DIVA TALK: Chatting with Follies Star Victoria Clark, Plus News of Buckley and Graff

DIVA TALK: Chatting with Follies Star Victoria Clark, Plus News of Buckley and Graff News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Tony winner Victoria Clark; Clark with Follies co-stars Michael McGrath, Donna Murphy, Victor Garber and Christine Baranski.
Tony winner Victoria Clark; Clark with Follies co-stars Michael McGrath, Donna Murphy, Victor Garber and Christine Baranski. Photo by Susan Shacter (top), Joan Marcus (<i>Follies</i>)

VICTORIA CLARK
Aspiring actors take note. A bit of fanaticism may be useful in your career; that is, if Tony Award-winning Light in the Piazza star Victoria Clark is any example.

"Yeah, I'm a Follies fanatic," the celebrated singing actress revealed earlier this week. "I was a huge Adam Guettel groupie before Piazza, and I just followed him everywhere. And, I've pretty much followed Follies everywhere." And, now, Clark, who possesses one of the great sopranos in the musical theatre, will play Sally Durant Plummer — the former Follies star married to Buddy but in love with Ben — in the upcoming production of that classic Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical for the acclaimed City Center Encores! series.

Follies, which features one of the great musical theatre scores, promises to be a, if not the, highlight of the winter theatre season, especially for diva lovers. Joining Clark in the star-studded production will be fellow Tony Award winners Donna Murphy (as Phyllis Stone) and Christine Baranski (as Carlotta Campion) with Mimi Hines as Hattie Walker and Joanne Worley as Stella Deems. Add Victor Garber as Benjamin Stone, Michael McGrath as Buddy Plummer and Philip Bosco as Dimitri Weismann to the mix, and one can see why it's one of the hot tickets of the season.

Clark, speaking early Tuesday morning, said her first rehearsal was "exciting. It was great to see everybody in the room and all that talent. It's a funny group, too. I was laughing my head off most of the day. . . . We read and sang through the whole piece and just dove right in." With less than two weeks of rehearsal time, she says, "There's no time to tiptoe around it — you have to dive in."

The actress — whose Broadway credits boast featured roles in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, Titanic, Urinetown and Cabaret — directed scenes from Follies while a student at Yale. "We interpolated as much of Follies as we could into one of our commencement shows that Ted Sperling directed and musical directed. So, we were really studying the score back then when we were in college." In fact, Clark admits that the show feels like an old friend "because I've been studying and listening to it for so many years. . . . Sally is a part I always wanted to play but never thought I'd be old enough to do it! I just can't believe my good fortune. Sally has so many fantastic songs. Just the whole score [is fantastic] — just when you think, 'Oh, that's my favorite song,' then you hear another song and think, 'No, that's my favorite song.' It's just a treat — one hit after another." Despite her familiarity with the piece, Clark has spent much time preparing for her role in the Encores! presentation, which runs Feb. 8-12. "You really have to come in as prepared as you can be because there's no time for stressing out about anything," she says with a laugh. "Once you're in the room, you're sort of on this conveyor belt. We have five days of rehearsal, then we sing through with the orchestra, then we have a day off, then we tech it, and then you have [an audience of] 2,000 people!"

Clark's preparation included reading a "gigantic book about Florenz Ziegfeld" as well as Ted Chapin's "Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies." "Oh my God, that was fantastic," Clark says about the Chapin tome. "I really felt like I knew all of the original cast by the time I had finished the book. I felt like I had really lived through that rehearsal process with those people. And now a lot of them are gone — Alexis [Smith] is gone and Dorothy Collins is gone. It's very moving to me that here those people were, sort of in the prime of their careers, and . . . now those people are gone. Life goes by so fast."

Clark also took a trip to Phoenix, where Sally retired with Buddy after her Follies days were over. "I had never been there, and for me it helps to see where people are from," she says. "I'm sure a lot of people would think that was excessive, but I don't think it is. I feel like you have to meet people from there — go listen to the way they talk, just try to get a sense of them. . . . Anytime you do that [kind] of research, it always makes you feel like, for better or for worse, I know where my character is headed. . . . Unlike Phyllis and Ben, who stayed in New York, a world I know, this is a world I truly didn't know."

When asked how she would describe Sally, Clark says, "I think she's a lost soul in some ways. She's really searching for the answer. She's 49, and I think she lives in an alternate reality to be honest. She is addicted to the idea of being in love . . . to avoid the necessity of the routine of daily life, to pull herself out. Some people really can't deal with that — they can't deal with the daily things that need to get taken care of. I think she really thrives on excitement; she thrives on romance. When her kids are grown, I feel like she invents a lot of things to keep her mind and her heart occupied. This obsession she has with Ben is a very real thing to her. I think that she really seriously loves him and has always loved him, but it's become something that can really occupy her time and her heart.

"When that slips away, when she actually sees him and there is still that chemistry and that clearly two marriages are not going to break up in order for this to occur, then she's left with what really is real, which is not something she's used to. I think she's an optimistic person who probably hasn't been happy in awhile, but she's just made the best of it. And she's been able to cope — she has her own coping skills — [but] when somebody looks her in the eye and says, 'I'm sorry, but this isn't going to happen,' it is a crashing blow."

Clark thinks that blow is ultimately a blessing for Sally: "I think it's the best thing that ever happened to her because it suddenly just knocks her off her little roller skates there, and she's able to just say, 'What is?,' not 'What might be?,' not 'What could be?,' but 'What is?' And 'what is' is that she has a husband who finally told her the truth, and she finally told the truth. So, after 30 years, they know. . . . They can just proceed from there, having learned how to be honest with each other. . . . I think the same thing happens for Phyllis and Ben. Somehow, looking back at the kids that they were and seeing themselves as children enables them to tell the truth. I think it's very freeing. I mean, that's my take on it.

"Honesty is a great thing. Honesty is not the world that a lot of people want to live in, but if you combine that with a good sense of humor, it's a pretty great place to live in," Clark laughs.

Clark also spoke about her recent work in the developmental run of Nicky Silver's The Agony and the Agony, which played the Vineyard this past December. "It was wonderful to work with Nicky and [director] Terry Kinney. Nicky had not acted since high school, and he kept apologizing — every day he would come in and apologize. And let me tell you, he is a great actor. He has great command of that stage. He went out and gave the most lovely curtain speech, and the audience fell madly in love with him. . . . It was a lovefest. I had not worked with anybody in that cast before, and now Cheyenne Jackson and Marilyn Torres and I are planning a benefit. We're doing a huge benefit to help the people in Darfur. . . . And the play itself — what a pleasure to work on a Nicky Silver play. His writing is so intricate and so complicated, and I am just such a big fan of his."

And, going back a bit further, Clark also chatted about leaving behind The Light in the Piazza's Margaret Johnson, the role that earned the actress Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for her multi-layered and completely honest performance that was filled with a plethora of comedic, dramatic and breathtakingly beautifully sung moments. "I'm pretty good at hitting the delete button," she jokes. "I could probably sing 'Fable' or 'Dividing Day' for you right now if I really concentrated, but I like to leave things behind, and we had such a nice journey with that piece. But interestingly enough, other people . . . are still talking about it. It may just be one of those things where my whole life people mention it and tell me that they were moved, which is a great thing. I don't mind that at all! . . . I'm so proud of that show — it's like a child to me. That show is like my baby, so as long as people want to talk about it, I'm happy to talk about it."

In addition to upcoming concert work and her debut solo recording, Clark is also spending time mentoring the next generation of musical theatre performers. She has been teaching voice for years out of her home, but now she travels to Yale in New Haven, CT, once a week. "I was asked by one of the professors at Yale, who was a friend when I was an undergrad there," Clark explains. "There is a program where undergrads have the opportunity to work on song structure and musical theatre performance through the music department. You can't major in any kind of performance at Yale — you have to do the history, and, if you're a music major, you're going to be studying the history and structure and early music, and you're going to have to choose a musical period to obsess with," she laughs. "You can do a recital if you want to, but it's not the bulk of the major at all. It's much more scholarly. So it's really fun to be there, and I am so proud of my students. They are doing a major scene study class, and they are just diving in."

Clark's friend, musical director David Loud, is also teaching at the Ivy League school. "He's teaching the graduate school and I'm teaching undergraduate. We're back at our alma mater, and he says, 'I look at those kids running through the gates of the college and I think, I just can't see myself anywhere in those children. I just can't see myself — I am a completely different person.' I laughed, and I said, 'Well I look at them running through the gates and I think, Well, I wanna run with them!'"

"That's something I share with Sally," Clark concludes. "She sees Ben and she says, 'Gosh, you make me feel like I'm 19 and looking to go out on the town again.' . . . When I'm teaching and I'm working with college students, I just feel like I'm their chum, like I'm 18 or 19. The only time I'm sort of shocked back into reality is when I'm demonstrating something in the mirror and I stand right next to them. . . . It's always quite shocking to me because I don't know where that time went. Inside I feel exactly the same."

[Show times for Follies at City Center (West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues) are Feb. 8 and 9 at 8 PM, Feb. 10 at 2 and 8 PM, Feb. 11 at 6:30 PM and Feb. 12 at 7 PM. Tickets are available by calling (212) 581-1212 or by logging on to www.nycitycenter.org.]

DIVA TIDBITS
Next weekend, the one-and-only Betty Buckley will be back in town to offer a rare New York concert appearance. Buckley is part of Lincoln Center's acclaimed American Songbook season and will offer two concerts Feb. 10 at 8:30 and 10:30 PM. The early concert sold-out months ago, but there are still a few seats left for the second performance. The Tony Award-winning actress, who recently took part in the Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Andrew Lloyd Webber, will be accompanied by her quintet Quintessence — led by musical director Kenny Werner on piano. Concertgoers can expect to hear Buckley wrap her inimitable voice around tunes by Hoagy Carmichael, Rodgers and Hammerstein, the Bergmans and Antonio Carlos Jobim as well as the pop hit "Get Here." The Allen Room is located in the Frederick P. Rose Hall at Broadway and 60th Street. Tickets are available by calling (212) 721-6500. Visit www.lincolncenter.org for more information. By Side By Side By Side By Side by Stephen Sondheim is the lengthy title of the 23rd Annual Southland Theatre Artists Goodwill Event (S.T.A.G.E.), which will be held March 10 at 8 PM and March 11 at 3 PM at the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills. David Galligan will direct the concerts, which will celebrate the work of Tony Award-winning composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Gerald Sternbach will be the musical director for the two performances. The concerts will boast a special performance by "Desperate Housewives" creator Marc Cherry, who will offer a tune from Merrily We Roll Along. As previously announced, the evenings will also feature the talents of Shaun and Patrick Cassidy. Newcomers to the starry line-up include Len Cariou, Wilson Cruz, Tyne Daly, Nancy Dussault, Sally Ann Howes, Alice Ripley and Betty Garrett as well as Jamie Anderson, Ann Hampton Callaway, Carole Cook, Kevin Earley, Randy Graff, Ronobir Lahiri, Sean McDermott, Linda Michele, Michele Nicastro, Michael Nouri, Valarie Pettiford, Charlotte Rae, Cathy Rigby, Joan Ryan, Andrew Samonsky, Kevin Spirtas, KT Sullivan, Rip Taylor and Lisa Vroman. The S.T.A.G.E. concerts are the longest continuously running AIDS benefit in the world. Proceeds from this year’s event will go to AIDS Project Los Angeles. The Wilshire Theatre is located in Beverly Hills, CA, at 8440 Wilshire Blvd. For ticket information call (323) 656-9069 or visit www.stagela.com.

Corinne Melançon, a current cast member of Broadway's Mamma Mia!, will assume the role of Donna Sheridan while two-time Tony nominee Carolee Carmello is on leave to star in the Signature Theatre's production of Kathie Lee Gifford's Saving Aimee. Melançon, will play the role of Donna March 14-May 13. Carmello will return to the hit ABBA musical at the Winter Garden Theatre May 16. For more information visit www.mamma-mia.com.

Coinciding with the recent release of the "Legends of Broadway" series — four recordings celebrating the musical theatre careers of Barbara Cook, Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters and Chita Rivera — Masterworks Broadway will make available free podcasts with each of these Tony-winning actresses. Interested theatre lovers will be able to listen to these living legends discuss their signature roles. The podcasts will be available through both iTunes.com and MasterworksBroadway.com. The Lansbury podcast debuted Jan. 31 and will be followed by Cook (Feb. 14), Peters (Feb. 18) and Rivera (March 14).

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.