October 28, 1999
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A fading diva sliding precipitously into delusion and despair? Not even close to anyone Petula Clark knows in real life.
"Diva, goddess, I find those amusing terms. I've never met a goddess before, please," said the 66-year-old British singer/actress.
Clark is a former child star who has spent half a century in show business. She has sold more than 30 million records worldwide, including the popular 1960s anthems "Downtown," "Don't Sleep in the Subway" and "I Know a Place."
She has revised the role of silent screen diva Norma Desmond for a touring production of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Boulevard." Clark recently headlined a five-night stand at the Pantages.
The 1950 movie, directed by Billy Wilder, starred Gloria Swanson.
The Lloyd Webber musical was a consistent sellout on Broadway with its original star Glenn Close. The Broadway production opened November 17, 1994. But grosses faltered after Betty Buckley and later Elaine Paige took over the role, and the show closed on March 22, 1997.
A challenging role to slip into
Clark saw the Broadway production when Close was in the starring role.
"I found it magnificent, but I was strangely unmoved by it," Clark said, adding she was more overwhelmed and awed with the set design.
When British stage director Trevor Nunn asked her to appear in the touring version, Clark wasn't convinced she could get into character.
"I've never been asked to play someone so different from me," Clark said. "How does one get to grips with someone like Gloria Swanson? The character was just not sympathetic. She's neurotic with self-centered deluded emotions, emotions I've never been asked to express before."
Yet, Nunn persuaded Clark to take the role.
"I was going on an extended holiday when I got a call from him and we met for three hours," she said. "So it was goodbye holiday, hello 'Sunset Boulevard."'
Swanson a 'formidable, very little lady'
Patti LuPone opened the show in London in July 1993. Clark took over in September 1995 and stayed until the West End run ended in April 1997. The current 47-city U.S. tour began in Pittsburgh last December.
Clark remembers meeting Swanson in London. "I remember that she was a formidable, very little lady," she said. "I also saw 'Sunset Boulevard' when I was a kid. It was a very spooky kind of movie. I didn't understand it."
Clark wanted her depiction to be multidimensional. "What I'm bringing to her is humor and vulnerability, two things I never would have associated with her.
"She does say some ridiculously funny things. I want to play her so that the audience is laughing sort of at her, but not in an unkind way. Then they become a little more comfortable with her. She's more approachable. We pull back the curtain a little here and there. It's a bit of a tightrope, but it's fun."
Clark has her own personal way of doing the ending.
"It's a delicate balance," Clark said. "She has to be Norma Desmond. She is monstrous and rude and misbehaves and treats people like dirt. But if you had seen her at 17: She was delightful, beautiful, a good actress and a great star. Then she has all these truths thrown at her. Well, the Norma we have come to know and the persona that she was. She goes crazy and goes back to being 17."
A special edition of Clark's new CD "Here With You" includes three songs from the musical. The CD is sold at theaters where "Sunset Boulevard" tours.
Meanwhile, Clark is working with Cirque du Soleil director Guy Caron on a one-woman musical. She is writing the script for the show, which will include her memories of growing up in England during World War II and her later experiences in show business. The show will have songs from the '60s and some French jazz mixed in.