Catching up with ... Petula Clark
The long road to 'Boulevard': Actress and singer Petula Clark has been playing the lead role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Sunset Boulevard' longer than anyone, but she still sees new roles in her future.
By J. Wynn Rousuck
Sun Theater Critic
Over time she has come to love the larger-than-life prima donna, a character created by Gloria Swanson in the 1950 Billy Wilder film noir classic on which the musical is based. But Clark was initially reluctant to play Norma -- a role she will reprise in Baltimore beginning Tuesday, when the touring production comes to the Mechanic Theatre.
"One of the reasons why I resisted playing her from the start was because I didn't much like the character," Clark explained recently from the tour's stop in Detroit.
"It sounds ridiculous, I know, because an actress doesn't have to necessarily like the character she's playing, but in fact this was the first time I had been asked to play someone so far from me, and I think I was nervous about it. I was scared that I wouldn't be able to bring it off."
Her mind was changed by the show's original director, Trevor Nunn, who felt that she would bring a sense of vulnerability to the role. She was also intrigued by the idea of giving the character a sense of humor. "Particularly in the first act, it's important that we sort of like her. You have to feel something for her, and humor is one of those things that helps one likes someone. That makes the tragedy even more acute when it happens," Clark says.
Though Clark insists Norma is a stretch for her, there is at least one thing she and her character have in common -- both were once movie stars. Clark's stardom is little known in this country, but in Britain she was a child star. Dubbed "the British Shirley Temple," she appeared in two dozen films for the J. Arthur Rank Organization in the 1940s and early 1950s. Her screen persona was so popular that she was also the heroine of a 1940s British comic strip, "Our Pet," in which she performed a good deed each day.
Because of Clark's film background, Susan H. Schulman, director of the touring production of "Sunset Boulevard," felt Clark would have a natural connection to Norma. And Clark acknowledges, "I can understand [Norma's] love of the movies, her love of being back in the studio, for instance. It's not difficult for me to feel that amazing feeling, as she walks in, of: This is where I belong. There's a sweetness to her which comes out in that particular sequence."
At the same time, Clark's outlook on life is entirely different from Norma Desmond's. While Norma lives in the past, Clark is constantly rewriting the present. She's a performer who seems to thrive on change.
Clark struck out on her own with a singing career, touring Europe and meeting her future husband, Claude Wolff, in France. Her French fans nicknamed her "La Petulante Petula."
France remains one of the places she calls home. Her marriage has been a little less stable. She says of her husband, "He's still my manager, kind of, just as he's my husband, kind of."
Her 1964 single, "Downtown," made her a star in the United States as well, and a string of other hit records followed. By the end of the decade, she was back in the movies, co-starring with Fred Astaire in the screen version of "Finian's Rainbow" and with PeterO'Toole in a musical adaptation of "Goodbye, Mr. Chips."
Her career took yet another direction in 1981 when she starred in a London stage revival of "The Sound of Music." In 1993 she made her Broadway debut, starring as a struggling working-class mother in "Blood Brothers," a role she also played on tour, including a 1995 engagement at the Lyric Opera House.
The same year, Clark took over the lead in the West End production of "Sunset Boulevard." And, though touring in the show might sound like more of the same, Clark emphasizes that this is an entirely new production, directed by Schulman, choreographed by Kathleen Marshall and redesigned by set designer Derek McLane (a Broadway veteran whose regional theater credits include Center Stage).
The redesign was largely a matter of economics. Designer John Napier's original mammoth set featured a mansion that rose up an entire story, allowing a separate scene to be performed underneath. That set cost $1 million to transport from city to city. As a result, the show's first tour (which did not have a star in the lead) played less than a year of a projected multi-year tour and closed at a loss.
For Clark, the chance to work with a new director and designer was part of the appeal of the new tour.
"I far prefer this," she says. "The London production -- exactly the same as the New York and Los Angeles productions -- was so overshadowed by the set and the sheer grandeur of it all that the characters were almost dwarfed by it. I saw some photographs of it again the other day, and I had forgotten how enormous this set was. The people looked like miniatures.
"It was great fun working on that set because it was so extraordinary and one could feel the gasp from the audience, but I don't think that's what this show is about. The show is really about the people. Her environment is still very beautiful. The set is ravishing, but it's not, 'Oh, my God, what's this happening?' "
Furthermore, she says com-poser Lloyd Webber saw the new version for the first time during the Detroit run, "and he totally loved this production."
Clark is slated to tour in "Sunset Boulevard" into the year 2000. But the musical isn't all she's up to. Her latest album, "Here For You," was released by Varese Sarabande last fall (a version including three songs from "Sunset Boulevard" is available at theaters where the show is playing, or through the Web site www.varesesarabande.com).
In addition, she's been working with one of the artistic directors of Cirque du Soleil on an autobiographical one-woman show.
Clark turned 64 in November, but she has no plans to retire. "One of the nice things about being in this business is you can either do it or you can't, and it's got nothing to do with age," she says. "Age is not a barrier as long as you're playing the right role."
And typical of her penchant for change, she adds, "I want to do other things after this. I don't want to be known just for Norma Desmond. It's a good stage in my life, but I want to go on from here."