Petula Clark Starring in 'Boulevard'
by David Nicholson
Norfolk Daily Press

February 17, 2000


Pop stars generally burst on the scene, then end up as a statistic in a rock 'n' roll history book. Petula Clark is one of the exceptions.

Baby boomers who remember Clark from "Downtown," "Don't Sleep in the Subway" and other song hits from the '60s may know little of her long acting career. She began as a young film actress in England in the 1940s and is now back before audiences as the star of "Sunset Boulevard." The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical opens Tuesday in Norfolk's Chrysler Hall.

Her work as a stage actress is the newest development in an enduring and continually evolving career. Beginning in 1981, she took over the role of Maria in a London production of "The Sound of Music."

"I told them they weren't getting another Julie Andrews, but it was a huge success," said Clark in a recent telephone conversation.

Other musicals followed, including "Someone Like You," for which she wrote the music, and "Blood Brothers," which played on Broadway and toured 26 cities.

Even so, she was unprepared when director Trevor Nunn asked her in 1995 to step into the part of Norma Desmond in the British cast of "Sunset Boulevard." Clark had seen the show and wasn't sure she was right for the brooding silent-screen legend who lives in the past and gradually goes mad.

"I was nervous about it," she recalls. "It was the first time I had been asked to play someone so different from my persona."

But Nunn persuaded her, saying "I would like to see a 'Norma' played with humor and vulnerability." Clark took up the challenge in London and then signed on for a 50-city North American tour.

Clark has settled nicely into the role.

"Everything about her is over the top, but that doesn't mean she's a monster," says Clark. "There's always a risk in playing someone who's out of touch with reality. If she's loony at the beginning, then there's no where for her to go when she flips in the end."

Clark hasn't found much wiggle room in the script to develop her own character. But she's been able to make Desmond's signature songs her own.

"I enjoy the business of acting and singing in the same piece," she says. "For me, there's a lot of music in the acting and a lot of acting in the singing."

Clark also believes that the touring production is much more accessible to audiences than the Broadway version, which featured a huge motorized set that dwarfed the actors. The massive set was too cumbersome to tour, so award-winning director Susan Schulman has retooled the show.

"It's better because it actually focuses more on the characters and tells the story," she says. "And most of Billy Wilder's dialogue is in the music. You don't miss it now."

Before each performance, she spends as much as two hours putting on her makeup and costume and getting into Desmond's personality. Though touring a different city each week is exhausting, she's applied the same rigorous self-discipline that has sustained her long career.

"I enjoy life on the road," she says. "I find America varied and beautiful. And every Tuesday night is an opening night."