DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Tony Winner and Sister Act Star Victoria Clark

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15 Apr 2011

Victoria Clark
Victoria Clark
Photo by Denise Winters

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Hallelujah! Victoria Clark, who is best known for her Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning performance in Adam Guettel's The Light in the Piazza, is back on Broadway.

The show that has thankfully brought the singular actress back to The Great White Way is Sister Act, the new musical based on the Whoopi Goldberg film of the same name, which is currently in previews at the Broadway Theatre prior to an official opening April 20. (Goldberg, it should be noted, is one of the show's lead producers.)

"[Director] Jerry Zaks called to talk to me about [Sister Act] last fall, and we just had a series of chats about the project," Clark told me last week during a break in her rehearsal schedule. "He had just become involved, and he had just come back from London from seeing it over there. He was trying to figure out how he wanted to bring it to life and how he wanted to do it in New York, and I thought when he said, 'We'll go into rehearsals in February and we'll open in April,' that he meant 2012," she says with a laugh. "'Oh, this April. Like five months from now April… That's really soon, Jerry!' But, luckily, it all worked out, and he is doing such a fantastic job. I can't remember the last time I had so much fun working with a director and also such a deep experience. It has been a really great journey finding this character and finding this show. Really, it's just a pleasure, a treat."

Clark — whose incandescent performance as Piazza's Margaret Johnson, the mother of a young woman experiencing love for the first time, was supremely soul-stirring — is currently bringing to life a different kind of mother: the Mother Superior of the convent that disco diva Deloris Van Cartier (Patina Miller) takes refuge in after witnessing a murder. Clark, who invests each character she portrays with a striking emotional truth, describes this Mother Superior as "someone who's used to being in control and in power, and she takes great pleasure in knowing that she's right, even when she's not. I would say she is a character of fierce strength and fierce love, and she is not afraid to wield her power to get what she thinks is right, and use a bit of wit and sarcasm to make a point. It's not just like a steamroller — she has a lot of tools that she uses to accomplish her task."

Clark in Sister Act.
photo by Joan Marcus

Clark says she approached playing the character "the same way I work on everything, which is try to figure out why she behaves the way she behaves, and figure out the parallels she has with me." The challenge, she explains, is "to find the emotional underpinnings of the story — to really ground it and make it real because so much of this show is ebullient. It has to be grounded in something, like the joy has to be rooted somewhere, and it has to come from a real place, so [we believe] the whole idea of the convent  and that something's actually happening there. It can't just be a set that comes in and people are like, 'Oh… here come the nuns.' It has to be a world where something is actually being thought about," she says with a laugh, adding, "which is not that easy to do in a big, splashy, Broadway musical, right? Because the scenes are going to be short, and you have to accomplish your tasks very quickly, so it requires a very fine degree of concentration, and I wouldn't say that I have it nailed yet, but that's my goal is to figure out how to do that."

Guiding her along that road is Tony winner Zaks, who, Clark says, is "very kind and very specific. He puts a lot of trust in us. I'll just speak specifically about my experience with him — he waits to see what I bring in and then he'll shake that up… We don't talk a whole lot about why things happen. I know that he feels that's the actor's homework. You'll figure out what happened before and why the script is moving in this direction — you'll make it make sense to yourself, that's your job. But what he's really fantastic at is relationship and clarifying storytelling, and clarifying the arc of the story, and clarifying the arcs of the characters, and just making sure that communication is really strong.

"He is a fantastic communicator," she adds, "so everybody is always on the same page, and it has been a joy. The tone comes from the top. He's set a fantastic tone on this project, and everybody loves coming to work, they love coming to rehearsal. We are working really hard — I've never seen a company actually work this hard putting a show together. People are… yes… they are killing themselves because we want the product to be really special. We want Jerry to be happy. We want [lyricist] Glen [Slater] and [composer] Alan [Menken] to be happy with the product… [librettist] Douglas Carter Bean — everybody — it's just been a real… it's been a joy. It really has been so much fun.

Jerry Zaks
photo by Aubrey Reuben

"Interestingly enough," Clark continues, "I thought, when I was prepping the part, I thought, 'Oh, good! I am going to do a comedy! Whee! This'll be fun!' That's one of the reasons I wanted to do it because I knew working with Jerry was going to be fun and he was going to make sure that the show was an uplifting experience for everyone — not just the audience, but the company, and that's been true, but what surprised me was this particular character is not all fun and games. Just because this character is in a comedy doesn't mean that my experience of it is me kicking up my heels and doing high kicks backstage," she laughs. "It's not. That's the part that's been surprising, that she is actually in quite a bit of pain. More complicated — in a great way — than I thought it was going to be, and I'm delighted. I'm delighted because I think it brings the show the piece of a fabric, the piece of the quilt that is really interesting and necessary."

Clark also has nothing but praise for the musical's score — "you could swear they're hit songs from the '70s" — and its orchestrator, Doug Besterman, "who I have known since we were babies, practically. The minute that you hear the first song you are back in 1978, for those of us who remember 1978! It's so evocative. It just tells you from the first note of the score where you are — exactly where you are. The score is exciting, and people love the music, and people love the story, and people kind of love the love story between Mother Superior and Deloris, and people are really appreciating it. It is really a show about tolerance. I feel like it's a show about change and tolerance. To me, that's always a relevant topic."


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