Sun Hasn't Set on ‘Boulevard' Star and '60s Singer Petula Clark”

by Brett Milano
Boston Herald
January 10, 2000


      Norma Desmond, the fading film-star heroine of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical “Sunset Boulevard,” isn't exactly one of the nicest characters in theater: She's spoiled, out of touch and sometimes just plain nasty. So Petula Clark, best-known as the sweet English singer who cut “Downtown” in the '60s, is one of the last people you'd expect to see playing her.
      “Indeed, I thought that myself,” Clark said from a tour stop in Green Bay, Wis. “And I really didn't want to do it. I'd seen the show and while I was impressed, I wasn't moved by it. To me it looked like the set was the real star of the show. And besides, I was about to go on vacation. So I had all these reasons, and behind that was probably my fear of doing it.”
      It took some strong persuasion from producer Trevor Nunn to talk Clark into the role. “I went to his office in London and we really locked horns,” she said. “But he told me I was a great actress, which was a good place to start. He told me I could play her with humor and vulnerability and I said, ‘Wait a minute, we're talking about Norma Desmond here. You can't make her likable, because she just isn't.’“
      Still, Clark gives the character a softer touch than the musical's previous stars, which include Glenn Close and Elaine Paige. After a year of starring in “Sunset Boulevard” in London's West End, she's joining the show on an American tour that hits the Wang Theatre for a one-week engagement beginning tomorrow.
      “I've seen Norma played a few different ways,” Clark said. “You can play her as insane from beginning to end, or as some kind of victim. Or you can play her as an exact replica of Gloria Swanson (who originated the role on film). But if you can make the audience laugh along, they can feel that there's someone else underneath that awful person; they're on her side in some strange way and they're being moved. Whereas if she's a monster from the start, then there's nothing to feel.
      “It took me awhile to get into the role,” she said. “For the first few weeks, it was more about getting the lines right and not getting run over by the set. But after a few months, once I got her makeup on, I was no longer me. It's great playing someone so different from yourself, but it's not easy. Especially in the second act where it gets quite gritty.”
      Clark has had a long career in Europe, acting in London and scoring hits in France. But America will always associate her with the '60s. Her hit singles, including “Don't Sleep in the Subway,” “My Love” and the eternal “Downtown,” made her the first female star to come from the British Invasion. But they also gave her a wholesome image with which she wasn't always comfortable.
      “I've been accused of bring the squeaky-clean person of the '60s,” she said. “But a lot of those optimistic songs were there because there was so much scary stuff going on at the time. I'm a Scorpio, so my way of getting past things is to think positive; but that doesn't mean I was always rosy-cheeked. If I'd cut three songs at a session, the optimistic one would always be the hit. But if people listened to the albums, they'd know I had some deeper feelings about life in general.”
      She first toured America soon after the Beatles did, following them onto the Ed Sullivan show. Did her male fans go as wild as the Beatles' female ones did? “I suppose they did, but I didn't even notice – somehow men don't throw themselves at lady performers the way girls do,” she said. “I was also married by then, with two small children, so I never could do the huge tours.”
      Clark is preparing to launch an autobiographical one-woman show, working with Cirque de Soleil founder Guy Caron. Meanwhile, “Downtown” keeps coming back: It plays in the soundtrack of “Girl, Interrupted,” and a techno remix has hit the English charts.
      “I heard that for the first time in my car radio, just going along at 90 miles an hour and thinking, ‘Oh, that sounds like me,' “ Clark said. She also was coerced into singing it with Richard Simmons when she did his TV show this year. Can Simmons sing? She laughs and gives the diplomatic answer. “Yes. Anyone can sing.”
      “Sunset Boulevard” at the Wang Theatre, tomorrow through Sunday. Tickets $28.50-$68.50. Call (800) 447-7400.