Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard comes to the NAC
Veteran British performer plays aging diva

Patricia Nicholson
The Ottawa Citizen
Sat Jan 29

It's a long way from Downtown to Sunset Boulevard, but Petula Clark seems to have enjoyed the journey.

Clark is best known for belting out infectiously hummable '60s pop anthems like Don't Sleep In The Subway and Downtown. So taking on the role of Norma Desmond -- an aging film diva fading into madness -- in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard was a bit of a leap for her public image.

"If I think of the roles I've been asked to play up until this, they've always been nice people," Clark says. "Sympathetic ladies."

Nice may not be the first adjective that Norma Desmond inspires. She's a nearly forgotten legend of the silent film era, clinging to her delusions of an adoring public while plotting a dubious comeback.

When Joe Gillis, a young out-of-work screenwriter, stumbles into the Sunset Boulevard mansion, they seem to fit each others' immediate needs. Max, Norma's doting butler, forms the third point of a twisted and ultimately tragic love triangle.

Clark first played Norma in London in 1995, but nearly turned down the part. Trevor Nunn, director of the London production, had to convince her to take on the role that's been played by Glenn Close, Betty Buckley, Elaine Paige and Diahann Carroll. But when Nunn told Clark he thought she would bring humour and vulnerability to the role, she was persuaded.

"I think he wanted to see a Norma that was more approachable. He wanted the audience to feel something for her," Clark says. "It makes the ending even more heartbreaking because they're feeling something for her, and for Joe, too. If Norma is played as a monster who's mad as a hatter from the first moment she comes on, and Joe is played as a gigolo, then you don't like the two main characters and that makes the show hard to enjoy."

The show, which runs Tuesday through Sunday at the National Arts Centre, is based on Billy Wilder's classic 1950 film, starring Gloria Swanson and William Holden. The story explores the darker side of the Hollywood dream -- glamour and extravagance, dreams and disillusionment, and the unpleasant side effects of fleeting fame.

One of the ironies of Norma Desmond is that it seems to take a star to fill the shoes of the has-been movie queen.

"It's actually a very difficult role to cast," Clark says. "It's one of the few shows where they really need a name in the lead role. Phantom goes on merrily for years and years without a name in it, so does Cats, so does Evita. And it's totally unfair, because I saw the show with three leading ladies and three understudies, and the understudies were brilliant. But still, when the understudies came on you didn't get quite that extra kick of having -- you know -- a Glenn Close come on as Norma."

Clark has had plenty of opportunity to gain insight into the whims of fame. Unlike Norma Desmond, who was adored on the silent screen but nearly forgotten when talkies came out, Clark has kept up with the times in a career that spans more than five decades.

Clark was a child singing sensation in Britain during the Second World War, and had her own BBC program as a teenager. She made two dozen films in the '40s and '50s. Then she got married, had children, and became an international pop star.

Now in her late sixties, she's spent the last couple of decades doing concerts and musical theatre, including The Sound of Music and Blood Brothers. She's been touring with this production of Sunset Boulevard for over a year, but says there is still one aspect of Norma's character that she can't relate to.

"I don't understand her clinging to the past, because I'm not like that at all. In fact I'm often criticized for not being nostalgic enough," Clark says. "People come up to me and talk endlessly about the '60s, and I will go along with it to a point. But when they start saying oh, they don't write songs like that anymore, I say no, of course they don't. Because this is the 21st century now, and everything is different."

Clark still sings her trademark songs at her concerts, but hers is a much healthier form of nostalgia than Norma's mothballed grandeur.

"I don't feel silly about singing those '60s songs because they're darned good songs, and that part of my life was important," she says. "But I was around before that, and I've done a lot of things since then."

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Sunset Boulevard is at the National Arts Centre from Tuesday through Sunday. Tickets are $49 - $74, available at NAC box office or through TicketMaster 755-1111.