In the mid-'60s, hers was the voice of sunshine and laughter, bubbling through such chart-toppers as "Downtown," "I Know a Place" and "Don't Sleep in the Subway."
In the late '90s, however, Petula Clark finds herself playing very much against that image. As forgotten silent-film star Norma Desmond in the revamped tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Boulevard," the 64-year-old singer-actress must convince audiences that she is lonely, delusional and dangerously unbalanced.
During telephone conversations from tour stops in Charlotte, N.C., and San Antonio, Clark giggles at attempts to ferret out whether she has based any part of her performance on her own long career in show business.
"No, no, no," she says, deflecting such notions. "I've been fortunate, or maybe I was a bit brighter than Norma."
Whereas Norma has retreated into her past glory, living in an elaborate movie she has created in her mind, Clark says that she herself is quite happy in the here and now.
"When people go back to the '60s, they're like Norma going back to the '20s. I'm not like that," she says. "The '60s were fine, but . . . it was just a phase in my life. I had a lot of hit records, and that seems like the high spot in my career, but in fact I've had lots of high spots, and that was just one of them."
Clark performs in the musical--which is based on Billy Wilder's legendary 1950 film--Tuesday through next Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, July 27-Aug. 1 at the Civic Theatre in San Diego and Oct. 5-10 at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.
The actress, who is British, first played Norma in London in 1995, replacing a vacationing Elaine Paige and later taking over permanently. She was still with the show when its West End run concluded in April 1997.
She has headlined this second attempt at a North American tour since the show hit the road in December and is scheduled to perform at least through the end of the year.
Explaining her approach to the role, Clark says: "Norma was this wonderful, beautiful, iridescent star as a young woman, and then she locks herself away for 20 years, hoping that the talkie fad would pass. There's something missing in her; she hasn't really matured. She's gone from an adolescent to this slightly deranged woman, not able to deal with reality."
When Norma attempts to co-opt a struggling younger screenwriter (played by Lewis Cleale) into her madness, the tempestuous relationship snaps her final ties to reality.
It's a sad story, to be sure, but Clark says she tries to bring "vulnerability and humor" to the role--"two things you wouldn't normally associate with Norma Desmond."
The show's director, Susan H. Schulman, says these are Clark's own qualities, which both women agreed should bleed through into the characterization. "She is so down to earth," Schulman says of Clark, "and very, very intelligent, and also a very vulnerable person. And she is very funny. You don't expect it from her, because she is this petite, adorable person, but she has a very dark sense of humor--very cutting."
Schulman's staging for the tour is quite different from the Trevor Nunn staging for the American premiere at Los Angeles' Shubert Theatre in 1993. Substituting psychological nuance for the elaborate mechanics of the previous staging, Schulman and set designer Derek McLane take the audience inside Norma's blurred mind, to the sound stage on which she sees her life unfolding. The audience can see sequencing information written at the edges of painted scenery drops, as well as the studio lights and so forth.
The touring show is also about 15 minutes shorter, mostly because music written to cover the original's set changes has been cut, and more dialogue is now spoken instead of being sung in recitative.
Clark was just a little slip of a thing when she became the sweet, courageous voice of all the children of bomb-blasted, World War II-era London on the BBC. Recording and acting careers quickly followed, leading, at age 30, to the smash-hit single "Downtown." Later, she starred in such movie musicals as "Finian's Rainbow" (1968), opposite Fred Astaire, and "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," (1969), opposite Peter O'Toole.
Nowadays, Clark lives primarily in Geneva with husband Claude Wolff, a onetime public relations man in the French record industry who later managed her career. They've been married 38 years and have three children and one grandchild.
Clark's reputation in America remains tied to two indelible events.
One was "Downtown," the Tony Hatch tune that caught the nation's ears and propelled Clark to No. 1 on the pop charts in the first weeks of 1965.
"When you go into a studio, you don't know that you're recording a monster hit," Clark says, still sounding a bit dazed by the stir the song created. "We just sing songs; it's the people who decide it's going to be a hit."