Not just another 'Norma'
Petula Clark takes on 'Sunset Boulevard'
If you think sunny '60s songbird Petula Clark is an odd choice to
play the monstrous grande dame in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset
Boulevard, you're not alone. Clark had her doubts as well.
In 1995, British director Trevor Nunn approached her about taking
over for Elaine Paige in the show's London production. To say Clark balked
would be an understatement.
"I spent three hours on the phone with him, trying to convince him
that this was really not a good idea," she insists, relaxing at a
Seattle hotel. "It was the oddest conversation: 'What makes you think I
can play this?' 'Because you're a great actress.' Well, you've got to
admit, that's always nice to hear."
The conversation continued. Clark had just finished a three-year
run in Willy Russell's Blood Brothers, a role that took her to
Broadway and on a nationwide tour. She was ready for a little holiday; not
to tackle the most demanding job in an amazingly durable career.
"I asked him if he wanted me to read for the role," she says. "He
said no. 'Do you want me to sing?' He said no. 'But it's a different kind
of singing than I've ever done!' It was me protesting and him insisting
for three hours. But I guess he was better at it than I was."
The Arizona Republic
Sep 02 1999
The spirit of Swanson
The role of Norma Desmond is worlds away from anything Clark
had done before. Gloria Swanson memorably created the character of a faded
silent-film star descending into madness in the 1950 film noir classic. In
addition to Paige, Glenn Close, Betty Buckley and Patti LuPone all tackled
the role in Lloyd Webber's musicalization, which premiered in 1993.
Each woman is known for bringing something different to the role.
For Paige, it was a spectacular singing voice and an archly dramatic style
that seemed to channel the spirit of Swanson. Close made the character
somewhat dotty, with a fruity speaking voice and a dark, chilling
Clark now has played the role longer than any other Norma Desmond,
thanks to her work in London and on the U.S. tour, which takes her to
Tempe's Gammage Auditorium on Sept. 7-12. She brings her own qualities to
the tragic character.
"When Trevor finally talked me into doing this, I asked if he
wanted me to see the movie," she says in her cheerfully airy British
accent. "I knew he wanted Elaine to see the film before she took the role.
But Trevor said no, don't see it: 'I just want you to do with it what you
will.' I think he just wanted to see another Norma, one that's a little
That's been Clark's strength in the role. Critics around the
country have raved about the depth and sincerity she brings to Norma,
turning the woman into more of a fragile, believable figure than a
Clark is no stranger to praise, having won plaudits for the
demanding Blood Brothers, not to mention Grammy Awards for her
recordings of Downtown and I Know a Place. But to have
USA Today gush that she's "remarkable . . . no other actress has
gotten so far under Norma's gold-lame turbans . . . Norma has never seemed
so real," must be a marvelous payback.
"Well, I feel that Norma is not a monster," says Clark, accepting
praise with an almost shy grace. "She's a bit monstrous. She's spoiled and
bad-mannered and deluded - she's all those things. But I think if she's
totally dislikable, then the audience doesn't come to grips with it. If
they can't relate to her at all, then the story's not really very
interesting, is it?"
Although the character of Norma Desmond faces fleeting fame,
Clark's career is renowned for its longevity. The performer, now in her
late 60s, was beloved as a child star in England during World War II,
singing for the troops. She starred in more than two dozen British films
and landed numerous hit records throughout the Continent, singing in
English, French, German and Italian.
U.S. fame comes in '60s
American success came on the heels of the so-called British
Invasion of the '60s. Although Clark was a good decade older than the
Beatles, sophisticated, brassy hits such as Don't Sleep in the
Subway, I Couldn't Live Without Your Love and A Sign of the
Times made her a major stateside celebrity. She had a warm,
captivating delivery that appealed to both adults and teenagers, bridging
the mountainous generation gap of the time. Even today, she stands as the
biggest-selling British female singer in recording history.
At her peak in the '60s, she was an unquestioned superstar. She
starred opposite Fred Astaire in Finian's Rainbow (1968) and Peter
O'Toole in the woefully underrated Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969). She
hosted her own network specials and stirred up national controversy when
she grabbed Harry Belafonte's hand in her groundbreaking Petula
variety hour. The thought of a White woman touching a Black man was pretty
daring for 1967 television audiences.
In the '70s, however, Clark's American success cooled. She was
famous enough that she always was in demand, particularly on the nightclub
and casino circuit. But although she never stopped working, it wasn't on
the same scale as before.
That aspect of her success causes many fans - American ones in
particular - to still think of Clark as a swinging '60s rocker who just
popped in from Carnaby Street. If that image doesn't annoy the singer,
it's not exactly endearing to her, either.
"I had a very successful career all over Europe before the '60s,"
she says, polite but firm. "But I was swept up with the (British Invasion)
traffic. It was great in some ways, but it was complicated in some ways.
The '60s lasted quite a long time, but I've done things before and I've
done things since. It's an important part of my life, certainly, but not
all of it."
In the '80s, she turned to theater, starring in an acclaimed London
production of The Sound of Music. In 1990, Someone Like You
played in the West End, a show for which she wrote the music and lyrics
and co-wrote the book.
She's never stopped singing. Here For You, released last
year, was a delightful mix of pop and theater songs. And her classic
Warner Bros. material from the '60s all has been re-issued on compact
disc, thanks to the efforts of a large, devoted group of followers
(Clark's fan club will mark its 25th anniversary with a bash in LA in
Perhaps most importantly to the woman born in Epsom, Surrey, she
was knighted by Queen Elizabeth last year for her achievements in the arts
and entertainment industry.
Although other performers at her age tend to slow down or simply
fall by the wayside, Clark is undergoing a renaissance by embracing some
of the toughest work in her career. Unlike Norma, she's not one to
romanticize her past triumphs.
"I don't live in the past at all," she says. "Sometimes, I'm
criticized for that. I don't get all nostalgic and sappy. That's not the
way I live my life. I'm too busy living my life outside of show buiness to
live in the past."
That's one reason she says she doesn't see herself retiring anytime
soon. Her three children are grown and live in three different countries.
Her husband, Frenchman Claude Wolff, resides in Switzerland.
"I've thought about stopping working, just briefly," she says.
"Sometimes I stop and think, 'Wait a minute. When I finish this, what do I
do?' But I don't have what normal people call a home. There's no place
where I can go and grow my radishes. That's pretty weird when you think
"But that's what happens when you've pulled up your roots. I'm
constantly moving. It's hard to know where I belong."
She stops talking and starts giggling.
"I'll probably just wind up performing into oblivion," she says, a
tad winsome. "I mean, I have no idea when or why I would stop at
* * *Randy Cordova can be reached at (602) 444-8096 or
at email@example.com via