DIVA TALK: Chatting with Piazza's Victoria Clark Plus News of Golden, Duncan and LaMott

DIVA TALK: Chatting with Piazza's Victoria Clark Plus News of Golden, Duncan and LaMott News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Victoria Clark stars as an American tourist in Florence, Italy in The Light in the Piazza
Victoria Clark stars as an American tourist in Florence, Italy in The Light in the Piazza Photo by Joan Marcus

VICTORIA CLARK

As far as I'm concerned, Victoria Clark — back on Broadway this season at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel's The Light in the Piazza — can do no wrong onstage.

The singing actress was a comic delight as Smitty in the Matthew Broderick revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and her performance as down-and-out prostitute Fraulein Kost (she eventually replaced Michele Pawk) in the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Cabaret was stirring, thrilling — and in the Act I finale "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" — disturbing. Not only did she make a huge impact in these relatively small roles, but she was also a standout in the Tony-winning musical Titanic, where she was both comical and touching as second class passenger Alice Beane, a role that also allowed the actress a chance to display her rangy, powerful belt.

Clark was somehow overlooked for a Tony nomination for her Titanic work, but all should be righted this year come Tony nomination time. In fact, Clark may well walk away with the award itself as she is currently giving the best performance of any lead actress in a Broadway musical to open so far this season. In fact, Clark brings Margaret Johnson — mother of Clara (Kelli O'Hara) and wife of Roy (Beau Gravitte) — to full dramatic life, offering a poignant, beautifully acted and sung performance that has already received Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk nominations.

The Light in the Piazza may also be the most moving new musical of the Broadway season, taking its audience on a journey through the stunning landscape of 1950's Florence and Rome. Michael Yeargan's breathtaking sets are the perfect complement to Adam Guettel's rich, haunting score, and the entire production unfolds in a steady flow of emotion that is highlighted by the wonderful performances of Kelli O'Hara, Matthew Morrison and, most vividly, Clark. Clark's performance has been unanimously praised by critics: In his New York Times review, Ben Brantley said Clark "emerges as a star not through show stopping flash but with the quiet confidence of an actress who knows every bumpy inch of her conflicted character," while Clive Barnes, in the New York Post, wrote the actress "gives a beautifully layered performance." And, New York Magazine's John Simon simply called Clark's work "superb."

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the multi-talented, down-to-earth Clark, who spoke about her newest Broadway role, her ten-year-old good luck charm and her desire to direct. That interview follows.

Question: You've been involved with Light in the Piazza for a long time. When did you first become involved with the show?
Victoria Clark: We did a reading two-and-a-half years ago in December in Adam [Guettel]'s apartment that was prior to the Seattle production.

Q: How did you get involved with the show? Did you know Guettel from a previous production?
Clark: It was a very lengthy audition process. I did know Adam because I had sung some of his material during a concert where I was featuring up-and-coming writers at a benefit at my church. We were trying to raise money for an interfaith center between my church and B'nai Jeshurun, the synagogue. We were raising some money for programming, and I went up to [Adam's] house and met him and sang through a bunch of songs and picked a great song called "Was That You?" that I don't think has ended up in any show that he's written so far. That's how I met him, and we also had some mutual friends because we're both Yalies.

I was also a gigantic Floyd Collins groupie and went and saw every production that I could see. I went to Philadelphia and saw it there and saw one of the first readings that [director] Tina Landau had in Adam's loft. Big time Adam Guettel groupie.

I had heard one of the [Piazza] songs, actually the last song in the show that I sing, "Fable." [Musical director] Ted Sperling had played it for me . . . about a year before the auditions. I had just loved the song and called Adam and said, "Gosh, I don't know what's happening with this piece and when you're going to do it, but I sure would like an audition for it." And, he called back and said, "Unless you've had a couple of really bad years, you're way too young to play this part." And I called him back and said, "That's why God invented wigs!" [Laughs.] I thought there were a lot of ways we could get around the age issue. . . And, also, people just looked older in those days. By the time you put all the garments on, [you look older]. And people were having babies earlier then, [so] I think it's believable.

Q: How has your character changed since that first workshop?
Clark: I remember at the very first table read during the workshop there's a mention [that Margaret is from Winston-Salem, NC]. Clara says in the first song, "You don't see a lot of these in Winston-Salem. All we see is corduroys." So I said, "Do you guys want me to read this with a North Carolina dialect or do you want me to fake a dialect?" Craig Lucas kinda looked at Adam, and Adam looked at Craig and they're like, "I don't know, maybe, sure, why not?" And that's it. We never tried it any other way after that because there was something so good about the specificity of that [accent]. Suddenly, she became a very specific person because there is a very strangle little dialect, and it's fun, and it's very musical, and it gives the speech a lot of melody and nuance. That was something that never changed and something that really grounds the character. The piece is essentially the same — the heart and core of the piece are essentially the same. The structure is almost the same. There have been some changes along the way, mostly dealing with how and when to reveal Clara's disability.

Q: Had her disability originally been revealed earlier or later?
Clark: We've moved it all over the place. In the beginning most of it was at the very end of the first act right before "Say it Somehow," right before the lovers meet in the hotel room. And, in the novel, Elizabeth Spencer puts all of the information on the second page. Then, the [musical's writers] decided to delve into what it means to carry around that loss and grief and guilt for so long. In Seattle we had a new song that went in that took place in a Presbyterian minister's office in Florence where [Margaret] goes to visit the minister and reveals all of this [information] and confesses all of what happened and how she feels responsible for it. When we got to the Goodman, that song was changed. Some of the information stayed in the very beginning of the act — they cut all the information out of the first act and moved the confession scene to the second act in the church. And then with this production, we split it half and half. Some comes after "Hysteria," after Clara gets lost in Florence. The guilt piece, the mother piece, what it means to be a mother and parent, and her involvement in all of that, comes in the second act. That escalates and motivates the rest of the piece dramatically, how the tempo accelerates through the end and the courage [Margaret] has to come up with to go back and fight some more.

Q: I had heard that the Chicago production was physically much smaller than the one at the Beaumont.
Clark: That stage at the Vivian Beaumont is wider by a few feet than the Metropolitan Opera stage. That's probably the biggest stage in New York . . . . What [set designer] Michael Yeargin and [director] Bart Sher did — by keeping the sightlines open all the way back — they've actually added additional feet on both sides of the stage by having the wings completely open. . . . So for the people sitting on the side, they have beautiful things to look at. I think they've made it so every seat is really great. . . It's a great theatre, but it's a really hard place to design for. And, it's kind of tricky to play. I think we're getting it down now, but at first we were like, "Wow, you guys are everywhere!" [Laughs.]

Q: What's it like having to make your exits through the audience?
Clark: Well, that I love. I love any kind of interaction with the audience. What's taken some getting used to is turning my back squarely to a bunch of folks at a time. I know that in a few seconds I'll be turning around and facing that same group, but that took some definite getting used to because it's very different than playing a proscenium [stage].

Q: Also, from Chicago to Broadway you switched daughters, from Celia Keenan-Bolger [now on Broadway in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee] to Kelli O'Hara.
Clark: We did. [Celia's] a really good friend of mine, and, I think, a wonderful artist. So, it's been wonderful to see her success in this other piece. We're all friends. The hardest thing for all of us was we had spent two years building a family vibe. It's really hard to play that kind of entrenched relationship with a mother and daughter and have it be believable. So, we thought that [we would have] such a great advantage going in, having that connection for so long. But because Kelli was part of the family in a different role, we were already good friends. The transition was amazingly smooth, and yet we acknowledge that it was hard to lose [Celia]. We're all very close — Adam and Bart and Celia and [former Piazza co-stars] Wayne Wilcox and Steven Pasquale — all the people that contributed to the piece along the way are still very much a part of it. And it's really important for the people who are doing it now to acknowledge that we wouldn't be at the Vivian Beaumont without everyone's contributions along the way. And it's great — we're all friends. We all show up at the stage door and go out and have parties together. Everyone's been very generous about the casting changes, both the people that were replaced and the people who've been replacing.

Q: Did you base Margaret on anyone you know?
Clark: I was born and raised in Dallas, but both my grandmothers are from the middle South, not the Deep South. My father's mother spent her whole life in North Carolina, and my mom's mom was from Tennessee, which is not the same vocal dialect, but it's the same gracefulness — very much strong women, great senses of humor, survivors, children during the Depression with a million bible verses and little things coming out all the time: "waste not, want not," "pretty is as pretty does." I don't feel that Margaret is terribly religious, although she certainly has a spiritual epiphany by the end of the show. I wouldn't say she was particularly religious as both my grandmothers were, but [like them, Margaret has] that kind of wry sense of humor and audacious spirit and courageous heart and compassion and being a good mother. I have many aunts and my own mother and two fantastic grandmothers to draw from, so there's a little bit of everybody in there! [Laughs.] Some of my friends have a good time picking out what things come from which matriarch. I pay homage to everybody in one place or another. There's a little Aunt Barbara here, my Aunt Jane there, my grandmothers here, my mom there. They all get air time.

Q: Are any of those women around to see the show?
Clark: Well, my maternal grandmother passed away the third week of rehearsals unfortunately. She was 102, and I was very, very close to her, and my other grandmother passed away a long time ago. My mom certainly has seen it in every city and was here on opening night. And my Aunt Barbara will be able to come, so some of the aunts will be on hand.

Q: Since you do have a young child [Thomas Luke Guest, age 10], I was wondering how that affects your performance.
Clark: It's everything. Not to say that I couldn't do it if I had never had a child, but I really wouldn't know the first place to start. Actually, my whole career turned around when I had my son. I have no idea why it worked that way. You would think it would be the opposite. I was cast in How to Succeed right after he was born, so things didn't really even heat up for me until he was born. He's been my good luck charm from the very beginning. He's a real easygoing, fun kid, so he goes everywhere and meets everybody. He's studying cello with the first cello [player] of our orchestra. And, his cello teacher from school played in the orchestra yesterday because they added strings for the recording [session], so both of his cello teachers were in the recording studio today. [Laughs.] It's just really fun to be his mom, and I'm sure that really colors my performance in this piece or anytime I would play a mother. Because Margaret and Clara are so close, I know what that feels like, and I think that's easy to be convincing in that aspect.

Q: Have you ever been to Italy?
Clark: Yes, I went when I was in college. I studied abroad and I visited Florence and Venice when I was 19. And then I took a trip this past June and took my son and bunches of friends and my mom and stepdad and my brother, and we all rented a big villa outside of Florence with two cottages and a swimming pool, stayed in Florence for a few days and drove all around the Tuscan countryside and hiked around. The boys loved just playing soccer in the backyard and swimming and doing diving contests. But that was a key trip for me to get all of those sights and smells into my body again, and [I'm] really grateful that I had that opportunity.

Q: I think the score is beautiful, yet it seems like it's a demanding one vocally. How difficult is it to sing eight times a week?
Clark: Actually, the singing is not as difficult as the speaking. The singing is really psychological, so for me it's an extension of speech. I've learned it, I've gone over it, but [it's] unlike other music, which I drill into my brain and I'm in a musician's head when I do it. In this show I'm not, which is sort of a blessing and a curse. I never move into musician mode in this role at all. I stay completely in actor head. My friend Ted Sperling, who's conducting the show, sometimes he'll look at me and go, "Uh, that is not the rhythm at all." [Laughs.] I just look back at him like a four-year-old because I am not thinking in terms of how it's notated. I'm thinking in terms of how it would be spoken, the rhythm, if it were spoken. Even though I've done the part for a long time, I still have to be reminded from time to time that "this is the rhythm of this particular phrase or these are the pitches." Right now, they are so an extension of a psychological or an emotional moment. Adam and Ted have been very patient with me about working with me in that way. It's been worth it — it's taken a long time to bake, but it's been very freeing. I don't suddenly go from "Okay, now my scene's over, now I'm starting to sing." [Laughs.] It's not a big break for me going from scene into song. . . The music is a heightened gesture — the words that are harder to express or the words that are deeper. I think it's brilliantly constructed. It's such a fantastic challenge, and I'm thrilled to give it a go every night.

Q: You have such a versatile voice — when did you start singing?
Clark: The grandmother that I spoke about started me on music lessons when I was six. Her name was Agnes Howard [laughs]; she's giggling now wherever she is. So I started singing and taking piano lessons really early on. I pretty much studied something or other musical until sophomore year in college [when] I stopped singing and started to direct. And I directed for three years in college and performed every now and then but not a whole lot. I came to New York to direct . . . and was getting offers all over the place to start directing, mostly operas and educational pieces for young audiences. I became overwhelmed because I never really went to school for directing. I was just sort of an instinctive director, knowing what was right. Of course, I was really young, I was 21 years old. [Laughs.] "Hmm, you're very young to be directing. Who are you?" It was fine at Yale because everybody was young doing everything, but when I got out of school . . . I felt that maybe I needed more training, so I decided — with some advice from my family — to see if I could get my Equity card and maybe learn more about acting. So professional acting was just kind of a lark, just an experiment really. It was just crazy that one thing led to the next and the next. . . . I really do want to get back to directing. I did a little something this year at the 92nd Street Y for the "Lyrics and Lyricists" series, a Mack Gordon evening with Jason Graae and Christine Andreas. Q: Did you enjoy directing again?
Clark: I loved it. It was just fantastic — so much fun.

Q: One of my favorite musicals of the last decade or so is Titanic. What was your experience like with that show?
Clark: [Piazza] reminds me a lot of [Titanic] just in terms of the cycle of it. It was a new piece, a new score. People didn't really know too much about it. Hopefully Piazza has mostly positive buzz. With Titanic, people were laughing during the show. They just thought it was the most hilarious thing — everybody was just out for blood. All the way through previews we had this very embarrassing four-minute pause, which we called "The Pause," while we had to figure out the hydraulic system and how to get the sinking [of the ship] to happen. It took 'em a long time to solve that. [Laughs.] It was just one of those great things where Rosie O'Donnell came and believed in it and sent a bunch of people [to the show]. I'm hoping we'll have some champions of this piece, people who will come out and say [that Light in the Piazza] is a masterpiece and encourage people to come and see it . . . I really hope people can recognize Craig and Adam and Bart for what [they've created] and encourage everyone to come out and see it.

Q: Do you see any similarities between Margaret and Titanic's Alice Beane?
Clark: I think they're both charming — they're both charmers. I think they're both in struggling marriages. They're both at turning points in their lives wanting more and struggling with finding the courage to go after it.

Q: Do you think Margaret would have made it onto a lifeboat?
Clark: I don't know, I'm sure she would have made sure Clara got on. I would like to think that she would have gone after a young girl, someone younger than herself, and given her place up. I don't see her jumping on in lieu of a younger person. If anything, she would have tossed her shoes off and swum around! I think she would have jumped and just taken her chances.

Q: Since it was recently Stephen Sondheim's 75th birthday, I was wondering what your experience was like in this season's Sondheim revue Opening Doors.
Clark: Oh, [it was] fantastic, being around all that amazing music all night long [Sondheim] came in — he's always supportive. He loves actors; he's so genuine and funny and supportive and warm. Great people — Kate Baldwin and Jan Maxwell and Eric Jordan Young and Gregg Edelman — all people I'd never worked with but always admired.

Q: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Clark: I have some things I can't really talk about, but for right now I'm really focused on giving as much energy to every audience that comes [to The Light in the Piazza]. To do it well takes a lot of concentration and physical energy.

[The Light in the Piazza plays the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center; call (212) 239-6200 for tickets.]

DIVA TIDBITS

Annie Golden, most recently on Broadway in The Full Monty, will be part of the cast of the North Shore Music Theatre's upcoming mounting of Cinderella. Golden will play the Fairy Godmother in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which will be presented at the Massachusetts theatre July 5-24. The North Shore is currently presenting Thoroughly Modern Millie through May 15. Fame: The Musical follows, May 31-June 19. Visit www.nsmt.org for more information.

Sandy Duncan and husband Don Correia will team for a weekend of concerts at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts next year. From Feb. 16-18, 2006, the singing actors-dancers will appear in A Celebration of Broadway's Best. Part of the National Symphony Orchestra Pops season, the evenings will also feature vocalist Guy Stroman and conductor Jack Lee. The show, according to production notes, is "loosely based on how the three performers (Duncan, Correia and Stroman) met and began working in the business" and features songs from such Broadway musicals as Peter Pan, Gypsy, The Pajama Game, The Music Man, Singin’ in the Rain, Guys and Dolls and Company. Visit www.kennedy-center.org for more information.

The late cabaret artist Nancy LaMott will be celebrated during two concerts to benefit The Storefront Theatre next month. On May 23 (at 7 PM) and May 24 (at 9 PM) stars from the worlds of cabaret and musical theatre will assemble at The Duplex Cabaret Theatre to honor the memory and talent of the late LaMott, who lost her battle with cancer in 1995 at the age of 44. The concerts, entitled We Miss Nancy: The Storefront Sings LaMott, will feature direction by Phil Geoffrey Bond and musical direction by Ray Fellman. Among the artists scheduled to interpret the songs recorded by LaMott are Scott Ailing, Lisa Asher, Bobby Belfry, Nick Cearley, Scott Coulter, Brandon Cutrell, Nikki Renee Daniels, Baby Jane Dexter, Suzanne Fiore, David Friedman, Maria Gentile, Sara Gettelfinger, David Gurland, Rick Jensen, Audrey Lavine, Karen Mack, Liz McCartney, Carolyn Montgomery, Phillip Officer, Kate Pazakis, Julie Reyburn, Ricky Ritzel, Marty Thomas and Shonn Wiley. The two evenings will feature a rotating cast; the schedule of performers will be announced shortly. The Duplex Cabaret Theatre is located at 61 Christopher Street. For reservations, call (212) 255-5438.

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

Victoria Clark and Kelli O'Hara in <i>The Light in the Piazza</i>
Victoria Clark and Kelli O'Hara in The Light in the Piazza Photo by Joan Marcus