Monday, January 03, 2000

Clark's role call

Petula Clark brings the story of actress Desmond to the Weidner Center

By Warren Gerds


Norma Desmond is stuck on a guy. She's also stuck in the past. She was glamorous and glorious in Hollywood's silent movie era.

Now half-crazed, Norma believes she can dazzle the world again in talkies, with Cecil B. DeMille directing. Norma will do anything to return to glory -- and keep that man.

You've got to know a bit about Norma to clue in to Petula Clark, who plays her in the production of Sunset Boulevard that opens Tuesday at the Weidner Center.

Norma was the key character in what's considered one of the best movies ever made. The parody got new life on stage from composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, first on London's West End, where Clark eventually would play Norma for a year. Now she's well past another year as Norma, hopscotching North America. The attraction?

"It's Norma," Clark said. "The funny thing is, the reason I didn't want to do it in the first place was Norma. I didn't like her. I didn't think that I would be able to play her."

Talking her into taking the role was Trevor Nunn, a leading director in England. He knew her background:

Child star of the 1940s. International hit records in the 1960s, led by Downtown and Don't Sleep in the Subway. Movie credits galore. Concert star. Stage musical credits by the bundle, including Broadway. Three grown children. She's a grandmother, too.

"I had never been cast in anything like this before," Clark said. "I was a little nervous of it. But then I asked Trevor what he thought I would bring to the role -- why he asked me to do it -- he said, 'I want you to bring -- and you will bring -- vulnerability and humor.'

"I had never associated that with Norma Desmond up until that moment. I thought, 'Well, yes, it's not actually on the page, it's not in the script, but if this woman is played as this monstrous, one-dimensional creature, audiences won't be interested in the character at all."

Also important is celebrity. Norma is a celebrity, and the woman playing her has to have a name herself, Clark said. That's based on the times she saw Sunset Boulevard, with stars and with understudies.

"The understudies were equally good in the role, but when you saw a star coming down that staircase as Norma Desmond, we're supposed to be looking at Norma Desmond when in fact we're looking at such-and-such as Norma Desmond," she said.

"And it's totally unfair. A couple of the understudies were absolutely brilliant, but it didn't quite have that thing. Andrew is aware of it. Trevor's aware of it. It's just one of those shows."