarkable actress by the name of Flora Robson - Dame Flora Robson. I think that play was Mary Tudor. We were riding back on the top of the bus afterwards, and I was very quiet. My father said, "What are you thinking?" and I said "That's what I want to do. I want to be an actress." I really didn't want to be a singer; of course, for a six year old in England during the war, there wasn't an awful lot around. (laughing) And we had no influence. I actually got into the business by singing.

So, I sang on the radio when I was eight years old and for the forces and troops serving in the war, and that's how I got into show business, really. Then, I was put under contract because I became . . . sort of like a child star, really. So there I was, under contract, but as an actress, because we weren't making musicals anyway in England, they were too expensive. I always had two careers going on: one as an actress, one as a singer. Very, very rarely did they come together as in Sunset, where I'm doing both. But acting was always my first love. In some ways, I've always approached singing as acting, and the voice is just like a way of carrying the song . . . oh, but I'm getting a little involved now! (laughing)

HS: That's OK!

PC: Don Black, who wrote the lyrics for Sunset, has always said of me that when I sing a song, I don't just sing it, I kind of "perform" it. I act it out. And I think that that is very true.

HS: That is so important. I do feel that many people in the theatre today can get up there and sing well enough, but if they have some emotion behind it, that really helps. And you do that wonderfully.

PC: Thank you. These are particularly good songs, too. Norma's character is a little bit "odd," shall we say, and it is probably through her songs that we get more insight into what she is really like. I mean, the song in the second act, "As If We Never Said Goodbye," really shows us what Norma is all about, what she has been living for this moment. And her first song, too, "With One Look," when she is telling this young man, Joe Gillis, that with one look, she can more or less stop the world. So, the songs are a sort of insight into her character. They're almost like soliloquies, really.

HS: I've heard that when you were first approached about the role, you weren't quite wild about this woman, Norma Desmond.

PC: I didn't want to play it. It's as simple as that, I just didn't want to do it. I didn't much like her, but an actress really doesn't have to "like" a character. I had seen it on Broadway. I was impressed by it, but I had no desire to play it. Perhaps I was a little scared of it, who knows, but I had never been asked to play anyone like this before. I had always been cast in roles that were so-called "right" for me.

HS: When did you begin to get a little more acquainted with this character and start to like her more?

Petula Clark and Lewis Cleale in PC: Well, it was Trevor who talked me into doing it. I kept saying, "No, I can't do this. I can't do this" and he said, "Yes, you can. You'll be marvelous." And I thought that if Trevor Nunn thinks so, maybe I can! It took me about three months playing her on stage before I really started getting under the skin of it. By the time I had finished the run, I loved her very much, and I still love her.

HS: Do you think Norma has survived the whirlwind changes the show has undergone?

PC: Oh, I think so, yes. And Andrew thinks so too; he saw it recently.

HS: Was that slightly intimidating, having him come and check out the new product?

PC: Um . . . A little! (laughing) Yes, frankly. I think that it was probably more intimidating for our director because Andrew had already seen me play it before.

The show survives [the changes] very well. In fact, I think the show is better. That is my personal feeling about it. I think we see the show better; we understand it better. The original production was very beautiful, but in a way, it detracted from what the play is about. This isn't a play about a set and costumes, it's about people. I feel that in this production we are able to grasp the story much better; we are able to feel more for the characters because the characters are able to get across better. I'm not quite sure where that begins and ends, but . . .

HS: Susan Schulman's new direction has pulled a total 180 with it and made it so it isn't about the sets or costumes.

PC: Well, the costumes are exactly the costumes I was wearing in England. None of that's changed. The jewelry, the turbans, the whole tra-la-la, all of that, because that is Norma. Her set is very, very beautiful; her environment has to be beautiful and slightly over-the-top. It's beautiful [now] in a different way. It's not the hydraulics; it's more theatrics. You see the set actually happening there in front of your eyes. It's not like this giant spaceship thing that comes down out of the ceiling. I worked on that set, on the hydraulic set, so I know what it was like. It was fun and all the rest of it, but it was technically very complicated and used to break down quite a lot! (laughing) This set is much easier, but it is no less beautiful.

HS: Is this the first time you've been touring the United States since Blood Brothers?

PC: Yes, it is.

HS: How's it been treating you so far?

PC: Oh, great! I enjoy touring. It is more difficult in some ways, but the time goes so fast. A week in one place is nothing. By the time you're settled in, you're off again.

Petula Clark as Norma DesmondHS: And the shows are so different. Is it harder walking out of the theatre, fresh off Norma Desmond and all of her . . .

PC: Madness? (laughing)

HS: . . . madness (laughing), instead of Blood Brothers, where you played a more down-to-earth woman?

PC: Yes. The last few scenes in this show are pretty dramatic. It takes me a little while to wind down. Usually, by the time I've gotten out of my trappings of mics, and I can see my own hair again, that usually helps. I'm starting to look a little more like me and therefore feel a little more like me. But the makeup is important in this show. I hardly wore any makeup in Blood Brothers, my own hair, etc. But in this, the preparation usually takes me about two hours to get ready. It's almost like a kind of ceremony, a ritual. It's part of getting ready to be someone else. As soon as I walk onto the stage, I have an American accent. I don't even think about putting on my American accent, I just have it as soon as I step on stage. I'm another person. It's quite curious, really.

HS: Have you been thinking about how long you are going to stay with the new tour?

PC: They asked me originally to sign for two years. After they picked me up off the floor, I said, "How about six months?" and they said, "How about a year?" So, I signed for a year, but they have recently come back and asked if I wound stay on an extra six months.

HS: Do you have any plans so far for anything after Sunset?

PC: Yes, if I had not been doing this now, I would have been doing my own one-woman show. Its a sort of autobiographical, well not "sort of," as it would go back to childhood, things I did way back . . . the movies, the shows, the 60's stuff, my French career. I'm working with one of the artistic directors from Cirque du Soleil, who will be directing it.

HS: That will be interesting. They really do do quite a breathtaking job.

PC: Yes, I agree. I think that they are some of the most talented people in this business. And I've already worked with them up in Montreal. So, while I'm on tour, I'm going to be working on that. I'm virtually writing it myself. The director said, "Well, you know, there's only one person who can write this. It's got to be your view of it, not somebody else's idea of what it was like.

HS: I can't thank you enough for making this a wonderful interview. I really can't wait to see the show.

PC: It was a pleasure!

At this point, Petula had one more interview before dashing to the Carr Performing Arts Center for her 8:00 curtain, so we bid a final adieu, and she was off to another call. Truly a woman of varied yet equally marvelous talents, Petula Clark has succeeded not only in breathing life into a show whose sun had otherwise set, but she has also managed to mold one of the theatre's most challenging roles into her own, unique creation. With her future looking bright and Sunset burning up the stage once again, 1999 may just be Petula's perfect year.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard, starring Petula Clark, will run Tuesday, May 18 through Sunday, May 23 at the Fabulous Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE.

Evening showtimes are 8:00PM Tuesday through Satuday, 7:30PM Sunday, with matineess at 2:00PM on Saturday and Sunday.

For tickets, visit TicketMaster or call (404) 249-6400.

This is a Mastercard Broadway Series of Atlanta presentation. Call (800) 278-4447 to subcribe to the 99'-00' season.

Also see Harper's review of Sunset Blvd.
[ 1999 Talkin' Broadway! | Produced by miner miracles ]