Petula Clark sheds '60s pop perkiness for plum in 'Sunset Boulevard'
by Lisa Jann Seattle Times
July 29, 1999

She started out as a child singer, entertaining the troops in Piccadilly Circus. Then she gained international fame as a perky, crop-haired pop idol of the '60s with hits like "Don't Sleep in the Subway" and "Downtown." Three decades later, she's a fading, brooding bat of an actress, her withered hand clutching desperately to memories of past glory.

You may have been stumped by the last clue. But if you were thinking of Petula Clark, then you're right on all counts.

Of course, the young-voiced, 66-year-old Clark is the furthest thing from an old bat these days; she just happens to be playing one on stage. After starring in the London production for over a year, she reprises the role of Norma Desmond in the touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Boulevard," which opens at the Paramount Theatre Tuesday for a two-week run.

Having to transform her sweet, pert image into that of "an unpleasant, rude, deluded and spoiled woman," Clark admits that she was very reluctant to take on the role when first approached by London director Trevor Nunn. Although she initially felt wrong for the part, Nunn convinced her that she could make the abrasive character that Glenn Close popularized into her own.

"When I asked him what he thought I could bring to the part, he told me, `Vulnerability and humor,"' says Clark from her hotel room in San Diego. "I didn't think those things would be possible to get into Norma . . . In this redirection, I'm allowed to go further into those two."

Changing the nature of the beast, so to speak, became central to this production of the musical. For both practicality and artistic redesign, director Susan Schulman has scaled down the original epic set, doing away with the hydraulic platforms in favor of grand, yet technically simpler, staging. In addition to the physical alterations, Schulman has encouraged her cast to play the story a little differently, and focuses more on the characters and less on their dramatic setting. For instance, Desmond's boy toy, Joe Gillis (Lewis Cleale), is not portrayed as a conniving gigolo, but more earnestly.

Clark recognizes the careful balance of characters in "Sunset Boulevard," noting that it was difficult to imbue the faded actress with enough fragility to invoke the audience's empathy. "If you're not careful, you can play (Norma and Joe) as people you don't care for," she says. "So at the end, he gets shot, and I go mad, and who cares?"

Having spent significant time in the role, Clark admits to feeling a kind of kinship with her stage ego. "I get to the stage two hours before the show begins, to get into the theater environment, read mail, sign autographs and that sort of thing. And then slowly I start doing my makeup - I know this sounds like a corny kind of clown putting on makeup - but as my face starts disappearing and her face starts appearing, I've grown to love her," she admits. "She's a friend, and I feel something for her."

The challenge of the role, also tackled by Patti LuPone, Close and Diahann Carroll, could not help but fill Clark with a new confidence. "I feel now that I've played her, I can go on and play more, different kinds of things that I wouldn't have thought I could play before."

After the "Sunset" tour ends next May, Clark anticipates producing the autobiographical one-woman show that she is currently writing. Her last album of original songs and musical standards, "Here For You," was released last year.

Beyond that, the former star of "Finian's Rainbow" and "Goodbye Mr. Chips" looks forward to time off stage, and perhaps, if the opportunity happens to arise, some time on the silver screen.

"I know how difficult the movie industry and a film career is," she says. "To me, it's more important to have a small role in a great film than a big role in the wrong kind of movie."

Now, Norma wouldn't agree with that at all.