How Victoria Clark Finally Got Stephen Sondheim's Approval | Playbill

Seth Rudetsky How Victoria Clark Finally Got Stephen Sondheim's Approval

Plus, who snatched a role in Sunday in the Park with George out from under her and how she broke free from being stuck in understudy roles.

Victoria Clark and Stephen Sondheim

I’m on my way back to Provincetown to do two shows. First, I'll perform with Christy Altomare and then I have a show with Stephanie J. Block (with a special appearance by her hubby, Sebastian Arcelus). Come see us! 

On Monday, I go to Theatre By The Sea in Rhode Island to do my deconstructing Broadway show. Get tickets, here!

I had the best time in Provincetown with Victoria Clark, who is soon going to be starring in the title role in Kimberly Akimbo. The musical has been nominated for so many awards and won a lot! 

What’s interesting about Vicki is she didn’t really think she had what it took to be a performer so she did not pursue it after graduating Yale. Instead, she entered the directing program at NYU. She was with heavy hitters like George Wolfe and would often perform the pieces none of the other directors wanted to perform. Well, a casting director saw doing her thing and urged her to start auditioning, which she did! Her first big Broadway audition happened on a Broadway stage (as they usually always were up until the 90s) and was for the original company of Sunday in the Park with George. Her Yale classmate Ted Sperling played piano for her audition and, after she sang, the music director Paul Gemignani came onstage, walked past her, and took Ted to the wings. There was complete silence on stage. Vicki just stood there. For a few minutes still, silence. Finally, Paul came back out with Ted and Vicki was told she could go. She walked with Ted down the block, in silence, and finally asked Ted, "What happened?" 

Ted didn’t want to make her feel bad, but finally told her he was offered a job on Broadway in the orchestra. Yep, Vicki experienced what Leroy did in Fame. She brought along her talented friend who got the gig while she walked down the stairs, cursing.

Ted invited Vicki to opening night and they took a photo together. That photo wound up in Putting It Together, James Lapine’s book about writing Sunday In The Park With George! So, it’s almost like she got the gig, right? Interestingly, she must have done a great job at the first audition because near the end of the run, Vicki got a call and was indeed offered the Broadway show. She was asked to be the offstage understudy for three roles. She remembers showing up for rehearsal with Paul Ford, who told her she needed to learn all three roles in the next 36 hours. She went home, learned all the different harmonies, memorized it, came back in, nailed it, and then never went on. Yep. She waited and waited, but no one missed a performance. Vicki did recall how one of the women in the company tried to sabotage her. They were in the wings and the other actress said, “We enter now." Vicki told her that the notes said her entrance was later, but the woman ignored her pushed Vicki onstage. It was Showgirls, but without the staircase!

The next show Vicki got was The Mystery Of Edwin Drood. She was cast in the Judy Kuhn track, understudying the belting Edwin Drood and the sopranoing Rosabud. And, just like Sunday In The Park, she never went on, but this time, the show closed before she began. 

Next, Guys And Dolls and understudying again, but this time, under pressure. Vicki understudied Tony Award winner Faith Prince. The stress of understudying the star of the show was a lot for Vicki to bear. She remembers first performing “Adelaide’s Lament” on Broadway. She was so nervous, she hid behind a prop book. Yes, Adelaide “reads” from a medical book during the song, but Vicki held it up while she sang and completely covered her face. She wound up growing more comfortable and going on in the role often. Despite finally getting to perform, Vicki decided she wouldn’t understudy again because she gained a reputation as only an understudy. 

After Guys and Dolls, she was asked to audition for Smitty in How To Succeed, but had to turn it down as she was pregnant. The show did an out-of-town tryout in La Jolla before coming to Broadway and the producers decided to replace the actress playing Smitty for the Broadway run. Again, Vicki was asked to come and audition for the role. She had just given birth and had not worn heels in months. She went in so tired and not confident she would get the part. Of course, the old "you’re most attractive when you don’t want something” axiom was in play and she got the gig! Here she is with that fabulous cast:

The show Vicki is most known for, The Light In The Piazza, first appeared on her radar because Ted was working on it. He told her he thought she was right to play the mother. Vicki called her other Yale classmate Adam Guettel and told him she would love to be considered. Adam called back and told her she was too young for the role. Instead of leaving it there, Vicki called back and told him, “That’s why God made wigs!” Vicki firmly believes that wigs and costumes can vastly change the way a person is perceived. She was finally called in for the role, but she was only known her for her comedic work in How To Succeed and Titanic. Craig Lucas, who wrote the book, called her on Thanksgiving Day and told her to show her gravitas in the next audition. Fast forward to after she won the Tony Award for the part, and her agent submitted her for something funny. In response to the submission, the agent was asked, “Can she do comedy?” Ugh. You are only known as your last gig! #Frustrating.

What I didn’t understand is why the team behind The Light in the Piazza wanted her to be so stoic as the role of Margaret has so much lightness. Well, turns out, it was Vicki who added that quality. Margaret was originally written to be very serious and pulled up. Once she got the role, Vicki changed the tone of the character. She said she based Margaret on the Texas women she grew up with who were smart, incredibly strong women who used lightness and humor to get what they want. Brava! Once Vicki started adding those touches, Craig began adjusting the role to the new tone.

As soon as Vicki heard about the role, she knew it was for her. As she listened to “Fable” for the first time, she actually knew where the melody was going, something that’s never happened to her before. Watch some of her amazing performance here!

Victoria Clark and Seth Rudetsky Photo Courtesy Seth Rudetsky

At one point during our show, we brought up Sondheim and we both mentioned that we didn’t know whether or not he had liked us. I told her that after he passed away, I saw everybody I knew posting beautifully written letters he had sent them. He was so erudite and praiseworthy of artists. 

I had done a salute to him to open the Easter Bonnet competition years ago and I have multiple deconstructions of his songs online yet I received zero letters from him. Well, be careful what you wish for! Here’s Vicki's story. 

Vicki told me that when she played Sally in Follies, Sondheim kept telling her she was singing “Losing my Mind” incorrectly. He said she was playing the song like it was from a book scene, as if it really is Sally singing it, but he told her it was part of the Loveland section and is therefore just a torch song. Vicki didn’t quite know how to make it different, but she tried something new every night. Sondheim kept telling her the interpretation was wrong. One night, though, he came backstage, gave her a big hug, and told her the way she had sung it was "perfect." Sadly, she had no idea what she had done differently that evening!

After doing Follies at Encores, Vicki played the part again. The Broadway production transferred to California, but Bernadette Peters was not able to go with it.

Turns out Vicki, unlike me, did get a letter from Sondheim regarding her performance. However, the letter wasn’t the overflowing praise and incisive deconstruction of a performer’s brilliance that I’ve seen in the numerous letters posted online. It was more, shall we say, succinct?

Vicki told us the letter she received after playing Sally read thusly:

Thank you.


What do you say after you read that? Besides, “So, yeah.”

After hearing that, now I'm glad I didn’t get any letter!

Here is Vicki singing “Losing My Mind." I don’t know if this is the right or wrong way!

Peace out!

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