Hollywood and decline: ‘Sunset Blvd.’ gives a musical spin to the story of a faded silent screen star
by Karen D’Souza
Sacramento Bee

September 26, 1999

Thirty years after she was reigning queen of the Top 40 charts, British singer Petula Clark is ready for her close-up.

The 66-year-old Clark is headed downtown to the Community Center Theater to play that infamously mad diva Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage version of the macabre masterpiece "Sunset Boulevard." The national touring production of the Broadway show, which won a Tony for best musical in 1995, kicks off Sacramento Light Opera Association's Broadway Series. "Sunset Boulevard" opens Tuesday and runs through next Sunday.

"Norma's under my skin, and I'm under hers," Clark says, on the phone during a show stop in Portland, Ore. "She and I have gotten very close."

Clark may not seem an obvious choice for Norma, so indelibly rendered by Gloria Swanson in director Billy Wilder's 1950 movie. The haunting Hollywood satire starred William Holden as Joe, the down-and-out screenwriter, and Erich von Stroheim as Max, the scheming butler. The three tormented souls come together in a byzantine mansion on Sunset Boulevard to play out a perverse love triangle.

That Wilder's actors echoed the characters they played sharpened the ironic edge of the movie. Swanson actually was a silent film star, and Stroheim (he acted in "Grand Illusion" and directed "Greed") was a maverick director largely forgotten by Hollywood.

"When I first saw the movie, I thought Swanson, as Norma, was too creepy for words," admits Clark.

Certainly, Clark is no stranger to the in-and-out cycles of the entertainment business. Clark began her career as a singer at the tender age of 8. By 10, she had her own BBC radio show, "Pet's Parlour." She made three British movies in the early '50s.

Her American break came later, during the British Invasion in the mid-1960s, when a white boots-clad Clark chirped her way through that optimistic urban anthem, "Downtown." She followed with a string of Top 40 hits, including "I Know a Place," "Don't Sleep in the Subway" and "Sign of the Times."

Following her American pop success, she had major roles in two big movies, "Finian's Rainbow" in 1968 and "Goodbye Mr. Chips" in 1969.

Clark didn't make her Broadway debut until 1993 with "Blood Brothers," which later traveled to Sacramento. (Yes, she sang "Downtown" at the Downtown Plaza.)

Coincidentally, rose-colored crooning has recently come back in vogue. "Downtown" has been popping up everywhere, from a Gap commercial to an episode of "Will and Grace" and a rerun of "Seinfeld," while "Sign of the Times" is featured in a boppy Target commercial.

Of course, Clark joined the "Sunset Boulevard" cast long before her brand of pop became retro chic. It was 1995 when Trevor Nunn, the renowned London director, asked her to step into "Sunset Boulevard," one of the many theatrical blockbusters created by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Among Lloyd Webber's lineup of hits are "Phantom of the Opera," "Cats," "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Evita."

"Initially, I had no desire to play Norma at all," recalls Clark, her English accent in full swing. "When Trevor first asked me, I said no. But he had rather made up his mind. Trevor is one of the greatest directors of all time, so reluctantly I gave in."

Clark is the latest actress to don the turban previously worn by such luminaries as Glenn Close, Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley and Elaine Page.

As befits a musical about old Hollywood, "Sunset Boulevard" has sparked its share of controversy. The saga surrounding the Lloyd Webber musical has been almost as lurid as the show itself.

LuPone, a Broadway veteran who was the original star of "Evita" (and of the television show "Life Goes On"), had been praised by British critics for her run as Norma in England, where she originated the role. But after Close drew raves for her portrayal of Norma in the American premiere of the show in Los Angeles, Lloyd Webber reneged on his deal to star LuPone in the Broadway production, signing Close instead.

Faye Dunaway had been hired to replace Close in L.A., but producers decided to close the show before she gave a single performance. Rumors flew that Dunaway wasn't up to singing the part.

For her part, Clark didn't let all of the ballyhoo influence her performance. She intuitively saw the role differently than her predecessors anyway. In Norma's songs, including "With One Look," "As If We Never Said Goodbye" and "The Perfect Year," Clark tries to emphasizes the character's vulnerability and sensitivity.

"Norma can't be a monster from start to finish," Clark says. "She's stuck in the past like a fly stuck in amber." v Susan Schulman, director of the touring version of the show, knew from the start that she wanted a kinder, gentler Norma than before.

"Norma and Joe are really more similar than dissimilar," she says. "They're in this unreal Hollywood world of make believe, and they're sinking and, for a moment, they reach out and grab each other."

Norma's delusions, Schulman says, stem from her experiences in dealing with the cruelty of the Hollywood milieu, where people are icons one day and has-beens the next.

"Think what it must have been like for Norma when she came to Hollywood out of the Midwest at 16 and got a new nose, a new name and a new family," Schulman says. "By the time she was 20, she had no idea who she was.... She retreats into what she knew, that crumbling old Moroccan mansion in Beverly Hills."

As a silent film star, Norma was adored for her youth and beauty. When talkies came in, she became a dinosaur overnight.

"I'm sure she thought that talking pictures were just a fad," Clark says. "I mean, she writes a script with no dialogue and Joe says, 'Doesn't this need some words?' and Norma says 'Oh, no, I can say it all with my eyes.' "

Norma may be insane, argues Clark, but she is also a woman of integrity, unwilling to compromise her beliefs to suit the fickle fetishes of popular culture. Society changed, fueled by the birth of new media, but Norma held her ground.

"She's rigid and delusional, but she's pure," Clark says.

On the surface, "Sunset Boulevard" may be a seedy romance, a story about an aging star and a desperate gigolo. On a deeper level, however, it's a story about the shallowness of the American dream, the Hollywood myth machine and the dark side of celebrity. Norma simultaneously represents the zenith and the nadir of life in the public eye.

"She was everything she says she was," Schulman says. "She was the greatest star of her day. But in this world of disposable people, she has been competely forgotten."

As Norma so memorably puts it, "I'm still big; it's the pictures that got small."

KAREN D'SOUZA is The Bee's theater critic. Write to her at P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852, send e-mail to kdsouza@sacbee.com or call (916) 321-1120.