". . . but what I'd really like to do is direct."
The second most improbable person you'd expect to utter such a line (after Mother Teresa) is Victoria Clark — improbable because of the myriad of talents she displays so well before the footlights — but utter it she does, and the cliché contains a kernel of truth.
"I came here to direct," she now dimly recalls. "I secretly wanted to be Peter Sellars, the avant-garde, hot-shot opera director. That's what I really wanted to do — the stranger the better." Fortunately for us, the nature of things theatrical pushed that dream to the back burner, and a working actress–singer–dancer moved stage center.
Her next step is authentic stardom, having arrived last month at the Vivian Beaumont Theater with The Light in the Piazza, the new Adam Guettel–Craig Lucas musical based on Elizabeth Spencer's 1960 novella from whence also came Arthur Freed's 1962 film. Piazza will illuminate a large talent that's only done limited, small-dosage service till now. Now she has the star part, thank you very much — the sort that would have occupied an Angela Lansbury or a Shirley Booth in other eras: Margaret Johnson, a North Carolina matron holidaying in Florence of 1953 with her curiously childlike daughter of 26, Clara.
It seems Clara suffered a head trauma at a young age, and her mental development stayed at that level, but, to a susceptible young Italian with limited English language skills, this deficit seems charming, so Margaret must wrestle with the truth or the happy fairy-tale ending for Clara.
"The thing that I like about this show," Clark says, "is that it reminds me of adult life — the complexity of relationships, how difficult it is to be a grown-up and navigate in this world, the blessings we have. It's a struggle to be a good example and to do the right thing.
"This piece, for me, is about redemption and forgiveness. Margaret carries such a burden around with her. She feels it's her fault her daughter was injured — she was in charge of this birthday party when it happened, and she wasn't around when she should have been."
Margaret is a mite more dramatic than the roles Clark usually draws (Smitty in the last go-around of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Fraulein Kost in Cabaret, Miss Pennywise in Urinetown), but the part is not entirely without a light side.
In seriocomic tone, it's closer to another Broadway role she originated — the gossipy, celebrity-struck Alice Beane of Titanic.
"Southern women are drop-dead funny," insists Clark, who happens to be one (via strong Dallas/Durham roots). "They're beautiful, canny, smart as hell and knee-slapping funny."
Her easy access to such roles isn't just regional, either. First and last, Clark is a character comedienne who can count only two ingenue roles in her whole career. She has a certain Dody Goodman dither about her — and, unexpectedly, a gorgeous singing voice. "It's an unusual combination. People have always been trying to figure out what to do about it."
Guettel, Lucas, musical director Ted Sperling and director Bartlett Sher are the first to capitalize on this winning combo. In point of fact, Clark won a Jefferson Award for Best Actress in a Musical recently in Chicago, where the production stopped off after preliminary gigs at Sundance and Seattle. It's a win that sets her up quite nicely for a Tony seconding.
She backed into the role of a lifetime much the way she backed into performing. Ira Weitzman had a lot to do with both. Now musical theatre associate producer at Lincoln Center Theater, which is producing Piazza, Weitzman was a casting director when he met Clark 27 years ago, fresh off the bus from New Haven, a Yalie music major hell-bent on directing but open to rent-paying alternatives. While in graduate school at NYU, she was hired by Weitzman for various showcases and workshops he would put together so the creatives could see what they had wrought.
"I was learning everything that people were writing because a lot of them couldn't sing. Ira and his partner would say, 'Well, Vicki's going to sing the entire show for you — all the parts — and you'll get an idea of the show.'
"Ira listened to me singing probably 500 roles. I used every different part of my voice. Then, about a year into this, he said, 'I have no idea if you're interested in acting — you've never discussed it with me — but there's an understudy slot opening in Sunday in the Park With George, and I think you'd get it if you wanted it. Interested?'"
Thus redirected, Clark walked through that stage door and never looked back at directing. Never . . . until lately, when theatre historian Robert Kimball asked her to direct a Lyrics and Lyricists salute to Mack Gordon at the 92nd Street Y. Even she was surprised at how fast she pounced. "It's interesting that, right before I do the most meaningful acting project of my life, this directing job dropped down. I think it odd — unless it's supposed to teach me to shut up when I'm in rehearsals. I thought, 'This is a sign from God. You're going to have a little directing project before you start rehearsals so just sit down and listen to Craig and Bart and Adam, and be quiet. Don't whine. Let them do their work.'"
That's the good little star. Do as directed.