PETULA LIVES UPTOWN, "DOWNTOWN" AND ON "SUNSET BOULEVARD"
By Charles Ferruzza, Sun Features Editor
The Sun
Friday January 1, 1999 (Overland Park, Kansas)

When Petula Clark was tidying up her dressing room in London's West End after the musical "Sunset Boulevard" officially closed in May 1997, she took two items from her wardrobe as souvenirs to remember her character, Norma Desmond.

"I took a pair of Norma's glasses," Clark said in a phone interview this week, "and a pair of Norma's false eyelashes. I never thought I'd play her again and they were such a big part of who Norma was. And now, of course, I'm playing Norma on tour and I'll be wearing those eyelashes in Kansas City."

Petula Clark and a touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Boulevard" (including former Kansas City resident Don Richard) will check into Kansas City's Music Hall on January 5 for a five-day run of the show based on the classic 1950 film of the same name.

Clark, still best known in America for her string of pop hits in the 1960's ("Downtown," "Don't Sleep in the Subway," "Round Every Corner"), won rave reviews for her portrayal of the fictional silent movie star, Norma Desmond, even though she felt she was dead set against doing the role.

"I had seen the show in New York and London," Clark said, "as a member of the ticket-buying public and I thought it was a perfectly wonderful show. But it never occurred to me for an instant that I would ever play Norma. For one thing I didn't LIKE Norma."

But the show's director, Trevor Nunn, spent three hours convincing Clark to take over the role, even though Clark had doubts about tackling a character so different from herself.

"I had always played roles that were, well, nice ladies," laughed Clark. Like Maria in "The Sound of Music," and the sympathetic Mrs. Johnston in "Blood Brothers" on Broadway.

"But Norma is so disagreeable, so spoiled, so deluded." said Clark. "But the next thing I knew, Trevor had me rehearsing the darn thing. And suddenly I was having to deal with all the wigs and makeup. It was quite an undertaking. I had to look into some pretty dark corners of myself to play her. And keep doing it night after night."

The London production. Like it's Broadway counterpart, featured the complicated and expensive hydraulic-powered set that magically elevated in certain scenes to reveal a different scene underneath. The current touring production uses a much simpler, less costly set and Petula is thrilled with that change.

"The London set was amazing to work on, although at times it did go wrong," she laughed. "But that set descended from the heavens and was really quite amazing, but this production is not about a set anymore. It's much more about the story and the people. When I saw the show in New York, I found the set beautiful but somewhat distracting. The set is not what "Sunset Boulevard" is about. In this production, I still have my lovely staircase, but the story really gets a chance to come to life."

Clark, who turned 66 last November, said she has met real women like the mythical Norma, "but none in show business." "I have met a couple of women in my life who seemed, well, stuck in aspic. Including an absolutely charming woman who seems to have been perpetually stuck in the 1940s. She still wore her hair in a 1940s style and her clothes. She was totally out of step with the rest of the world."

And that, Clark said, is the tragedy of Norma Desmond. As created by screen writer, Billy Wilder, Norma was a star of the 1920s who let the rest of the world pass her by while she clung, tenaciously, to the decade she knew and understood.

Unlike many of her pop contemporaries of the 1960s, Petula Clark never became trapped in the era that brought her the greatest fame. Sure, she recorded a disco version of "Downtown" in 1976 (the year her first K-tel compilation album was released in the states) and, even more inexplicably, a 1988 version of "Downtown" that was released as an "acid remix" the following year. But Clark never stopped taking on creative challenges: After her year long run in "The Sound of Music," she took on George Bernard Shaw's straight play, "Candida," in 1983 and both starred in and wrote the music to an original musical, "Someone Like You" in 1990.

Norma Desmond, though, has been one of her greatest challenges: "I've come to adore her now." Petula said. It took me three months playing her in London to get under the skin of the part, but I did. And when the show closed, I found that I not only missed the family I had found in the rest of the cast, I missed Norma too."

Clark's real life family is scatted around the globe: daughter Barra is the married mother of two year old Sebastian in New York City. Kate is a painter in Paris and Patrick lives and works in Geneva. Clark's husband of 37 years, Claude Wolff, frequently travels with her, although Petula admits that as often as not, she's a gypsy.

"I really don't have a home. I've lived a lot in London and Geneva, but I spend a lot of time in New York too. I suppose I should want a home where I could plant radishes and roses, but once you start travelling, you really don't know how to live any other way. For the moment, I live on 'Sunset Boulevard.' "