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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VICTORIA CLARK
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."

Clark in Sister Act.
photo by Joan Marcus

Clark, who previously worked with director Zaks in the 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls, says her current role has allowed her to examine her own religious beliefs more fully. "All of the questions about my own faith and my faith journey have come into play and have definitely been a part of working on this character. You can't play a person who is a nun or a priest or a minister... without examining your own beliefs and your own journey and your own relationship with God... I told a friend of mine that if you put a wire mesh screen that is as tall as a person in front of me, I feel like I have been pressed through the mesh of the screen and come out, and all the cells have reassembled, but, sort of changed forever, somehow, from this."

Clark says that that exploration of her character has affected her religious beliefs "in a good way — in a total good way! Just exploring Catholicism has been beautiful because there are so many parts of it that I didn't know. Growing up as a Protestant, we just went to church. Now, I'm a United Methodist, where everything gets decided around the table, so there is food all the time, everywhere. There is such a structure in Catholicism and so many different people that you can pray to. And learning about the saints, and learning about marriage intersession, and learning about all the different nuns and the orders, it's just fascinating how much there is to learn. That is one of the things that I love about being an actor. You have to really research these things and find out, and it's been a great learning experience."

When asked whether she has a favorite moment for the Mother Superior, Clark says, "Well, I think, for me, definitely the most cathartic moment is the end of the show when she is able to really see her weakness and see Deloris clearly — the part that Patina is playing — to see the potential for a friendship. That for me is certainly the most real moment." Clark says co-star Miller, who received an Olivier nomination for her work in the musical's London premiere, is "an angel. She is an absolute, positive angel. You ask her everyday how she is, she's great. You ask her how's it going, it's great. I think her part — she knows who this woman is, but it's a page one rewrite, so it would be like saying, 'Yes, we know who this person is, but now let's start completely over with what her journey is and what she does,' so she's had to relearn, not the music [but the scenes]... She is taking everything in stride, and she is taking good care of herself. This show is going to be major for her."

Clark in The Light in the Piazza.
photo by Joan Marcus

And, what does this superior mother's son, Thomas Luke, who is now 17, think of the show? "He saw the show last weekend and said, 'Okay, here's the deal…,' and he started giving me his notes, and I was like 'Okay.' He was right about everything; his eye is so good. He was saying things like, 'Watch your spine. ...  You can use the height of your spine a little bit more.' And I was thinking, 'You don't want to be an actor, why?' He's just got this beautiful eye, and his feedback is really interesting."

Clark says TL, as he is called, is "the soccer jock. He is a big soccer star. His team is two-time state champions. He is captain of that team. His high school team won the all-city New York City championship. So he is like a soccer champion," she says with a laugh. "He's a great kid and a wonderful student. But, in terms of aspirations, he doesn't know yet, but if it involved going to college and playing soccer for a varsity soccer team, he'd be very happy."

Both mother and son, it seems, are in equally good places. "I'm a lucky girl, and I'm really thrilled to be back on Broadway.... Because Lincoln Center was Broadway, but it wasn't like this. It wasn't like the Broadway commercial machine in motion. You know, it's gentle and protected and [Piazza] was such a special, very special project. It is hard to even describe that experience because it was so spiritual to me, also.

"But this is a major commercial, Broadway show that has a lot of T-shirts on sale in the lobby," Clark laughs, "with a lot of sequins. … I'm looking around going, 'Wow!' Here we are, we're back. This is my 11th Broadway show... They don't get easier, and they don't get any less fun. It's just sort of familiar, like, 'Here we go.' And, previews are previews no matter what the project is. You got to get through them, you got to get through the changes, you got to make sure you get your rest, and we are in the thick of it now, so we are sort of on the home stretch. We are very excited to get it open and get into the run of it!"

[The Broadway Theatre is located at 1681 Broadway. For tickets phone (212) 239-6200, or visit Telecharge.com. Visit SisterActtheMusical.]

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