Clark at Home on ‘Sunset Boulevard’
Singer reprises role of Norma in epic musical

by Octavio Roca
San Francisco Chronicle

October 3, 1999

Petula Clark is in the middle of a grueling 47-city American tour reprising a role she sang for two years in London's West End. “You would think I'd be tired, but I actually miss Norma when she's not around,” Clark said before a recent performance here. “That is why I agreed to play her again, in a new production where I might get to know her even better.”

Norma Desmond is the central figure of “Sunset Boulevard,” Andrew Lloyd Webber's monumental musical adaptation of Billy Wilder's classic film noir. It is a flamboyant role of epic proportions, an aging and deluded Hollywood diva whose murdered young lover is found at the bottom of her swimming pool at the start of the show.

“Maybe Norma is a shock for my old fans,” said Clark, 66. “There is this hard-core group that has been with me since the '60s and is still going strong. But I think they are pleased when they see the show, and then there are the new fans.”

The truth is that no single role can define Clark. For an entire generation during World War II, she was the voice of the BBC: an impossibly sweet girl who sang like an angel of optimism and hope during the Blitz, broadcasting from an underground studio in Piccadilly Circus. As a contract player for the Rank Organisation in the late 1940s and early '50s, she appeared in more than 30 films and received her first screen kiss from Alec Guinness in “The Card.” At the same time, Clark remained a recording star who was seldom away from the charts in the United Kingdom. Invited to sing in France in 1960, she scored a huge hit in the legendary Olympia and became a star in that country overnight. She even married a Frenchman, Claude Wolff, a record company executive.

“I felt very welcome in France,” Clark said. “It will always be my second home, I suppose. Until the mid-'60s I really was just happy to live there and thought that was it. My records were doing much better in French than in English, and that was just fine. Then of course came ‘Downtown' and everything changed.”

Everything. With Tony Hatch's “Downtown,” Clark knocked the Beatles off the No. 1 spot on the American charts, won her first Grammy and began her consecration as a diva of '60s song.

She then returned to the screen, singing and dancing with Fred Astaire in Francis Ford Coppola's “Finian's Rainbow” and breaking hearts opposite Peter O'Toole in Herbert Ross' “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.” As Maria in a 1981 West End revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's “The Sound of Music,” Clark earned praise from the real-life heroine of the musical. “Maria von Trapp came to see me backstage after a show and she told me this was the greatest performance of Maria she had ever seen,” Clark recalled. “I will never forget that.”

Clark next collaborated with Fay Weldon in “Someone Like You,” a torrid musical set in the aftermath of the American Civil War that played at the Strand in London in 1990. In 1992,

Clark took on the role of Mrs. Johnstone in the Broadway production of Willy Russell's “Blood Brothers,” perhaps the biggest musical and dramatic challenge of her career until “Sunset Boulevard.”

Norma Desmond is a change from Maria von Trapp and Mrs. Johnstone, both strong-willed women with clear heads. “Sunset Boulevard's” faded star on the edge of madness is a fragile, vulnerable and doomed creature.

But Clark believes that Norma is stronger than that. “Actually I think Norma is fascinating, very difficult to get to know,” she said. “Really funnier, too, than I first thought when I read the script. And she is very difficult to sing.”

The music holds no terrors for Clark, whose jazzy sense of improvisation is, if anything, held back by the role. Still, it is refreshing to hear a new musical interpretation of a role so powerfully imprinted with the memories of Patti LuPone, Glenn Close and Elaine Paige. Clark's trademark grace notes, her familiar crystalline timbre and even the odd Midwestern accent she has chosen for the role make hers a most unusual Norma. As for the humor, “I admire Susan Schulman for letting me try something new,” Clark says of her “Sunset” director on tour, “for going beyond what I did in the West End with Trevor Nunn.”

No one will mistake this modest, more low-key touring production of “Sunset Boulevard” for Nunn's original in either London or New York. But there is nothing low-voltage about Clark's singing, nor is there any doubt about her commitment to a role she plans to sing well into next year.

“Norma is a great role, one of those that don't come around very often,” Clark said. “I think she will be around for a while.

“So will I.”

The musical plays October 13 through November 7 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets: $37- $77. Call (415) 512-7770.

Star Petula Clark and other cast members will perform at a benefit for the Richmond Ermert AIDS Foundation and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS at 7:30 p.m. November 1 at Club Fugazi, 678 Green St., San Francisco. Call (415) 421-4222.