'Sunset' tour takes a different route to success
By Bob Goepfert
Saturday, February 27, 1999

SCHENECTADY -- If you have some difficulty thinking of the English pop star Petula Clark playing Norma Desmond in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical "Sunset Boulevard," don't worry. You're not alone. No one had greater doubts about her being suitable for the role than Petula Clark.

The actress, who played the role for 18 months in London and was everyone's first choice for the national that which arrives at Proctor's Theatre tomorrow, admitted that she never saw herself playing the role of the faded movie star whose obsession with her own stardom has tragic consequences.

"I was very reluctant about the role when they offered it to me" she said. "I spent three hours on the phone with Trevor (Trevor Nunn, the musical's original director) trying to convince him that it was a terrible idea. Instead,he convinced me that I was right for the part.

"I had seen several different actresses play the role, and I was impressed that each brought something entirely new to the character. Trevor had seen me in 'Blood Brothers,' so I asked him what he thought I could bring to Norma that hadn't already been done. He answered, "Humor and vulnerability."

Those are the human elements that Clark feels permeates the touring version that is at Proctor's this weekend.

The actress says that the tour's director, Susan Schulman, has reworked a lot of the show and that the audience will see a production that now focuses on people and story instead of set and technology.

"I have nothing against the use of hydraulics or an elaborate set if it serves the production. But I think the original productions were overshadowed by the set. Don't get me wrong, this tour is still huge. The sets and costumes are gorgeous, but they no longer overwhelm the performances. The audience will now be able to focus on the story."

And what a story. "Sunset Boulevard" is one of the more enduring show business tragedies ever to come out of Hollywood. Billy Wilder's classic film was released in 1950 and gave Gloria Swanson the role that revived her career. Helping the situation was the fact that her portrayal of Norma Desmond, a once- famous silent film star who faded into obscurity when talkies took over Hollywood, eerily suggested parallels to her own career.

William Holden played Joe, the struggling young script writer so eager for success that he allows himself to become a kept man by the egocentric, emotionally desperate Norma. Rounding out the cast was Erich Von Stroheim as the enigmatic, loyal chauffeur who is devoted to Norma.

Clark takes offense at those who see Norma Desmond as a monster who uses people. "She's not monstrous at all. She has more depth than that. She is deserving of the audience's compassion."

Clark said that the first time she saw the show she was disturbed because she felt nothing for the character.

"I've come to like her very much. She's become like a friend to me. But I don't think the audience has to completely share my feelings for her. However, if you don't like her, how can you feel anything about her or the show?

"Does anyone want to lave a dramatic musical saying, 'Who Cares?' I try to find moments where the audience can laugh with her and other times when they can share some of the pain she suffers. If some connection can be made with the audience, the ending will be very, very beautiful."

Clark , who had a string of hits in the '60s and '70s with songs such as "Downtown," "I Know a Place" and "This is My Song," admits the upbeat songs helped develop a public image of being a perky, optimistic person who is something of a Pollyanna. It is not, however, an image she thinks is accurate.

"I know how that image got pinned on me. I know the other side is out there, because I've experienced it. I see myself as a woman who has seen the world and is deeply, but privately, involved with many things."

After a thoughtful pause, she added, "It's a terrible thing to say, but some of the personal stuff has been very useful in finding Norma."

She made the point that the "ups and downs" of her life were not career oriented. She actually seemed surprised that she has never stopped being in demand as a singer and that her transition to stage, which began about 10 years ago, was so effective and complete.

When pressed, she reluctantly admitted that she believes she is actually a better singer now than when she was a pop star. "I've learned a lot about singing from this show. The music is beautiful but very difficult. It demands control. I used to be very free with my voice. Now I am very disciplined.

"I now realize it is a tool that I must use to develop a character. A musical is very different from a dramatic play. My voice is an important part of developing a character."

One of Petula Clark's hit songs was titled "I Couldn't Live Without Your Love." The title, if not the song, now seems appropriate for Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard."

And the title helps explain how Petula Clark has been able to explore the darker side of life to move from entertainer to artist.

(c) 1999, Troy Record