DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Juno's Victoria Clark Plus News of Rivers, Menzel and More

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Juno's Victoria Clark Plus News of Rivers, Menzel and More
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Tony Award winner Victoria Clark.
Tony Award winner Victoria Clark.

Victoria Clark, the dynamic singing actress who brings dramatic depth, flawless comic timing and a rangy, powerful soprano to all her work, returns to the City Center stage this month in the latest Encores! production, Joseph Stein and Marc Blitzstein's little-known 1959 musical Juno.

Juno — which runs March 27-30 and co-stars Celia-Keenan Bolger, Michael Arden and Conrad John Schuck — marks Clark's third Encores! outing. Her debut with the famed series came in the 2004 staging of the Michael Stewart-Charles Strouse-Lee Adams musical Bye Bye Birdie. "I've known [casting director] Jay Binder forever," Clark recently told me, "and I adore him. He called me up and said, 'Will you do me a favor and play Walter Bobbie's wife [Mrs. MacAfee] in [Birdie]?' He said, 'Someday we'll find a nice [role] for you, but . . . I need you to come in and be funny.' I love Jerry Zaks, and Jerry was directing it. I thought, 'You know what? I love Walter, I love Jerry.' We had done Guys and Dolls together, and I thought, 'Gosh, I haven't seen Jerry in ages. Let me just go do this.' And, I had a ball. Jerry's really brilliant with these things — he works really fast. He gave me one piece of direction, and I just ran with it. It was a lot of fun."

Clark, who won a Tony Award for her beautiful, moving performance as Margaret Johnson in The Light in the Piazza, is equally enthusiastic about her second Encores! production, which cast the Tony winner as the vulnerable, emotionally fragile Sally Durant Plummer in last season's thrilling mounting of the classic Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical Follies. "The funny thing with Follies," Clark says, "is that I thought I was too young to do it. I thought Sally would be in another ten years. It's absolutely age appropriate to me right now, but in my head, since I've worked on it since college days, it was always the 'someday' role.

Victoria Clark and Victor Garber in Follies
photo by Joan Marcus

"Sally's the one who is really deluded about where she is," Clark continues. "It's hard for her to think realistically and pragmatically about things, so it was a nice connection that I had with that character. It just could not sink into me that I was actually the correct age to play it!" Clark shared the City Center stage with another Tony-winning actress, Donna Murphy, who played the brittle Phyllis Rogers Stone. Playing opposite Murphy, Clark says, was "amazing. She gives a lot onstage — she has a lot of energy, and she's very fun backstage. She's very, very focused, but also she knows how to have fun. We talked about being a mom a lot; we talked about our kids and shared that experience. I just admire her so much. It was really a wonderful blessing for me to be able to work with her. Donna's been a big part of my learning experience, watching her work." For those who have not had the chance to enjoy an Encores! production, it should be noted that the musicals are presented with minimal costumes and scenery and a large orchestra situated onstage. Acting onstage with the orchestra Clark says is "thrilling. For musical actors, the entire subtext is in the music." And, although critics are invited to review Encores! productions after one public performance, Clark says she doesn't let that affect her work. "If we didn't want people to look at us and make commentary, we shouldn't become actors," she says. "You basically open yourself up for commentary by just choosing this career, so I never worry about it. I want to be good, and I want to make the storytelling clear, but that's just the nature of the beast. If you say yes to an Encores! production, part of what you're accepting is that the critics are going to be coming ten days after you start rehearsal. That's just the way it is."

Clark says the key to succeeding in Encores! productions, which are rehearsed and presented to audiences within a two-week period, is preparation. "You can study the script," she laughs. "Just because you're not in the rehearsal room [yet] doesn't mean you can't [prepare]. It's really like summer stock in New York — really fancy summer stock!"

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

Having Birdie and Follies under her belt, Clark says that knowing what to expect during the rehearsal process will be especially useful as she prepares to star in her third Encores! production, Juno. "I always do better if I know what to expect," Clark explains. "I can usually execute things better if I know what the plan is. [Director] Bart [Sher] and I always worked that way on Piazza. I would say, 'What's the plan for the day?' The preview period [for Piazza] was excruciating — I was on my feet four hours a day while performing the show every night. . . . So he'd come into my dressing room at noon and just say, "Here's what we're going to do. This is the order we're going to do it in; this is what I'm looking for; these are the things we have to fix." . . . So that's the thing with Encores — it's like, 'Okay, I kind of know the schedule. I know it's going to be fun.' And, usually you know one or two of the actors [who will also be in the cast]. [Juno] is going to be with [former Light in the Piazza co-star] Celia [Keenan-Bolger], so I'm all set there. That's the major relationship for me in the show, so that's a great head start." Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel first mentioned the possibility of mounting a production of Juno to Clark over three years ago. "He's very, very fond of the show and thought that it was a perfect project for Encores!," says Clark. "They really discover these little gems — that's one of the things they do best is finding shows that people don't really know or that have been forgotten for various reasons. [Juno] was created for Shirley Booth and Melvyn Douglas. They were non-singers, but Agnes De Mille was the choreographer, and there were dream ballets, and it has an unbelievable score by Marc Blitzstein, who wrote Regina and Cradle Will Rock."

Juno, which is based on the Sean O'Casey play Juno and the Paycock, is described in a press notes as the chronicling of "the disintegration of an Irish family in Dublin in the early 1920s during the confrontation between the Irish Republican Army and the British." O'Casey's play, Clark explains, is set "in 1922 right in the middle of the Irish Civil War, which is a piece of Irish history that is very tricky. It's very tricky because there was a War of Independence that they sort of won against England, but then there were some factions who wanted a treaty, who wanted to make concessions to still be connected to Britain, and others who didn't. So there was a Civil War that broke out. The play is set during the Civil War, and the musical is set a few years prior to that during the War of Independence. It's a politically hot issue. O'Casey was right in the middle of it. He was very politically involved himself. To musicalize something like that would, of course, appeal to Blitzstein, who went right after all those hard topics. [With] Cradle Will Rock he was right in the middle of the WPA commission and bucking the system right and left."

Clark and Conrad John Schuck will co-star in Juno
photo by Joan Marcus

Clark thinks presenting Juno at this juncture in our own country's history is particularly timely: "It's an interesting piece to revive now because it really does look at the cost of war. The piece is basically about a family who is living in a tenement in Dublin, and this mother trying to hold this family together. The son has already lost an arm to fighting and has the IRA after him, and [she has a] husband who keeps getting out of work. She is actually supporting the whole family. Her daughter has a factory job but is on strike. So nobody is bringing in income except for her, and she is trying to keep body and souls together and keep everybody in good spirits. [Juno Boyle is a] a very strong, iconic character." Clark is particularly fond of Blitzstein's score, which features the haunting ballad "I Wish It So" as well as "We're Alive" and "One Kind World." "There is some beautiful singing, and there's a lot of choral singing. In my opinion it's Blitzstein's answer to Street Scene," Clark says. "It's his version of that gorgeous Kurt Weill opera. It's very similar — the whole community is affected and struggling, but you see the political situation through one family's eyes. It's a beautiful story. It's definitely a tragedy, but it's told in this Irish way, which has a lot of wit and a lot of humor and a lot of practical common sense. I think it's a beautiful piece. I really do. I'm very excited about it."

Clark says it has been particularly interesting approaching a score that was written for non-singers. "It was sort of a brilliant idea to ask Shirley Booth to do a musical," she says. "I love the concept of that, but then ultimately they had to move keys. We were exploring the keys for this show and realized [that] when you get to certain point in my voice, it sounds kind of romantic, and is that really appropriate for the character? . . . The keys were set for a non-singer, but in the end it's appropriate that they sit a little bit lower — that they sit in more of a speaking range — because of who she is and her job in the family is pragmatic."

Although Encores! presents only five performances of its shows, Clark approaches her roles in the City Center productions with the same intensity and dedication she would give to a part in a Broadway run. "I'm serious about this stuff," she says, adding with a laugh, "I don't play around. I think the world of Encores! I think what they do is really important. . . . You can't just get up and read the script. You have to bring as much as you can. As an actor, I feel like it's my responsibility to bring everything I can, body and soul, to these things. Otherwise there's no way you can see what the piece really is. Originally the shows went through full rehearsal periods, and the actors really had time to live with these [characters.] You just can't do it in a week. There's no way."

"I do take [my work] seriously," Clark adds. "Maybe I take it too seriously, [but] I feel like God blessed me with a good brain, and if this is what I chose to do, then I'm going to treat it as seriously as possible. Not that I'm not going to have fun, but I'm going to put the same amount of work that I would put into it if I were a lawyer or a physician or anything else. I'm going to treat it seriously, and I'm going to use the gifts that God gave me, and really see what's behind this material, and that's what I try to teach my students to do, too. You can use your intelligence to be an artist. You don't have to abandon all of your intelligence just because you're doing something that you enjoy." To that end, Clark even journeyed to Ireland to meet with Juno director Garry Hynes, who Clark says is "unbelievable. I'm obsessed with her!"

As for future projects, Clark says there are few items she can't yet discuss, but "there's always stuff keeping me busy — a lot of teaching going on and some other new projects that I'm spearheading. . . It's always the grass is always greener. When I'm in a show, I wish I had more time with my family, wish I had more time with my son, and I'm exhausted all the time. And then when I'm not in a show, I'm thinking, 'When's the next big show going to come? Do I really want a show or maybe I should be doing more film and television?' And then you get a film and you're like, 'Oh, but then I can't do this show,'" she laughs.

"I think the secret to being happy as an actor in New York," Clark concludes, "is to just absorb part of it and accept it and stay open to the creative opportunities and not see a long period of unemployment as a bad thing, but that's the time when you're supposed to be resting and planting seeds for your own creative work. I'm not the kind of actor who can just go from one project to the next. I really have to rest, and I have to think about what I want to say. I really have to know what I'm saying as a person. I just can't get up there and show people the same tricks I did in the last one. It's not appealing to me. I'm just too old for that," she laughs.

[Show times for Juno are March 27 and 28 at 8 PM, March 29 at 2 and 8 PM and March 30 at 6:30 PM. City Center is located in Manhattan at West 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Tickets are available by calling (212) 581-1212 or by visiting www.nycitycenter.org.]

Joan Rivers in A Work in Progress...
photo by Michael Lamont

There is lots of buzz surrounding Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress, which is currently playing an extended engagement at Los Angeles' Geffen Playhouse through April 6. The acclaimed production — which was penned by Rivers, Douglas Bernstein and Denis Markell and stars Rivers, Tara Joyce, Emily Kosloski and Adam Kulbersh — has scored a slew of rave reviews. Variety said, "[Joan Rivers] serves up a self-portrait that's a compendium of eye-opening views, insights and reminiscence….You bet it's funny, and in its best moments truthful as well." And, the Hollywood Reporter stated, "If anything, this might be the funniest show Rivers has ever put together. But it's also the most searching and revealing. Rivers takes us into areas she's only skimmed before, and she does it with the skill and audacity we've come to expect of her." Several New York producers have been out to catch Rivers' latest stage outing, and Rivers told Playbill.com, "It would be wonderful to bring the show to New York. Isn't it every actress' dream to be able to work at something you love right in your own hometown?" The Tony-nominated actress also joked, "I was all set to take it to Broadway with one producer — who shall remain nameless — until I found out that the Broadway he was talking about is in Newark, NJ!" Stay tuned for more. . . Don't Quit Your Night Job — which was a downtown favorite at Joe's Pub before playing an extended run at the HA! Comedy Club — will return to the Zipper Factory March 27. The 11:30 PM performance of Night Job, described as a "late night happening of improv, music, sketches and stories," is scheduled to feature co-creators Dan Lipton (The Coast of Utopia), Steve Rosen (Spamalot), David Rossmer (Nerds) and Sarah Saltzberg (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) as well as Randy Aaron, Derrick Baskin, Norbert Leo Butz, Sutton Foster, Jordan Gelber, Alexander Gemignani, Asmeret Ghebremichael, Rick Holmes, Andrea Martin, Charlie Pollock, Sandy Rustin, Christopher Sieber, Alicia Witt and George Wendt. The performance will benefit Wendy Wasserstein's Open Doors initiative. The Zipper Factory is located in Manhattan at 336 West 37th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues. Tickets, priced $20, are available by visiting www.thezipperfactory.com or by calling (212) 352-3101.

Academy, Tony, Grammy and Emmy Award winner Rita Moreno will play a brief engagement at Feinstein's at Loews Regency in April. The award-winning actress will play the posh venue April 1-5. Feinstein's at Loews Regency is located in Manhattan at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street. For reservations call (212) 339-4095. Visit feinsteinsatloewsregency.com for more information.

With a Song in Our Heart is the title of the New York City Gay Men's Chorus annual gala, which will be held April 14 at Manhattan's Warwick Hotel. Comedian-interviewer-actor Scott Nevins will host the evening, which will boast performances by Ann Hampton Callaway, Liz McCartney and Sharon McKnight. The evening, which begins at 6 PM, will honor longtime Chorus friend and supporter Norman Hanson as well as R Family Vacations founders Gregg Kaminsky and Kelli O'Donnell. The Warwick Hotel is located in Manhattan at 65 West 54th Street. Tickets, priced $100, are available by visiting www.nycgmc.org.

Idina Menzel
© 2008 Idina Menzel and WBR

Tony Award winner Idina Menzel will perform a concert at the Rose Hall in Manhattan in April. The April 14 concert — featuring songs from Menzel's latest solo recording, "I Stand" — will be recorded for future broadcast on PBS. An air date has yet to be announced. Although tickets will not be available to the general public, a few will be given away via Menzel's official website, www.idinamenzel.com. Two-time Tony nominee Kelli O'Hara, who is currently starring in the Lincoln Center Theater revival of South Pacific, will perform in concert at Joe's Pub in May. The May 5 concert at the intimate cabaret located within the Public Theater will celebrate the release of O'Hara's debut solo recording, "Wonder in the World." Show time is 11:30 PM. Joe's Pub is located within the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street. There is a $30 cover charge and a two-drink minimum. For reservations call (212) 967-7555 or visit www.joespub.com. Voices Remember is the title of an upcoming "intimate musical cabaret" that will benefit the Alzheimer's Association. Presented by "Secrets of Voice-Over Success" author Joan Baker, the Alzheimer's Association and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the April 28 fundraiser will be held in the residence of Ron Pobuda at 210 Central Park South on 59th Street. Among those scheduled to take part in the concert are Daphne Rubin-Vega, Norm Lewis, Kate Shindle, Phoebe Snow, Larita Gaskins, Nita Whitaker, Judine Somerville, Bobbie Eakes, Don Lafontaine, Joe Cipriano, Valerie Smaldone, Les Marshak, Rodd Houston, Sylvia Villagran, Bill Ratner, Cedering Fox and Steve Zirnkilton. The evening will begin at 7 PM with hors d'oeuvres and cocktails followed by the performance. To purchase tickets, priced $525, call (212) 269-0700, ext. 14. For more information about the Alzheimer's Association, visit www.actionalz.org.

Scott Siegel's Broadway By the Year series will continue April 7 with The Broadway Musicals of 1954. The concert, hosted by Siegel, will feature Little Mermaid co-stars Sierra Boggess and Sean Palmer as well as Emily Skinner, Noah Racey, Cheyenne Jackson, Kendrick Jones and Scott Coulter. Coulter will also direct the 8 PM performance, which will feature musical direction by Ross Patterson. Audiences can expect to hear songs from such musicals as The Pajama Game, Peter Pan, The Boy Friend, Fanny, The Golden Apple and House of Flowers. Town Hall is located in Manhattan at 123 West 43rd Street. Tickets, priced $45 and $50, are available by calling (212) 840-2824 or by visiting www.ticketmaster.com. For more information go to www.the-townhall-nyc.org.

And, finally, singer-actress Jil Aigrot — who voiced many of the songs heard in the Oscar-winning "La Vie En Rose," about the life of the late French chanteuse Edith Piaf — can be heard on a new CD on the LML Records label. Entitled "Words of Love," the 19-track recording features Aigrot's wonderful renditions of such tunes as "Mon Dieu," "La Vie en Rose," "Non je ne Regrette Rien," "Les Mots D'Amour," "Bravo pour le Clown!" and "La Foule." Visit LMLMusic.com for more information.

"Diva Talk" will be on vacation next week but will return Friday, April 4.

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

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