Petula Clark Takes Sunset Boulevard Downtown
by Lisa Bishop
Ottawa X Press

February 3, 2000


Petula Clark, a diva before Céline was even a twinkle in her parents' eyes, remains best known for such '60s pop ditties as "Downtown", "Don't Sleep in the Subway" and "I Know a Place."

Yet, there's so much more to this remarkable woman, as evidenced by her portrayal of the much-ballyhooed Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber's “Sunset Boulevard.”

Clark is quick to respond to the clash between our perception of Clark as a starry-eyed innocent and the relatively unsympathetic Norma Desmond. "That's not entirely fair," she emphasizes. "I am an actress, after all. It's true that I may have attained a certain ‘pure' and ‘pop' image, but that certainly doesn't mean that I can't make this role work." True enough.

Clark has been playing the role longer than any other Norma, including Glenn Close, Elaine Paige and Patty Lupone. She'd once received a cautionary word from Close, who told her eight months in this physically and emotionally challenging role was just about all any actress could handle. Defying the odds as always, Clark has breathed life into Norma Desmond for over two years.

“Sunset Boulevard” takes the classic film and infuses it with colour, light and a magical, complex score. An aging and once-beloved silent film queen, Norma Desmond, can only truly live when she is adored. Her tragic fall from grace is coupled with that of a self-confessed hack, Joe Gillis; they tumble into the most toxic of relationships, spelling disaster for both.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's productions can sometimes lean more on visual spectacle than on the characters themselves. This latest production is different, Clark maintains. While the sets, costumes and lighting remain spectacular, there is more emphasis on the development and portrayal of all the characters, including Max, the ever-faithful servant.

The role of Norma was hard to sell to Clark, who wasn't really interested in taking it. "I had to be persuaded," she laughs, recalling the efforts to convince her. "I'd seen the show in New York and enjoyed it," she adds, "but the idea of playing Norma had never entered my mind."