‘Sunset’ Close Up”
by Mark de la Viña
San Jose Mercury News

October 10, 1999

On a warm September afternoon in her hotel suite, singer Petula Clark's thoughts turn to the stuff of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals: namely, hydraulically operated set pieces.

On the day she opens yet another leg of the American tour of Lloyd Webber's “Sunset Boulevard,” Clark relaxes in a floral pattern, sarong-like skirt and a long-sleeve black top. She's laughing easily when she recounts how four years ago she balked at playing the proud yet forgotten silent film queen Norma Desmond, a role now exposing her to American audiences that knew her best for the 1965 pop song hit “Downtown” and the 1968 movie “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.”

“When I (first) saw ‘Sunset Boulevard,' it was on Broadway with Glenn Close,” says Clark, 66, who comes to San Francisco when the musical opens at the Curran Theatre on Wednesday. “I was very impressed with the production because it was magnificent with all the hydraulics.

“And the first thing you notice is the set, the house with the sitting room along with her sofas, the desk, the organ, the staircase. It's breathtaking. It would come forward, it would pause, it would hover. It was kind of like a spaceship.

“And I found that I was strangely unmoved by it.”

So unmoved that when director Trevor Nunn, whose large-scale theater spectacles have included “Cats” and “Les Misérables,” offered her the starring role in “Sunset” in 1995, she immediately passed.

Clark was hardly starving for work. Although she never reached the level of popularity in the United States that she experienced in England and mainland Europe, Clark still had a rabid following. An entertainment industry trooper for more than a half-century, she had sold almost 68 million records and had just completed an American tour of the musical “Blood Brothers.” Her own fan-supported Web site (www.geocities.com/~petulaclark/), awash in bubble-gum pink, kept track of her every movement.

“They know what I had for breakfast this morning,” she says.

The character of Norma Desmond, the delusional former screen diva, at first was too unlikable to Clark. Originally played by Gloria Swanson in the 1950 Billy Wilder film, Desmond hardly seemed a good fit for Clark, a performer with 29 movie and television roles to her credit. But the persistent nudging of Nunn, former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, finally convinced her that replacing Elaine Paige on the London stage was the right move.

“I thought that could be fun,” she says in recalling how she joined the London production. “But then they asked me to stay on and I said, ‘Well, OK, for six months.'

Six months grew into two years, and she closed the West End production.

In 1998, Clark was approached about reprising the role in a more tapered touring version of the show. With director Susan H. Schulman, whose credits include Tony-winning “The Secret Garden,” the leaner “Sunset” seemed a tantalizing prospect.

“I very much liked what she wanted to do with it,” Clark says, “to refocus it so that the redesign put more focus on the story and the people.” Clark signed on for a 47-city tour that began in December 1998 and will run through next May.

Although the likes of Close, Patti LuPone and Betty Buckley have been affiliated with Desmond, Clark turns in one of the best Desmond portrayals yet. With a crafty mix of vulnerability and obstinacy, she makes the character much more than some cartoonish celluloid freak. Clark's take on the character, whose mythology has been accentuated by a Carol Burnett parody, includes a broad, husky American accent – with an emphasis on the broad.

“It's hard on my voice because I don't use my speaking voice,” she says, suddenly ditching her soft English accent for a blaring American one that better befits a strident softball coach. “I have an American accent, and I really am most unpleasant,” she says.

Although the role has given Clark numerous challenges, it's just the latest step in a long performance career that began when she was the reassuring little girl singing on the BBC and calming the nerves of radio listeners during the Battle of Britain. Her first movie, 1944's “Medal for the General,” began a film career that flourished through the '40s and '50s. She also was a regular on the British pop charts and, in 1960, became a pop sensation in France. She scored the first of what would become a pile of French-language hits, and within two years, she was the country's favorite vocalist, even surpassing native Edith Piaf.

Long after she had established herself in Europe, and a year after the Beatles conquered the United States, Clark achieved her greatest success over here when her Grammy-winning single “Downtown” topped the U.S. pop charts in 1965. She scored more American hits, most notably “Don't Sleep in the Subway” (1967) and returned to movies. In 1968, Clark appeared in Fred Astaire's musical swan song “Finian's Rainbow,” which was Francis Ford Coppola's commercial film debut; in 1969, she starred opposite Peter O'Toole in the remake of “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.”

Clark has been chugging along ever since.

She had her own TV variety show on British television in the '70s, and in the years that followed, she has continued performing in concerts and starring in such stage productions as the revival of “The Sound of Music,” the Fay Weldon collaboration “Someone Like You,” and the touring production of “Blood Brothers,” which came to San Francisco in 1995.

Despite such a prolific career, Clark has never succumbed to the celebrity vanity of an authorized biography. But when “Sunset” wraps, she and Cirque du Soleil's Guy Caron will work on the next best thing: a solo, cabaret-style show that dips into the various stages of her performance life.

“It's an autobiographical show, and it's the closest I'll ever get to telling my own story,” Clark says of the production she hopes to open next fall in Montreal. “I'm writing the whole thing. It's not exactly a whole play, but it will go back to areas of my life nobody knows about.

“Very few people in America know about my French career. I'll be singing a duet with myself as a child from an original BBC recording of me when I was 8 years old.”

One of the unexpected perks of performing in “Sunset” is just how much the show has worked her into shape as a singer and actress. And Lloyd Webber's music, a challenge to most vocalists, has helped her prepare for everything from concerts to her planned solo show.

“Andrew's music is difficult; there's no doubt about that,” Clark says. “I'm used to being very free with the way I sing. I'm an untrained singer, a pop singer – whatever that is – and I like to change the way I phrase and play around with rhythms.

“But you can't do that with ‘Sunset.' You have to make up your mind the way you want to sing these songs, and you have stick to it. And I have found that my voice is much stronger now since I've been doing this. I did a benefit recently where I was singing my old songs again, and I found it was so easy.

“And in acting, Norma has helped me. The two movies that I made, ‘Finian's Rainbow' and ‘Goodbye, Mr. Chips,' they were OK, but neither of them was perfect and I certainly don't think I was perfect in them.

“But after playing Norma, I feel more equipped to go on to perhaps something even more difficult.”