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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

From Broadway to the Piazza
with Victoria Clark

Also see David's review of The Light in the Piazza

Victoria ClarkThough she is not yet a household name, regular New York theatergoers may instantly recognize Victoria Clark, best known for her well-received Broadway roles in such diverse works as Titanic (Alice Beane), the Matthew Broderick How to Succeed (Smitty), A Grand Night for Singing, and recent runs as Kost in Cabaret and Miss Pennywise in Urinetown. The splendid actress/singer has come to Seattle in a most intriguing project, the world premiere production of Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas' The Light in the Piazza, opening this week at Intiman Theatre, in a co-production with Chicago's Goodman Theatre.

Arriving for our interview a scant few moments late, direct from a meeting with Guettel who has just handed her a massive new song to learn, Victoria is a warmly accessible person who clearly loves what she does, and seems confident, yet humbled by the task of creating her newest character.

David-Edward Hughes:  Thank you for sparing a half hour to visit with Talkin' Broadway, at a time when you might clearly prefer to be hold up somewhere running lines and learning new songs.

Victoria Clark:  It's crazy right now! I'm propping my eyelids open.

DH:  I've admired your work greatly, and seen you a lot in New York, from Grand Night to Titanic to How to Succeed - I just love that show, and the role of Smitty. You really were so perfect for it.

VC:  Smitty's a great part. That was fun because I was the set-up girl for that. I've been so lucky because sometimes I'm the set-up and sometimes I'm the punchline girl, and in that particular thing would just set-up Megan Mullally and Matthew all the time. I had a lot of fun perfecting that and I realized that the straighter and dryer I was the better we all did. I realized then that comedy was a three-way thing, a triangle between the straight man, the punchline and the audience. I've had a lot of chances to do both, and I've been really lucky.

DH:  How was your three-month Broadway run in Urinetown?

VC:  It was great, the perfect warm-up for this. The director, brilliant John Rando, wanted me to keep going farther and farther. It was like German expressionistic, bad Mahogany acting, bad Kurt Weill. Lotte Lenya on a really bad day! And Pennywise is such a loner, so I used a lot of bad German expressionistic acting, sharp gestures and big melodramatic gestures. It was a lot different from what Nancy Opel did, and I think she's brilliant, but I didn't try to do what she did. She has her own very special and specific style, and she's very revered, and I'm at the top the list in her revering column, so I was like, I'm not going to go anywhere near that. I just took a stab in another direction, and it turned out great.

Light in the Piazza
Photo: Chris Bennion
Margaret, my character in Light in the Piazza, is in a way the opposite, because she can't express. She feels so much, but it's much more layered under, and as the show goes on it comes out, versus Pennywise, which was all on the plate. It was such a nice meal to have before coming to this, such a gift. Then it was like the genie had to go back in the jar; they asked me to extend and I couldn't, so now Carolee Carmello is doing it and having a good time.

DH:  Is it the case, like Craig and Adam, you've never seen the film Light in the Piazza with Olivia de Havilland?

VC:  I'm not going to go anywhere near it. I'm such a mimic, and if I see something by great actors and I like it, I'll steal it. When I'm creating something I'm very, very vulnerable, and when you watch a movie you're going to see the 12th or 17th take or something, and it's very refined.

DH:  The take the director thought was best.

VC:  Exactly. I don't want to see anybody else's take on this. After we close, then I'll see it. What I'm baking is still in the oven. I need to feel secure in my approach to it, and not be influenced by anybody else's interpretation right now.

DH:  Seeing it again recently, I was just struck by the story, the romance and the poignancy and, knowing Adam and Craig's talents, and that of the cast Craig is directing, I'm very excited to see your collective vision of it.

VC:  It's very lush and romantic, but also very psychological. We're trying to figure out what it reminds us of. In a way, it kind of reminds me of Gypsy, because you're following the little girl, and then all of a sudden you're in the Mother's head. You kind of know that you're seeing it through the Mother's eyes, and then you meet the lovers, and all of a sudden you're in the Mother's head and that's really where you stay, and in that way it's kind of structured like Gypsy. You care about both of them, and it's about how the Mother is going to let go, and there is reconciliation. It's very similar! (She laughs) I don't know if anyone's drawn that conclusion except for me.

Somebody said the other day it reminded them a bit of A Little Night Music because of how beautiful the physical production is, and how dreamlike the some of the score is. But ultimately, it probably won't remind you of anything. It's unique. Adam and Craig have created something really ... I don't know ... it's stunning to be in. I can't see it, there's only one scene I'm not in! But I can tell you that it feels like a journey that we take; you are sort of eavesdropping into a very small, personal story. It's about memory, it's about all of us, and it's about relationships, and forgiveness, and letting go, and it's about redemption and grace. Which you can paint on a grand scale, or as quietly as possible. That's what we're playing with now, the scale. How do we want to paint this? Because sometimes the smallest and most detailed black and white photograph can break your heart.

DH:  And your character, specifically? How have you approached her?

VC:  Margaret has gone off in a million different ways, and in every conceivable direction. I feel like my job is to be the palette for Craig and Adam, and to vomit up as many colors as I can, and just put them in front of them, cause I really trust them. And (musical director) Ted Sperling too is a dear, dear friend of twenty three years. We went to college together. I've known Adam as a friend for years too.

I feel like they've doubled the palette since we've started, and forced me to find the other colors. It's like I'm a traveling salesman and they're like "Look in your suitcase again, because I think you really do have indigo blue, if you look." And I'll be like, well, actually, I do. It hasn't been an easy process, a lot of it's been pretty painful for me actually, in terms of digging around and seeing what's up. And then to lay that in front of them, and then they get to choose. We've really been digging around, and seeing how much truth there is.

Traditionally in musicals people don't really dig very much, but I really like to dig, and I feel that music is not an excuse for surface expression, but for deep psychological exploration. And the acting doesn't stop, but actually swims through those channels that the additional layer of music provides. It's like underscoring in a film. A very important layer that needs to be honored. I want to honor everybody's work, and the best way I can honor it is to give it a hundred and ten percent. I'm certainly not done yet, but (she sighs) getting there.

DH:  I'm sure you are used to changes in a work in progress after your Broadway experience with the creators of Titanic.

VC:  They were intrepid! Maury Yeston, Peter Stone - I love that Peter Stone, I miss him - they were such pros and had no interest in leaving town. It was such a coup they got Richard Jones to direct and he had no interest in leaving town. They were fearless. Every day I was expecting a call from the stage manager saying don't come in to work, the project's folded. We were right in the middle of New York, and everyone made fun of it. At one point in the tech, the hydraulics weren't working and they couldn't get the stage to tilt the way we wanted it to. We were in previews, and in the second act the stage manager would come on, over the God mike, and say "Ladies and Gentleman. There will be a four minute pause while we make set adjustments."

In the beginning people would laugh as they brought up the house lights, and go get a candy bar, or a Coke. They'd bring out Michael Mulheren to talk to entertain the audience, "Hi lady, how was your steak tonight?" The actors were very embarrassed, but what could we do? But I never got the call saying don't come in. Then a few people came and loved it, and Rosie O'Donnell came and she was our big champion, and she put us on her show twice. She raved the day after she saw the show, and she said, on national television, she said she loved my performance and she wanted to play my part, which was such a thrill. And suddenly everybody was like, how bad can it be if Rosie loves it? We really miss her show.

DH:  Broadway took a hit when she went off the air.

VC:  It did! She made people come, and she made interesting theatre accessible to people.

DH:  Did you get new material in previews?

VC:  Maury wrote a new song for us, Bill Buell and me. It was to cover a scene change. That's the way a lot of songs get written. They would always send out Edgar and Alma, the Beanes; we were in one in front of the drop. Peter kept saying "Send the Beanes out. Maybe she's looking for the hors d'oeuvres!" One time we were sitting in the balcony during an endless tech, and intrepid Maury skips by, and Bill says to him "Why don't you write us a song?" And a few hours later he skips back with a song. (she sings0 "I have danced with the first class, Edgar ... " That went in during previews. And every day it got changed.

There were two second class couples, us and Judy Blazer & Don Stephenson, and they couldn't figure out who they would follow more, the Beanes or the Clarks. It was very painful. One day we were cut, then they were cut. But they finally decided they could only follow one couple in each class. And the personal story was more about the ship, the event, the journey.

DH:  An approach that, I think, worked well.

VC:  But we bossy actors all wanted more stuff from Peter Stone. I actually got in touch with the Beane family. And I found out that Edgar, who was actually Edward, had lived. He was one of the ones who jumped and was pulled aboard a lifeboat. The true story was that he was on board the Carpathia and she didn't know. He he was very ill, but was nursed back to health. They found each other on the pier. When I told Peter, he said "I can't use that story, no one would believe it! People will think it's a happy ending. Nah, nah, nah, we're not gonna do that." And at that point you say, I'm just the interpreter, not the creative artist. They get to pick. And it would have put too much focus on them. Of course I would have liked that, but it wouldn't have been right for the show.

DH:  And you have a new solo song, "Yes and No," going in?

VC:  It's replacing a scene of Craig's where Margaret talks about what happened to her daughter. She hasn't spoken about it in years, and she goes to a minister in Florence. It's not really fair to say it's twenty pages, though that's the way it's written out. But let's just say (flipping many pages) it's a chunk!" You'll also hear a new instrument. We have harp, violin, cello and piano, and I think we're adding a bass part tonight.

DH:  With this new song and talk about reminding you of Gypsy - is this song your "Rose's Turn"?

VC:  Possibly, but it ends act one. Her big switch, her turn is at the very end. But if this number stays in, if I can pull it off, it will be very interesting.

DH:  And the show won't be frozen after you open here, I gather?

VC:  We're gonna continue to work. That's why we're here. And then we have the whole fall off, which is nice. Then we go into the Goodman, and then ... who knows? I hope we go into New York. It would be a shame if we didn't.

DH:  Possibly at Lincoln Center I hear. I saw, and loved A Man of No Importance there, which like Light is based on a rather obscure film with a loyal following. And I think authors are much likelier to realize and perfect their own vision of a more obscure, but viable piece, versus adapting a Big, or a Gone With The Wind, where the film is so well known why bother trying to musicalize it.

VC:  We have a little gem here that's for sure, with a fantastic cast. Steve Pasquale, Celia Keenan Bolger, and Mark Harelik who is amazing, a fantastic scene partner. And Patti Cohenour, she is unbelievably good. Glenn Allen, Kelli O'Hara, oh my gosh! Robert Shampain is fantastic as my American husband who never comes to Italy, and he plays all these other parts, I don't know how many. A priest, a taxi driver. He's all over the place. And Craig is an amazing director. It's a group of really smart people. It's so nice to be able to really trust them to make the best choice, whatever it is.

Craig and Adam are a really good team. Genius one, and genius a. It's a really good collaboration built on respect and trust. Who was it who said that the sign of a great collaboration is that everyone is equally unhappy? It's good that none of us gets everything we want. If someone is getting everything they want they want, you know the balance is tipped. We should all give up something to make something bigger and better than any of us individually could. I think they both know how to do that, and it's an honor to get to work with them.

DH:  One closing question. Do you have killer audition songs that you get these great parts with?

VC:   I have one song, it's kind of colloquial. I don't think of it as a funny song. I don't think there is such a thing as a funny song, but with this one I can be kind of goony and free, and almost every time I sing it I book the job. It feels like it was written for me. And I have a number of songs that I wouldn't call sad, but reflect what's in my heart, and some hope.

DH:  You won't say what the goony song is, huh?

VC:  If I did, every twenty one year old girl who reads your website would be using it. I'm not that stupid! (laughs)

DH:  Thank you Victoria, for a great chat, and have a great run.

VC:  Thank you!

Light in the PiazzaThe Intiman Theatre presents the world premiere of The Light in the Piazza, a new musical by Craig Lucas (book and direction) and Adam Guettel (music and lyrics). The Light in the Piazza is now running at the Intiman Playhouse, 201 Mercer Street at Seattle Center. Opening night is Saturday, June 14 at 8 pm and will benefit Intiman Theatre. The Light in the Piazza is produced in association with Chicago's Goodman Theatre. Single tickets for The Light in the Piazza are $35.50 (all matinees), $40.00 (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday evenings) and $45 (Friday and Saturday evenings). Tickets can be purchased on the Intiman Theatre Web site, www.intiman.org, over the phone from the Intiman Ticket Office at 206.269.1900 or in person at the Intiman Ticket Office (Tuesdays through Sundays, noon to 7:00 pm).




- David-Edward Hughes



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