Victoria Clark: Singing Richard Rodgers With The Boston Pops

New York City is filled with lovely parks. There's a particularly charming one tucked into a triangle on 106th Street and Broadway. It's planted with daylilies, impatiens, lacecap hydrangeas and dogwoods. One end of this peaceful oasis is dominated by a recumbent bronze sculpture which sits atop a flowing fountain. The park is dedicated to the memory of Isidore and Ida Strauss, the loving couple who perished together on the Titanic in 1912. Therefore it's appropriate to meet Victoria Clark for an interview at a café only a short distance from Strauss Park. After all, Ms. Clark originated the role of Alice Beane in Maury Yeston's Tony Award winning musical TITANIC and sang Adam Guettel's "Statues and Stories" in LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, which won her the 2005 Tony Award as Best Actress in a Musical. This fine lady is never really far from statues, stories and the Titanic.

The morning is dismal and rainy but Ms. Clark arrives at the café with an abundance of positive energy that immediately dispels the dreariness of the weather. Her beautiful dangle earrings and complementing necklace reflect her personality as they sparkle in the overcast light. Her eyes shine with enthusiasm as she discusses her career, motherhood, her new CD, and her upcoming appearance with the Boston Pops.

Over a large cup of coffee...let's correct that...over a veritable bowl of coffee, the Dallas born performer explains how her mother and grandmother introduced her to the performing arts.

"My mother took me and my brothers to see a lot of theater and opera when we were growing up but I was the only one who stuck it out," explains Clark. "As a child my mom used to listen to the Texaco broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. As a result, she grew up with this huge love for music and theater, drama and every kind of performing art. She did take us around a lot. When I was about six, it was my grandmother who would hear me singing around the house. She was living with us She was the one who decided to take me downtown and pay for music lessons. It was supposed to be piano lessons but my piano teacher was a wonderful singer and I don't know how she figured out my vocal skills, I really don't. Perhaps my grandmother mentioned it to her, but the lesson would start off with five or ten minutes of singing and the time kept getting increased until it was about half singing and half piano. She didn't try to change my voice, it was just an opportunity to sing one-on-one with someone who was pretty knowledgeable. At the age of six or seven I was already performing in recitals and I don't remember being terribly nervous. I was always more comfortable singing than playing the piano, though. When I got to high school, I had a fantastic voice teacher, Sharon Grahnquist. She took me seriously, and paved the way for later voice teachers and mentors, most notably my long-time teacher and inspiration, Edward Sayegh."

In high school, Victoria Clark took on some pretty ambitious roles, including Puccini's Suor Angelica (the singer attended an all-girls school so there was never a shortage of nuns!), Menotti's AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS, the title role in MAME, Romaine Vole in WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, one of the roles in Neil Simon's PLAZA SUITE and a part in THE FIREFLIES. "I got opera, musicals, absurdist comedies and modern American comedy while in high school. I also had quite a bit of classical voice training." That's far more experience than the average student receives in any high school nowadays. 

" I went to the Interlochen Summer Arts Camp in Michigan when I was seventeen, It's one of the nation's premier performing arts high schools and summer programs," Ms Clark said between sips of the steaming coffee. "In college I did two Gilbert and Sullivans and in my sophomore year at Yale, the G&S Society asked me to direct RUDDIGORE-a real tough one. I'd never directed before and I just decided I was going to be a director. At that point I didn't do much performing. Oh, I did a little, but not much." She became a music major, and directed student productions whever she could find the space. "That's what I was planning to do when I moved here." Luckily the tides changed for her because Victoria Clark seems to be very happy on stage. "I think part of my success is that I didn't expect it. This all seems to be a happy accident that's been going on for some time now," she says with true laughter in her voice.

She got her EQUITY card by playing a fictional character who was the fictional sister of the Wright Brothers. "My second EQUITY job was in the original production of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE," the actress explains. "I never got to go on," she says. "I was covering the Celestes and Frieda. Then I went to the Candlewood Playhouse in Connecticut. Remember that place? I played Anne in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. Right after that I went into DROOD, so I've been very lucky."

When it came to discussing TITANIC, Ms Clark mentions that her involvement with the show dated back to when Richard Johnston invited her to take part in the original workshops for it. "At that point my son was about a year and a half old and I was doing "How To Succeed..." at night. There was no way that I was going to have enough energy to do four or six weeks of 10-6 every day and then do a show at night. Not with a baby in my arms! One of my colleagues, Marty Moran, was in the workshops and they had ten actors doing all the roles. Richard was just playing around and figuring how it was all going to fit together."

When the musical finally headed for the stage, Ms Clark was wearing a red wig, a bright costume and remained with the show throughout its run. She remembers that an enormous amount of work went into shaping the piece and what began with halting performances in the preview period was substantially different from what won that year's Tony Award. "We went through drastic changes and we probably should have tried it out-of-town, but the hydraulics involved pretty much prohibited that. We finally did get it right, though. And not only did we win Best Musical, but Maury Yeston won the Tony for best score."

In addition to TITANIC Ms Clark's Broadway credits include Pennywise in URINETOWN and a long stint in the revival of CABARET. "I did that for a while," she recounts. "I was Fraulein Kost and replaced Michelle Pawk, who originated the role in that version." In addition to playing Smitty in HOW TO SUCCEED...with Matthew Broderick and was in the Jerry Zaks production of GUYS AND DOLLS.

Along the line, she also dropped in at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera for a stint of matchmaking in the title role in HELLO, DOLLY! "Oh, Jerry Herman's shows are great. I love his music and he's a sweetheart of a man. He's adorable. " She also confides that if the recurring rumor about a full-scale revival of DOLLY! becomes a reality, she would absolutely love to play the character again. From all reports, she was a delight in the role and it showed her comic side which her more recent roles have let audiences forget.

Yet the role that Victoria Clark will always be associated with is that of Margaret Johnson in Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel's THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA. Not only did Ms Clark win the Tony Award for her performance in that vehicle, she also received awards from the Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, and the Drama League Honor. Her performance in PIAZZA prompted the New York Times's Ben Brantley to write that she was giving "the best musical performance by an actress this season."

As far as actually playing Margaret Johnson, Ms Clark claims, "It's the role of a lifetime. It's the best written role for a woman over 40 with the possible exception of Mama Rose. Desiree in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC is up there too, but Desiree doesn't carry around the same kind of baggage with all that passive-aggressive Southern charm and complexity. I would say that all three women have spent the majority of their adult lives running away, and come face to face with their destiny, their reason to stop running. All three are terribly vibrant, funny, and flawed beyond belief. That is my favorite thing about them. Their imperfection. Margaret was a perfectly crafted character drawn by Craig and Adam and created by Elizabeth Spencer in her novella; my interpretation just took up where the page left off, but it was all already there. It was a thrilling experience that changed my life. I had a strong visceral connection with the music and after hearing the lyric to "Fable" I felt that I knew everything about the woman just from that one lyric, and its music. I'm very grateful to Craig, Adam and Bart Sher [the director] who gave me the opportunity. Everyone in that creative team was at the top of his game. Additionally, I was extremely excited to work on something new. That's my real passion."

When questioned about how she balances being a mother to her son, Thomas Luke, and handling a career in musical theater, Ms Clark takes a long, thoughtful pause and sips from her coffee before answering. "I feel that they're both callings... spiritual callings in a way. They both can take every ounce of your being. A child will take every shred of the time, energy and patience you give him. They're sponges, and I feel the same way in my career. The more energy I bring to it, the more time it takes. There's always something else to do; another show to see, another friend to call, another play to read, more lyrics to study, another song to learn. I have friends without children and they're exhausted. All they do is keep up with their careers and it's become everything to them.

They barely have time to see their friends outside the business. I'm very lucky because I have friends from all different avenues, I've got dear friends from church, my son's friends, their parents, and I like to hang out with people who are not in show business. I think it's very grounding and it gives me great perspective on what I do as a performer. You can start to take this business too seriously. I feel that I need to be an actor to be a great mother and I need to be a great mom to be a better actor. Both sides tend to meet each other. You know, being a mom makes me responsible and very aware of my mortality. My son is beautiful. He's a real blessing"

The next responsibility that Victoria Clark will face is her appearance with the world renowned Boston Pops, conducted by Maestro Keith Lockhart. In a program entitled "The Richard Rodgers Songbook", Ms Clark will appear with what has been dubbed "America's Orchestra" on June 16th, 17th and 18th at Boston's stunningly beautiful Symphony Hall. Without giving too much of the concert away, Ms Clark explains, "The first act is Rodgers and Hart and the second act is Rodgers and Hammerstein. It's a very familiar program. They want it to be fun and it's with five Vocal Fellows from the Tanglewood Music Festival who are just starting their careers as classical or cross-over singers. I haven't met any of them yet, but it promises to be very enjoyable!"

"At this point in my profession," the singer remarks, "the concept of performing with a full orchestra is brand new. Previously I avoided it like the plague. I feel that my real gift is delving into characters and disappearing into them. I love entertaining and I love being in front of people. Over the last two years my first album, "Fifteen Seconds of Grace", has come out, and I've started doing cabaret work and solo shows. I'm just getting comfortable simply being Vicki in front of an audience. So this is perfect timing. Things happen when they're supposed to but now I'm really excited to stand up in front of that many musicians. Had this happened three years ago, I would have been quaking in my boots-and I still may do that-but I'm ready to take this on," she adds with a hearty chuckle. 

In the course of the conversation, Ms Clark learned that she's once again be surrounded by beautiful statues the way she was in PIAZZA because Symphony Hall is adorned with excellent replicas of some of the most famous Greco-Roman sculptures. Adding to their charm they are effectively backlit during performances. "Oh, that might be distracting!" she remarks. "I really might have a problem with that!" Yet as she says that, one readily senses that she's not very serious. Nor does she seem concerned about the Boston Pops tradition of serving food during the performances. There have been times when the audience is rapt in their enjoyment of a delicate passage of music when suddenly a waiter drops a tray and dispels the mood that is being created by the orchestra. "Oh, I'm ready for that!" Then she hastily adds, "What kind of food is it? You mean they're eating during the performance? I may have to ask the servers to bring me something while I'm singing!" All joking aside,, the very idea of working with Lockhart and his marvelous orchestra has Ms Clark elated

Behind the bronze statue in the aforementioned Strauss Park in New York, there is a monument to the devoted couple. It is inscribed with a quote from the Second Book of Samuel: "Lovely and pleasant were they in their lives and in their death they were not divided." It is an apt and touching phrase for the people being memorialized.

However, Victoria Clark beggars a different Biblical quote, this one from the sixth chapter of Matthew: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." Ms Clark realizes the spiritual aspects of performing and her singing often reflects not only her own soul but the very heart of the character she is illuminating. As a result, audiences have found a true treasure in her and hope that she becomes a steady presence on stages from Broadway to Boston, where she'll be vocalizing amid those famous sculptures in Symphony Hall.

Icon Photo by Susan Shacter

Photos by Genevieve Rafter Keddy, Walter McBride/Retna Ltd. , Peter James Zielinski and Ben Strothmann

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From This Author Joseph F. Panarello