“Norma, Is That You?”
by Deborah Martin
San Antonio Express-News

June 24, 1999

Five months into her second run as Norma Desmond, Petula Clark is still not quite sure how she was persuaded to step into the fading star's high heels for the London production of "Sunset Boulevard."

"I wasn't convinced, actually," she said. "It was a very sort of surrealistic scene. I was in the Really Useful offices in London, Andrew (Lloyd Webber's) main offices, in this basement music room with (director) Trevor Nunn, who is amazing. The two of us locked horns.

"It was very funny; I kept trying to tell him it was not a good idea to do this; he was telling me it was a very good idea. I don't know exactly how he convinced me; I think he just wore me down. So I reluctantly went into the show.

"I played her for over a year in London and grew to love her very much. So much that when they asked me to come into the U.S. tour, it was a long commitment, but I was excited about it because I wanted to see Norma again. She had become a friend," she said.

She signed on to play Norma through November. The tour is going so well, there is talk of extending the run.

"Sunset Boulevard" stops in the Majestic Theater Tuesday through July 4.

Those who saw the show in its earlier incarnations on Broadway or in London or Las Angeles can expect a few changes. First, the elaborate set has been replaced by something simpler and cheaper to transport than the behemoth that helped sink the '97 "Sunset" tour after just four performances.

"It was one of these hydraulic things that the audience went 'Wow' every time it came on. Meanwhile, the actors were trying to get their points across and the audience was looking at the set," Clark said.

The idea of stepping back into Norma's life on a new set with a new approach appealed to Clark. And director Susan Schulman's ideas apparently appealed to Lloyd Webber, who wrote the music and saw the show in Detroit a few months ago.

"The night that he came, I had the flu," Clark said. "I was on, but I was in a deep haze; I don't know if that was a good or bad thing. I think it was pretty – not nerve-wracking, but we were a little nervous; you're always a little nervous whenever Andrew is in, and this was the first time he had seen this production, which is really quite different. He came backstage afterward and was absolutely thrilled with it."

Schulman's spin on the show emphasizes the human aspects rather than the larger-than-life elements of earlier stagings. That take is reflected in Clark's view of Norma.

"She is a deluded woman, a spoiled woman. There's something missing from Norma. She was a star when she was in her teens, and then there's been this big gap of 20 years and she's weird, she's definitely not with us. But I don't think she's a monster and I have seen her played as a monster.

"I can only play her the way I feel about her; I don't believe in being influenced by other people's performances, and that includes Gloria Swanson. I think (Norma's) rather sad and she's very funny. Sometimes, she means to be funny, and sometimes, you're just kind of laughing at her because she's ridiculous. I think it's important that the audience in some strange way like her. If they don't like her, then the ending is not very effective," she said.

Clark has one thing in common with Norma: She, too, found fame early, as a child star in her native England. She sang to British troops on the radio during World War II, and became such a huge star there in the 1940s, a daily comic strip fictionalized her life.

She was dubbed "the British Shirley Temple." She might have had a tough time making the transition from child star to adult star – the film company she was contracted to wouldn't allow her to move on to sophisticated fare when she hit her teens – if she hadn't gone to France.

"I was asked to do a one-night show in Paris, and I fell in love with this Frenchman and we got married. I found myself living in France, where they had never heard of me before. It was an amazing opportunity for me to re-create myself in France, because they knew nothing about my past and were not interested in it, anyway. They fell for me as I was at that moment, not as a little girl.

It was one of those fortuitous things that happen. It wasn't easy – I didn't speak the language then – but I did learn the language and have found myself with an amazing career there," she said.

She had become a star in France by 1961, and had begun recording in other languages as well. Her British friends urged her to record something in English for her fans back home. She chose "Downtown," a little song that not only struck a nerve with Brits, but hit No. 1 in the United States. She won a Grammy for the song in 1964, and won a second for "I Know a Place" the following year.

She kept racking up pop hits in various countries. Then in the '80s, she decided to give theater a try. She played Maria in "The Sound of Music," the title role in "Candida" and a blue-collar mother in "Blood Brothers." The U.S. tour of that show stopped in San Antonio in '95.

In her spare time on the "Sunset" tour, she's working on a one-woman show that will look back on her career, touching on the musicals and the chart-toppers. She's got lots of material to draw from. That's one of the reasons she hasn't done a Norma Desmond and faded away.

"It's from doing different things. I think that's the important thing for it to always be fun for you. You don't notice the time passing. This is not just a career, it's a life. And it's a long time to be on the road being bored with what you're doing."