Petula Clark cruises into Steel City
Actress says Norma Desmond shouldn't be played as a monster
By Ed Blank
TRIBUNE-REVIEW THEATER CRITIC
It was hardly inevitable Petula Clark would star for more than a year in the London production of "Sunset Boulevard" and then agree to tour the States in it for a year.
"I have to say that the first time I saw it - and I'm not going to say who I saw in it, I disliked this woman from the moment she came on the stage. I thought: Who cares what happens to this woman? She's mad. She's unattractive. I don't like her.
"But then I saw it several times in different cities with different actresses I liked better. If (Norma Desmond) is played as a monster, it's not interesting. And I don't think these characters are boring. I think this production is going to tell the story very well."
Norma, played in the 1950 movie by Gloria Swanson, is a reclusive, forgotten silent screen star who deludes herself that she's ready for her comeback and her closeups and that her fans are still waiting after more than 20 years.
Joe Gillis - William Holden in the film - is the struggling young screenwriter who stumbles into her baroque lair and gets caught helping her foster her fantasies.
The stage musical version, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, begins its first U.S. tour Tuesday at Benedum Center under the direction of Susan Schulman.
Clark will be playing Norma Desmond, with Lewis Cleale as Joe Gillis, Sarah Vriarte Berry as Betty, the young script reader he meets at Paramount, and Allen Fitzpatrick as Max, Norma's mysterious butler-protector.
"Sunset Boulevard" generated much news coverage during its gestation in the mid-1990s for reasons beyond its considerable merit.
Patti LuPone created the role of Norma in London, with an eye toward moving in a few months into the eventual American production that was to open in L.A. and transfer to Broadway.
When she fell short of Lloyd Webber's expectations in London, the composer-producer opted to use a different actress-singer in the lead, which led to a settlement with LuPone.
Several actresses went after the role, among them Diahann Carroll, who was given the Toronto production.
Faye Dunaway got the U.S. job, though, and was set to do the show in L.A. and on Broadway. She was well into vocal training for the part when Lloyd Webber observed her efforts and dismissed her.
Glenn Close stepped in and triumphed in both cities, winning a Tony Award, one of the show's seven, including Best Musical.
Elaine Paige later did the show in London, where it was revised to incorporate changes implemented in the States. She reprised her performance at the end of the two-year Broadway engagement.
"Originally it was Trevor Nunn (the director of the original London and Los Angeles/Broadway productions) who asked me to do it in London," Clark said. "It was never a role I had wanted to play. I spent about three hours in the Really Useful Group offices in London trying to convince him this was really a very bad idea, and could I go home now. And I started rehearsing the following week. He didn't even want me to read or sing for him.
"He knew I'd done `The Sound of Music' and other things. (`Sunset Boulevard') just seemed to be a very different cup of tea for me."
There was no audition for Lloyd Webber, either? "Andrew didn't see me until opening night, or maybe the third night.
"I played it in the West End for over a year. I was the last person to play it there. I was supposed to play it then in New York, but they closed it there, too. We were doing great business. I think these are inside problems with the Really Useful Company that I wouldn't ... have anything to say about."
The show will look different on tour than it did on Broadway. It would have been logistically impossible to move the original set every week or two.
"For this to tour Andrew knew he'd have to re-think the show.
"The set will appear in a different way. It's a whole different concept. The show basically takes place now in a movie studio. It's as if the whole thing is being filmed. We don't have people filming it all the way through. But in the opening you actually see the cameras and the lights, and it's made to seem very cinematic.
"That's just for starters.
"It's almost as if too much has been said about the set, though, as if the (original) set overpowered the show. It was a massive piece of engineering and very beautiful, but I think in some ways it took the focus away from what was going on on that set.
"Having played it in a certain way, using the same music, the same dialogue, the same costumes and the same orchestrations, but to do it totally differently is an interesting concept. I was intrigued with the idea.
"The orchestra will be slightly smaller, but the orchestrations have been re-done by the same man (David Cullen). Andrew would not let anything sound less than fantastic. He's very particular about the way it sounds.
"I think the story is better told in this version. The dialogue isn't new, but the characters are better drawn. We understand Norma better, and about Joe. I think the idea he's a gigolo is wrong. I think he's a desperate guy, and she's a desperate woman. And they both grab onto the same life raft. They become totally co-dependent."
The last time Clark was here, she was starring in "Blood Brothers" in 1994 as Mrs. Johnstone, an impoverished woman with several children who has to give away one of her newborn twin sons.
"I think (Norma) actually is more difficult physically to play. It's got lots of costume changes. It's a heavy-duty role. I think she's a very complex character. She's constantly going in and out of reality and fantasy. I find her heart-rending.
"I liked Mrs. Johnstone from the start. As a mother I could feel for her right away even though she makes a choice that some people might not agree with.
"Norma is more complicated. As I've played her, I've grown to love her. It's a role that's not typically me, if you know what I mean. She's not particularly nice and sympathetic. I have to bring out emotions like hate and jealousy and fear."
As (the character of Cecil B.) deMille says, "If you could have seen her at 17 when all her dreams were new."
There's always been a question about Norma's age that the musical had answered.
"Strangely that's a line that's been changed. Joe used to say, `Nothing's wrong with being 50 unless you're acting 20.' Now he says, `Nothing's wrong with being your age unless you're acting 20.' I'm not quite sure why that's being changed. I would think Norma would never talk about her age anyway."
Clark seems and sounds ageless.
She was born in Epsom, Surrey, Nov. 15, 1932, and had a major career playing juveniles in British films. She did two big musicals as an adult, "Finian's Rainbow" (1968) with Fred Astaire and "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" (1969) with Peter O'Toole.
It was her recordings, though, that initially made her a star in the States. She had two No. 1 hits ("Downtown" and "My Love," both of which won Grammys), four other Top 10 hits ("This Is My Song," "I Know a Place," "Don't Sleep in the Subway" and "I Couldn't Live Without You Love" and 15 other charted hits.
Her many CDs include the current "Here for You," which includes "Losing My Mind," "Children Will Listen," "Stranger in Paradise" and "Pinball Wizard."
But here's an advisory: Only the copies of the special edition CD sold at the theater contain three of the songs from "Sunset Boulevard": "With One Look," "The Perfect Year" and "As If We Never Said Goodbye."
Clark and her French-born husband, Claude, live in Switzerland. "Our son is also in Geneva. We have a daughter who still lives in Paris, and a daughter married and living in New York City. Claude will be in Pittsburgh for the opening."
Benedum Center, Downtown.