Backstage Stories From The Light in the Piazza With Kelli O'Hara, Victoria Clark, and More

Seth Rudetsky   Backstage Stories From The Light in the Piazza With Kelli O'Hara, Victoria Clark, and More
 
This week in the life of Seth, the cast of the Adam Guettel-Craig Lucas musical reflect back on the show.
Kelli O&#39;Hara and Victoria Clark in <i data-rte2-sanitize="italic">The Light in the Piazza</i>.
Kelli O'Hara and Victoria Clark in The Light in the Piazza. Joan Marcus

We had two big reunions last week on Stars in the House with matching donations from the Angie Torress Charitable Fund and we are super appreciative. We are getting closer and closer to having raised $1,000,000 for The Actors Fund and we think that will happen by the end of the month!

On Saturday there was a reunion of the Dreamgirls I put on for the Actors Fund in 2001 (which I’ll write about next week) and the Light in the Piazza. For the latter, we spoke to a lot of cast members and we got live songs from Matthew Morrison and Kelli O’Hara. I asked how everyone got their role and all the leads had interesting stories: Victoria is good friends with Ted Sperling and that was her entry into the show—they went to Yale together and had a classic Leroy in Fame experience during their early show biz years. She asked him to play her audition for Sunday In The Park With George when the show going to Broadway and she didn’t get it...but he wound up being hired as a pianist for the show because the music team liked his playing at the audition! See this scene for reference.

Victoria Clark in The Light in the Piazza
Victoria Clark in The Light in the Piazza Photo by Liz Lauren

Regardless, they remained friends after that and Ted told Victoria that he was working on a new musical by Adam Guettel and he wanted her to hear one of the songs. He played her “Fable” and she told us it felt like she had always known the song. The part had already been sung by Mary Cleere Haran (an alto) in a reading at Sundance, but Adam decided he wanted a soprano in the role. Victoria called Adam (whom she also knew from Yale) and asked for an audition and he told her she was not right to play the mother because she was too young. They went back and forth and she accepted she wouldn’t be auditioning. Then she thought about it and called him back with a message about his issue with her looking too young: “Adam, that is why God made wigs.” She wound up being seen for the part and having numerous call backs.

At that point, she was known for a string of comic roles, including the gossipy wife in Titanic and the seen-it-all sidekick in How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Craig Lucas, the playwright, called her before her final call back and told her she needed to show everyone at the next audition that she had the gravitas/dramatic chops to play the role …and she did. She got the part! Of course, after everyone thinking she was too much of a comic to play the role, she then had an audition for a show after Piazza and her agent was asked, “Can she do comedy?” Here she is singing the song she felt like she’d always known.

Kelli had been cast at Sundance in the role of Franca, the fiery Italian wife of Michael Berresse. When the show was finally going to come to Lincoln Center, they told her that they were going to replace the original Clara, Celia Keenan-Bolger, because the character was 26-years-old and Celia looked too young. Kelli and Victoria were devastated…Celia was so connected to the role that they would often call the character Celia. The creative team wanted Kelli to audition for Clara, but Kelli didn’t want the show to change so she turned it down. They told her that, no matter what, there was going to be a new Clara so she might as well come in for it. She did, got the role, and eventually became comfortable playing Clara. Here she is singing the title song.

LISTEN: Celia Keenan-Bolger and Kelli O’Hara Discuss The Light in the Piazza on Sunday Pancakes

Kelli O'Hara and Matthew Morrison in <i>The Light in the Piazza</i>
Kelli O'Hara and Matthew Morrison in The Light in the Piazza

However, playing Clara was a loss for her in a sense because she had such a hand in creating Franca and then she didn’t get to perform it on Broadway. As a matter of fact, she had asked Adam to add a super-high note for Franca, and he did; he put a high F in the song “Autami.” Meanwhile, Sara Uriarte Berry wound up auditioning for Franca and they asked her if she could hit a high E. She knew she could and said yes. On the first day of rehearsal, there was a sing-through and Sarah suddenly saw that the high note wasn’t an E…it was an F! She got nervous about trying to hit it for the sing-through and the creative team asked Kelli to sing instead. That lit a fire in her. Sarah immediately called her voice teacher, Marni Nixon, and told her she had to learn how to sing an F as soon as possible. Sarah got her voice up there comfortably and nailed it the night I saw it. Meanwhile, speaking of “Aituami,” Patti Cohenour was living in Seattle while the show was being developed and was often called in by Bartlett Sher for roles she wasn’t right for. She was called in to play the Italian mother in a reading of Piazza and went, even though she thought there wasn’t a chance she would get it. She read the “Auitami” lyrics as a monologue and had no idea it was from a song. She actually didn’t know the show was a musical. She got to the reading (eventually finding out it was a musical) and, during her first rehearsal, she was given the music to “Auitami” to learn in 48 hours. She was overwhelmed because the intervals were so hard and, she said, you have to be right in the center of each note, pitch-wise. Well, not only did she learn the music, but when she performed her first line, she said “‘Auitami’ means ‘help me’ in Italian. I don’t speak English, but I have to tell you what’s going on”—and she got a huge laugh. She was soon offered the Broadway show. Here is the song which also features Sarah hitting her amazing high F.

Victoria Clark as Margaret Johnson ( foreground), with Steven Pasquale as Fabrizio Naccarelli and Celia Keenan-Bolger as Clara Johnson in <i>The Light in the Piazza</i>.
Victoria Clark as Margaret Johnson ( foreground), with Steven Pasquale as Fabrizio Naccarelli and Celia Keenan-Bolger as Clara Johnson in The Light in the Piazza. Photo by Chris Bennion

The role of Fabrizio was originally played by Steven Pasquale in the readings and productions before Broadway. When he was finally offered the Broadway show, he told them it would be difficult because he was contracted to the TV show Rescue Me. The Lincoln Center people told him not to worry; if filming ever went long, they would put his understudy on. He told the TV show that he was going to do a Broadway show, but, not to worry, it wouldn’t conflict with filming. They told him N-O. He explained that he would never have to leave filming early... and they still said N to the O. UGH. So, the role opened up. Matt Morrison was asked to come in…and, like the people at Rescue Me, he had an emphatic no. He knew a lot of the role was in Italian, which he didn’t know at all, and he felt the singing style was too operatic for him. He had just done Hairspray, Footloose, and numerous boy band-type roles, which were all pop. They persisted and finally he came in and it went great. Matt got the part and one of the amazing things about doing a show at Lincoln Center was…the dressing room toilets. Usually, the backstage at Broadway theaters are as renovated as they were when Oklahoma first began previews, but Lincoln is totally new and fabulous. The dressing room toilets are fancy with automated bidets and now Matt has the exact same brand in his house.

When Kelli sang live on Stars in the House, she talked about how she immediately remembered the physicality she used during her performance. Victoria then told a hilarious story about being so programmed in her performance to certain physical sensations that she needed them to do the show; she said that Kelli would always give her a very tight hug in the middle of the scene before the song “The Beauty Is.” Kelli would hug her, Victoria had more lines, she’d leave and then Kelli would sing. Well, the fabulous Katie Rose Clark took over the role from Kelli and she didn’t hug Victoria with the same ferocity. Victoria was so used to that physical sensation to propel the rest of the scene that she literally forgot what was next. She got the hug from Katie, went blank and just muttered “Well, darling…life is hard….” And fled the stage. Poor Katie was like “Wait. I’m the new person and Victoria is the Tony winner. But she’s the one who forgot her lines?” There was supposed to be more time until the song, but suddenly only Katie was onstage and there was nothing to do but start the song. Victoria said could loudly hear panicked rustling pages as everyone in the pit frantically got their music ready! Speaking of Katie, here’s Katie and Victoria together doing the opening number.

Speaking of that opening number, Matt said the hardest thing to do was dealing with the hat. The hat that Kelli wore was on fishing wire that would lift it off her head near the end of the song and then deposit into Matthew’s hands. They would stare at each other and he would give her back her hat, secretly taking the wire off first. But that wire wouldn’t always come off easily. Sometimes, he’d have to pull and pull until it came off and one night he had to stop gazing and put the hat into his mouth and bite off the wire.

Of course, the biggest debacle with the opening number happened on the Tony Award night. I wrote about this last year, but I’ll tell it again because I love stuff like this! For the Tony Awards, Craig Lucas had written a new monologue for Victoria to read so the audience knew what the show was about. She was nervous about doing something new for the first time on live TV but didn’t have a choice. Right before she was about to enter the stage, a crew person told her that her body mic was out and she had to use a giant handheld mic. She completely froze. She had a new monologue to worry about and didn’t know how she would carry the mic since she was already carrying her pocketbook and a guidebook.

Kelli saw her looking frozen from across the backstage area and shouted “You can do it, mother, just do it!” That was all it took! Victoria started the monologue (holding a mic that looks like it’s from the 1970s) while a person knelt in front of her walking backwards, telling her to keep using it and then near the end her speech, he indicates that she should hand it off (you see her eyes dart to the left), she passes the mic and her body mic comes on. It’s terrifying but exhilarating to watch!

Speaking of Kelli, I’ll be doing a concert with her this summer in Provincetown. Come see us (and all my other amazing Broadway people) by visiting PTownArtHouse.com. And I’ll be doing my last live online concert (until the fall) this coming Sunday with the high-belting Jenn Colella from Come From Away. What a voice! Get tix at TheSethConcertSeries.com. Here she is sounding amazing, as usual. Watch then peace out!

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