To put it simply, Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Lucille Lortel Award winner Victoria Clark brings tremendous honesty to every role she plays.
Whether she's portraying a mother determined to give her daughter the most cherished gift life has to offer in The Light in the Piazza, a spirited second-class passenger longing for more aboard the maiden voyage of the ill-fated Titanic, the Mother Superior in the musical version of the blockbuster film Sister Act, or a flying Fairy Godmother in Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella, among many others, the Tony-winning actor imbues all her work with great humanity, a palpable warmth, and rich humor in unexpected places.
That the Light in the Piazza Tony winner can so truthfully and movingly portray a high school teenager in her current role in Broadway's Kimberly Akimbo demonstrates not only her own humanity, but also the true breadth of her talent.
Clark shares her journey to and along Broadway in the launch of the new Playbill feature How Did I Get Here? It will spotlight not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage who create the magic that is live theatre. And, we ask them a simple question: How did you get to where you are now?
For this inaugural entry, Clark shares what her original stage dream was (it wasn't to be an actor), how her big break came two decades after her Broadway debut, and the role she coveted that ultimately went to Audra McDonald.
What made you decide to become an actor? Was there a particular production or performance that influenced your decision?
I never decided to be an actor! It happened completely by accident! Growing up in Dallas, Texas, I think in my heart I may have always wanted to be an actor. But it always seemed like something very unattainable. I had a childhood of privilege, safety, private school, and church every Sunday; to provide that kind of life for myself and my two brothers, my parents worked tirelessly at several jobs simultaneously. They made so many personal sacrifices so that all of us could explore the things we loved. My mom’s escape from her busy work life was going to the theatre and opera. I was her theatre date to everything she wanted to see. It was precious time with the woman I loved and admired so much.
Was it to please her that I started to sing? No. But her love for the arts made it easier. My grandmother who lived with us, and who played piano flawlessly by ear, took me downtown herself on the city bus to my first voice lessons when I was six. I did a lot of acting and singing in high school and had fantastic teachers (Patte Edwards, Ed Long, and Roddy Austin in particular) who always pushed and encouraged me. But I also really loved school and problem-solving. So when I was a sophomore at Yale, I was given the opportunity to direct a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, and I jumped at it. It was a perfect fit for me.
After directing in college, I went straight into the (now famous) NYU Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program as a director. It was an experimental part of the program that happened the second year of Cycle I. My dream was to begin as Hal Prince’s assistant, but that never happened.
That inaugural class consisted of now-iconic music theatre legends (George Wolfe, Winnie Holzman, Steven Lutvak, Robert L. Freedman, to name but a few). Every time I turned around, I was being asked to read one of the parts in somebody’s new show or new writing exercise. It was thrilling to pick up a piece of new music or scene every week. I was relaxed and gave (opinionated!) feedback from both the vantage point of a director and an actor. The casting directors for these readings at NYU were John Lyons and Ira Weitzman, and they saw everything we were working on. One day, Ira pulled me aside and said, “You might be a director—you might be a great director. But right now you could make your living as an actor.” The next thing I knew, he gave me an audition for a vacation replacement for the original production of Sunday in the Park With George. And I booked it. It was only my second Equity job. That was 1985.
What do you consider your big break?
It came about 18 years into my career. My biggest break was probably The Light in the Piazza. It was the first time I was asked to "carry" a new work in a leading role, first in two major regional productions and then on Broadway. I had done lead roles, but in already-established works, and I had done many supporting roles in both new works and in revivals.
But I knew that Margaret Johnson lived inside me. I felt those scenes and songs literally wanting to burst out of me. There was a part of my grandmother and all my aunts in that portrayal and a healthy dose of my mom—although she never saw the resemblance, which still makes me laugh. Piazza was my first introduction to many of the artists who have been my inspiration ever since: Adam Guettel, Craig Lucas, Bartlett Sher, Jonathan Butterell, Kelli O'Hara, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Matthew Morrison, Steven Pasquale, Mark Harelik, Patti Cohenour, Beau Gravitte, Michael Berresse, Sarah Uriarte Berry, for starters. Those were very happy and heart-filled years.
Is there a person or people you most respect in your field and why?
There are so many people I respect in this business, but one of the artists I look up to the most is LaChanze. Her work as an actor, advocate, musician, artist, activist, and producer inspires me so much. When she walks into a room, the whole temperature changes, and we are infused with her energy, her love, her encouragement. She is an incredible mom and a deeply caring person. We are so blessed to have her as one of our producers on Kimberly Akimbo. She is my sister from another mother.
Also, may I say… her fashion sense? C’mon now!
Tell me about a job/opportunity you really wanted but didn’t get. How did you get over that disappointment?
I really wanted to audition for the role of Carrie Pipperidge in the 1994 Nicholas Hytner revival of Carousel at Lincoln Center. I couldn’t even get an appointment. The word back from casting to my agents at the time was that I didn’t have the depth to play the role. That feedback hurt for a while. Of course, the role went to the wonderful Audra McDonald. I happened to be out shopping the day she was looking for her Tony dress that year, and we chatted a bit. She held up two dresses. “Definitely the white gown,” I said. And that was what she wore the night she accepted her first Tony.
I appeared in those same Tony Awards six months pregnant, performing a song from A Grand Night for Singing, which was nominated for Best Musical. Later that same year, I had my son and was cast in the How to Succeed… revival opposite Matthew Broderick and Megan Mullally. I have learned to trust God’s timing.
What advice would you give your younger self or anyone starting out?
Keep your eyes and ears open. Soak up as much as you can from everyone around you. Don’t take a single moment for granted. The day you live this day will eventually add up to being your whole life, so try to enjoy at least a sliver of every day. Be forever grateful, for everything large and especially small. Ask questions. Don’t be afraid of looking stupid. Trust your collaborators. Don’t second-guess yourself. Be brave. When you get knocked down, get back up. Trust. Yourself, the universe, God, whatever or whoever you believe in.
What is your proudest achievement as an actor?
In all honesty, it is what I’m doing right now. Kimberly Levaco is the person I want to live inside these days. Of the dozens of roles I’ve played, I am learning the most from her. She is full of humor, heart, discovery, and joy. But she is not me. I can't roll out of bed and jump onstage. To play her eight times a week takes enormous concentration, energy, stamina, patience, commitment, and forgiveness. I have had to come to terms with my own mortality, and the daily physical challenges of being in a 60-something-year-old (ahem) body. It takes technique mixed with life experience and the unwavering support of the whole company.
The creative team who brought this production to life are geniuses. And I don’t toss that word around lightly. David Lindsay-Abaire, Jeanine Tesori, Jessica Stone, Danny Mefford, Chris Fenwick, and our terrific cast—Steven Boyer, Justin Cooley, Olivia Elease Hardy, Fernell Hogan II, Michael Iskander, Alli Mauzey, Bonnie Milligan, Nina White—all made something incredible. We are all telling Kim’s story. Every single day I am filled with gratitude.