The Rep

Not just another 'Norma'
Petula Clark takes on 'Sunset Boulevard'


Randy Cordova
The Arizona Republic
Sep 02 1999 12:56:29

If you think sunny '60s songbird Petula Clark is an odd choice to play the monstrous grande dame in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard, you're not alone. Clark had her doubts as well.

In 1995, British director Trevor Nunn approached her about taking over for Elaine Paige in the show's London production. To say Clark balked would be an understatement.

"I spent three hours on the phone with him, trying to convince him that this was really not a good idea," she insists, relaxing at a Seattle hotel. "It was the oddest conversation: 'What makes you think I can play this?' 'Because you're a great actress.' Well, you've got to admit, that's always nice to hear."

The conversation continued. Clark had just finished a three-year run in Willy Russell's Blood Brothers, a role that took her to Broadway and on a nationwide tour. She was ready for a little holiday; not to tackle the most demanding job in an amazingly durable career.

"I asked him if he wanted me to read for the role," she says. "He said no. 'Do you want me to sing?' He said no. 'But it's a different kind of singing than I've ever done!' It was me protesting and him insisting for three hours. But I guess he was better at it than I was."

The spirit of Swanson

The role of Norma Desmond is worlds away from anything Clark had done before. Gloria Swanson memorably created the character of a faded silent-film star descending into madness in the 1950 film noir classic. In addition to Paige, Glenn Close, Betty Buckley and Patti LuPone all tackled the role in Lloyd Webber's musicalization, which premiered in 1993.

Each woman is known for bringing something different to the role. For Paige, it was a spectacular singing voice and an archly dramatic style that seemed to channel the spirit of Swanson. Close made the character somewhat dotty, with a fruity speaking voice and a dark, chilling intensity.

Clark now has played the role longer than any other Norma Desmond, thanks to her work in London and on the U.S. tour, which takes her to Tempe's Gammage Auditorium on Sept. 7-12. She brings her own qualities to the tragic character.

"When Trevor finally talked me into doing this, I asked if he wanted me to see the movie," she says in her cheerfully airy British accent. "I knew he wanted Elaine to see the film before she took the role. But Trevor said no, don't see it: 'I just want you to do with it what you will.' I think he just wanted to see another Norma, one that's a little more vulnerable."

That's been Clark's strength in the role. Critics around the country have raved about the depth and sincerity she brings to Norma, turning the woman into more of a fragile, believable figure than a larger-than-life caricature.

Clark is no stranger to praise, having won plaudits for the demanding Blood Brothers, not to mention Grammy Awards for her recordings of Downtown and I Know a Place. But to have USA Today gush that she's "remarkable . . . no other actress has gotten so far under Norma's gold-lame turbans . . . Norma has never seemed so real," must be a marvelous payback.

"Well, I feel that Norma is not a monster," says Clark, accepting praise with an almost shy grace. "She's a bit monstrous. She's spoiled and bad-mannered and deluded - she's all those things. But I think if she's totally dislikable, then the audience doesn't come to grips with it. If they can't relate to her at all, then the story's not really very interesting, is it?"

Although the character of Norma Desmond faces fleeting fame, Clark's career is renowned for its longevity. The performer, now in her late 60s, was beloved as a child star in England during World War II, singing for the troops. She starred in more than two dozen British films and landed numerous hit records throughout the Continent, singing in English, French, German and Italian.

U.S. fame comes in '60s

American success came on the heels of the so-called British Invasion of the '60s. Although Clark was a good decade older than the Beatles, sophisticated, brassy hits such as Don't Sleep in the Subway, I Couldn't Live Without Your Love and A Sign of the Times made her a major stateside celebrity. She had a warm, captivating delivery that appealed to both adults and teenagers, bridging the mountainous generation gap of the time. Even today, she stands as the biggest-selling British female singer in recording history.

At her peak in the '60s, she was an unquestioned superstar. She starred opposite Fred Astaire in Finian's Rainbow (1968) and Peter O'Toole in the woefully underrated Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969). She hosted her own network specials and stirred up national controversy when she grabbed Harry Belafonte's hand in her groundbreaking Petula variety hour. The thought of a White woman touching a Black man was pretty daring for 1967 television audiences.

In the '70s, however, Clark's American success cooled. She was famous enough that she always was in demand, particularly on the nightclub and casino circuit. But although she never stopped working, it wasn't on the same scale as before.

That aspect of her success causes many fans - American ones in particular - to still think of Clark as a swinging '60s rocker who just popped in from Carnaby Street. If that image doesn't annoy the singer, it's not exactly endearing to her, either.

"I had a very successful career all over Europe before the '60s," she says, polite but firm. "But I was swept up with the (British Invasion) traffic. It was great in some ways, but it was complicated in some ways. The '60s lasted quite a long time, but I've done things before and I've done things since. It's an important part of my life, certainly, but not all of it."

In the '80s, she turned to theater, starring in an acclaimed London production of The Sound of Music. In 1990, Someone Like You played in the West End, a show for which she wrote the music and lyrics and co-wrote the book.

She's never stopped singing. Here For You, released last year, was a delightful mix of pop and theater songs. And her classic Warner Bros. material from the '60s all has been re-issued on compact disc, thanks to the efforts of a large, devoted group of followers (Clark's fan club will mark its 25th anniversary with a bash in LA in October).

Perhaps most importantly to the woman born in Epsom, Surrey, she was knighted by Queen Elizabeth last year for her achievements in the arts and entertainment industry.

Although other performers at her age tend to slow down or simply fall by the wayside, Clark is undergoing a renaissance by embracing some of the toughest work in her career. Unlike Norma, she's not one to romanticize her past triumphs.

"I don't live in the past at all," she says. "Sometimes, I'm criticized for that. I don't get all nostalgic and sappy. That's not the way I live my life. I'm too busy living my life outside of show buiness to live in the past."

That's one reason she says she doesn't see herself retiring anytime soon. Her three children are grown and live in three different countries. Her husband, Frenchman Claude Wolff, resides in Switzerland.

"I've thought about stopping working, just briefly," she says. "Sometimes I stop and think, 'Wait a minute. When I finish this, what do I do?' But I don't have what normal people call a home. There's no place where I can go and grow my radishes. That's pretty weird when you think about it.

"But that's what happens when you've pulled up your roots. I'm constantly moving. It's hard to know where I belong."

She stops talking and starts giggling.

"I'll probably just wind up performing into oblivion," she says, a tad winsome. "I mean, I have no idea when or why I would stop at
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Randy Cordova can be reached at (602) 444-8096 or at randy.cordova@pni.com via e-mail.