DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Follies Star and Tony Award Winner Victoria Clark
By Andrew Gans
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Tony Award winner Victoria Clark, the gifted soprano who always manages to find the pain that lies beneath the laughter and, conversely, the humor beneath the drama, is currently lending her many talents to the role of Sally Durant Plummer in the Kennedy Center's 2012 Tony-nominated Broadway production of Follies now in residence at Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles through June 9.
Clark has stepped into the role created at the Kennedy Center and subsequently in New York by another Broadway favorite, two-time Tony winner Bernadette Peters, who was unable to continue with the Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical due to previous concert obligations. Clark's agents told her about the role in December, "and it took me half a second to say, 'Absolutely. No question!' I jumped at it immediately," Clark told me last week, adding, "Bernadette is so beloved, and she's so respected, and she's very missed here. People miss her spirit and miss just having her here. She's part of the company, but I always feel like her spirit is definitely here. She created the template for this production, so she's very much a part of this even though she's not here."
Although Clark — a Tony winner for her touching performance as Margaret Johnson, another mother in a crumbling marriage, in The Light in the Piazza — previously played former Follies girl Plummer in the 2007 City Center Encores! production, she wasted no time preparing for the Los Angeles engagement. "I started working on it immediately before the end of the year because I knew it was Mission Impossible," she explains with a laugh. "I knew the assignment was basically Mission Impossible: Go into a production where the other actors have been working on it for a year, and it was in their bones, and it was intrinsic and somehow appear to be equally comfortable and at home. So I mentally started working on it immediately, and most of the music I knew already because that's in my soul — all that music — and I just remember it very vividly from the Encores! production...I didn't really work on the lines too much because I don't like to try to get that all sewn up until I see the other actors, but it's just been on my mind, and I've been thinking about her a lot. I guess as much prep as you could do without actually being in a rehearsal room, I tried to do."
Clark says her current interpretation of Sally may be a little different because "I'm different...I think she's probably a little more delicate now than she was [during the Encores! run]—maybe a little more soulful. It's hard to describe because I'm so inside of it... but [she is] definitely in the same flavor family. There hasn't been any drastic rethinking ... basically how I'm approaching her is similar."
Prior to arriving in L.A., Clark spent a week in New York with dance captain Sara Edwards to work on the tap number, "Mirror, Mirror." "And, that's all we did in New York, and then I came out here and worked with Ron [Raines]," Clark said. "I worked with Ron every day for about five or six days, and then Danny [Burstein] came after that, and I had a day with Danny, and then Jan [Maxwell] came, and then we had a day with all four of us. And then the whole cast descended, so I essentially had one day with the other three principals. And then once the cast came, we were into work-throughs. That was it. So when the critics came, that was my eighth performance. ... You just jump in, [but] I'm loving every experience. I'm loving every single second of it. I just can't wait to go to work; it's just been a joyous, fantastic collaboration. Really, it's just been a big dream job for me."
That dream job includes getting to wrap her rich, soaring soprano around some of Sondheim's most beautiful tunes, including "In Buddy's Eyes," "Too Many Mornings" and "Losing My Mind." About the latter, Clark says, "Sally just found out she doesn't have Ben. Ben doesn't love her. Her husband kind of said that the marriage is over, and her sons have moved away, so she has no one. And, she's probably, in real time, sitting on a stairwell somewhere trying to put some pieces back together... She's alone by herself in the theatre somewhere, and for me, 'Losing My Mind' is the song that comes up, and I have a pretty detailed image of where this song comes from and why it's this particular song. But it's her fantasy. It's her moment in the spotlight in the Follies."
Clark, who invests much time investigating each and every character she portrays, said she had never previously worked with Follies director Eric Schaeffer, but she had seen several of his productions at Virginia's Signature Theatre, where he is artistic director. "I would always ask, 'Where's that Eric Schaeffer? I want to meet him!'"
"I think we're really good collaborators," Clark continues. "I think he is very smart and has a great eye. He has great instincts. He was very good to me...[He didn't] pump so much information into me that I couldn't think straight. Very good instincts about how much to say and when to say it. I think we're a good team. He works very well with Jim Moore, the conductor....Eric has a big heart, and he's very, very respectful, so as the process unfolds, he's confident enough [that he] doesn't need to tell you every single little thing, so he lets you discover it in your own time. And then if I had a question, he always had a long and detailed answer, but he wouldn't provide the answer until I asked for it, which is really unusual. Most directors — they would see you struggle or they'd see a hole in your performance, and they're very quick to fill it for you, and he just waited until I asked for the information, and he always had great ideas. And, I'm still very much finding it. This period, for me, basically can amount to a preview period, so by June 10, I'll have it all sewn out," she laughs.
As for her onstage husband, Burstein, a 2012 Tony Award nominee, Clark has equal praise. "We worked together in Titanic, so I've known him for a long time. And, my son is president and founding member of 'The Aldolpho Fan Club,'" she laughs. "I've been following Danny's career very, very intensely. I think his performance in Drowsy Chaperone was the comic performance of our lifetime. I don't think that anyone's going to be able to top it — ever. I think it was just one of the most inventive, creative and fantastic things I've ever seen. And, when I direct projects here and there, Danny's always the first person I email. He's never available. I don't care! I'm going to keep hounding him until I die. I am definitely going to direct him some day — I don't care! He's just one of my all-time favorite actors... and we have a very similar working style. He likes to mix it up. He likes to change things around, so our scenes are very alive, and it's just a pleasure."
And, Burstein returns the compliment. "[Vicki] brings a whole new wonderful energy to the show and reinterprets the role in her own way that's making me discover the role in a whole new way as well. I love Bernadette more than I can ever say, but this is another valid, wonderful interpretation."
Clark, it should be noted, is equally enthusiastic about her other co-stars. "[Jan is] very, very alive and creative and generous... and Ron [is] like 'Dream Ben.' Where are you going to find a Ben that sings like that—who has the entire package? They're all ridiculous. They all deserve those Tony nominations, so I'm really going to be pulling for them."
Although Sally's journey through the show is not a particularly happy one, Clark says it's not too emotionally draining because "I specialize in playing crazy! Not crazy, but, you know, challenging women going through some kind of crisis, so this is nothing compared to some of the people I play....I've played people a lot crazier. And, I also think that it's a little bit ambiguous, a lot of the evening is a joy for her—it's a peak moment for her. So the whole evening is not a downer for her. I'd say a good bit of it is sort of the night she's been waiting for her whole life, so that part of it is super fun."
A particular high point is "Mirror Mirror," which is led by Terri White and features Clark and many of the women in the company. "Well, I haven't gotten it right once," Clark laughs, "but the thing is, what's so brilliant about [choreographer] Warren Carlyle and what he's done with the movement — the dancing in the show is so exquisite — is he's made a number that's so hard. The chorines, our wonderful ensemble, they nail it every night because they're spectacular, but it's pretty difficult so that the divas, as we're called — the older ladies — that's what Eric and Warren call us — it's very hard for us to get. It's hard for us to nail it. It didn't seem like it was that hard for Bernadette — she seemed like she nailed it when I saw her do it — but it's definitely hard for most of us to nail, so the mistakes and the memory lapses and everything don't need to really be too choreographed, they don't need to be set because there'll be something every night that's funny. And, the way that Warren kind of explained it to me is, 'Here you get to experience what it's like to really be in the ensemble, so it's like a fun group experience.' And, it is a lot of fun. It's very, very gratifying to do."
And, like Washington and Broadway audiences, the Los Angeles crowds are equally enthralled by that number and the entire production. "It's completely crazy here!" Clark exclaims. "There are people who stand up and fist pump almost after every song. It's like a rock concert out here — a very, very enthusiastic response that we're getting from audiences. They're very good listeners. I would say they're a very honest audience.... They're not insane from the moment that the first note of the overture [is struck]… They're listening, I think, in a smart, attentive way, and it's wonderful. They're honest. They don't laugh unless something's funny. ... This isn't too much of a theatre town, so... when are you going to get [all] these people out here? It's so exciting for all of us."
And, why does Clark think this particular Sondheim musical has such a devoted following?
"Well, I think it's the score," the multi-talented artist answers. "I think it's just an unbelievable score. There were some visitors in my dressing room last night trying to figure out what this show's about. Somebody said jokingly, 'Never fall in love. Just go out and kill yourself now because it's never going to work!' ... The score is ridiculous, but it's about memory, and it's about letting go, and it's about all of us because the show is multi-generational. I mean, our cast [features people ages] 22-72... There's something for everybody in this show. You're either in the beginning looking at it like, 'I'll never be old enough to play Sally.' Or you're playing Sally, and you're wondering, 'Where did those 30 years go? I'm still the same person, but I look in the mirror and what happened? How come I can't tap like I used to be able to? How come I can't…' And, there's a lot of resonance for show people about this show because it's about the end of an era. So in terms of the fanaticism of this show, I think the humanity of the show is so beautiful, and there's a lot of emotion around that humanity and about change and life cycles and beginnings and endings and all the stuff that really matters."
As for her own experience with the production and coming into a cast that had already performed the musical in two cities, Clark says, "Everyone has been so welcoming. Everybody in [the production] knows what it's like for an actor to be [ the new person]. They've all been through something like this, so they were all really on my side and pulling for me and just so supportive.... Everyone has been so spectacular to work with. Between Jan and Ron and Danny and Elaine Paige, it's just been amazing. Mary Beth Peil is one of my best and dearest friends, so just being out here is fantastic. A lot of my friends and family are coming, so it's going to be a wonderful time!"
[Performances continue through June 9. For ticket information visit CenterTheatreGroup.org/Follies or call (213) 972-4400.]
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