Petula Clark
Petula Clark
When you're alone and life is making you lonely, you can always listen to a Petula Clark recording. A child star in England during the World War II years, Petula achieved a tremendous level of fame in the 1960s with such pop hits as "Downtown," "I Know a Place," and "Don't Sleep in the Subway." She appeared on dozens of top TV programs and gave wonderful performances in two flop movie musicals of the late 1960s, Finian's Rainbow (opposite Fred Astaire) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (opposite Peter O'Toole). Later, she starred on stage as Maria in The Sound of Music, Mrs. Johnstone in Blood Brothers, and Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.

An album featuring Petula in duets with such other pop legends as Dusty Springfield, Bobby Darin, and Peggy Lee will be released this spring; and the woman who has recorded more than 1,000 songs and sold more than 70 million records has just embarked on a concert tour of America and the U.K. I recently phoned her in Australia, where she's on holiday, to chat about her career and her latest endeavor.

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THEATERMANIA: How's Sydney?

PETULA CLARK: It's almost unbearably hot here today, but this country is amazing, and Sydney is an extraordinary city. Since the Olympics, it's really come into its own. I'm meeting up with people I haven't seen in a long time, and I had three days on the beach, which was absolutely divine.

TM: Are you working at all while you're there?

PETULA: I'm working on some songs, but I write for the pure pleasure of it. I've been writing for years, even back in the days of the albums -- the LPs! -- sometimes under the name of Al Grant. But I never took myself very seriously as a songwriter until a group called The Vogues picked up on "You're the One," which I wrote with Tony Hatch. Little by little, I've grown in confidence with my writing.

TM: You're about to begin a seven-month concert tour. Do you enjoy touring?

PETULA: I do. So many performers say it's tedious and exhausting, but I absolutely love it. I have a curious mind, I suppose, so I like to go and see different places and things. In concert, I do all the songs people expect me to do; I'd be lynched if I didn't! But I like to do some of my own songs and other less-familiar material as well.

TM: I've just read a new biography of Julie Andrews, and it reminded me that you were both child stars in England in the '40s.

PETULA: Yes. I've spoken to Julie a couple of times about those days; in fact, we recently spoke about it on the phone. She recalls all of it better than I do. That's rather nice, because sometimes you think, "Did that really happen?" It was quite a curious childhood; we used to travel around in troop trains. Julie was rather prim in those days. She was singing straighter kind of stuff, I was singing swing and doing comedy sketches. I think neither of us has really changed that much.

TM: For several years in the mid-'60s, you were one of the most famous people in the world. Was that overwhelming?

PETULA: Well, I was living a pretty overwhelming life before that. I had a huge career in France; I was the number one singer in that country and in Tunisia, Switzerland, French-speaking Canada -- and I was already the mother of two small children. When "Downtown" happened, it just sort of added to the general pandemonium that was going on in my life, in a very pleasant way. I sometimes feel that I don't really know what fame is, because I always have been famous to one degree or another. It's true that I hit fame in America in 1965, and it was kind of the icing on the cake, but I never stopped to think too much about it.

TM: I remember seeing you at one of the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS auctions some years ago. One of the items up for grabs was that you would record an answering machine message for the highest bidder. The auctioneer asked what you would say on the tape, and you replied, "Well I suppose I could sing, couldn't I?" Then you sang a few bars of "Downtown," and the crowd went nuts.

PETULA: It's that kind of song!

TM: You're so great in both Finian's Rainbow and Goodbye, Mr. Chips, even if the movies didn't fly. I was watching the DVD of Finian's recently, and it was a nice surprise that it includes you singing the songs in French on one of the supplementary audio tracks.

PETULA: Does it? I remember going into a studio and doing the dialogue in French, which I found extremely difficult. I have nothing but respect for actors who do that. In France, they use the very best actors for the dubbing. In the same studio with me that day, they were dubbing some Bugs Bunny cartoons, and it was extraordinary to hear these distinguished French actors doing those funny voices.

TM: The Finian's soundtrack album is terrific, and so is Chips. Some of Leslie Bricusse's songs are gorgeous.

PETULA: Yes. "You and I" is the one most people seem to know, but I adore "Walk Through the World." There's also an amazing song called "Tomorrow With Me" that was cut from the film. It's a very strange and difficult song, but beautiful, and John Williams' arrangement was so fantastic.

TM: Have you kept in touch with Peter O'Toole?

PETULA: I haven't seen him for a long time. We almost met up recently in Los Angeles for the pre-Oscars, but he left town for some reason, so we didn't. I saw Peter last in London; he had been doing a play on stage and I went to his dressing room. We were both very moved. We just sort of held hands, looked at each other, and cried.

TM: Did you do any stage musicals other than The Sound of Music, Blood Brothers, and Sunset Boulevard?

PETULA: I did an ill-fated show which I guess I'm not supposed to talk about. It was a show that I co-wrote. We did it on tour in England; it got fooled around with so much by the time we got into London that it really wasn't my show anymore. You live and learn. There's a fine line between listening to people's advice and compromising. I compromised. Funnily enough, it was a show about the American Civil War; it's a period that I find very moving, but I don't think the English really knew what it was about. The show was called Someone Like You, which was the wrong title as well. It was in the late '80s, I believe. I've sort of blocked it out.

TM: Aside from that, have your musical theater experiences been good ones?

PETULA: I love playing roles. I was very comfortable in Blood Brothers, and I had great respect for the character I was playing. At first, I didn't have great respect for Norma Desmond; but by the time I got to the end, I loved her and felt that I understood her. Near the end of the American tour, when she comes down the stairs in the last scene, I decided to do it very differently. All through the play, you hear how sweet she was as a young woman -- and here's this dreadful, unpleasant person you see through the whole show. So I decided that when she came down the stairs at the end, we would see her as she had been. That seemed to change the audience's attitude toward her, because they had a picture of this sweet woman who had become lost during her career.

Petula as Norma in Sunset Boulevard
Petula as Norma in Sunset Boulevard
TM: So it wasn't quite the way Gloria Swanson played that scene for the film.

PETULA: Norma is one of those roles that are a little bit like Hamlet; there are very different ways of doing it. The closest performance to Gloria Swanson's that I saw was Elaine Paige. I thought she was amazing. Elaine told me that Trevor [Nunn, the show's director] had told her to watch the movie every night. So when I got the part, I asked Trevor, "Do you want me to watch the movie?" He said, "Certainly not, darling! I want you to be your own Norma."

TM: How did you come to be cast in Sunset in the first place?

PETULA: Trevor really bullied me into doing the show; I had seen Glenn Close do it and I thought, "This has nothing to do with me." Sometimes you have to be pushed over the edge when you're teetering. But I'm glad I did it. I learned so much, because it really was an acting role. The woman in Blood Brothers was easier for me to slip into, and musically it wasn't much of a stretch. But in Sunset Boulevard, I found myself able to do things I didn't thing I could do.

TM: I'm sure your fans are always delighted to see you perform live, whether in musicals or concerts.

PETULA: What's extraordinary for me is to get fan letters from Mongolia and other places I've never been to. You think, "How does that happen?" Of course, it's a little thing called a record. Now and then, when I'm in the states, I'll meet gentlemen who were pilots in Vietnam, and they tell me that they used to listen to my music just before they were taking off. A record gets into every corner of the world. I find that very humbling. I've written a song about it, called "Driven By Emotion." It says, "I've been getting high on the music ever since I was so high, and that's the way it's going to stay until I die." That really is true; I'm excited and driven by doing it, not by the trappings of it.