If you’re having trouble picturing the Tony Award winner slinking across a stage as a Jellicle cat, Clark is right there with you. “That was back in the days when someone said, ‘Do you do this?’ and you said yes. And then you learned how,” she says, laughing.
But while The Light in the Piazza star may not be best-known for her terpsichorean skills, she did indeed tour in Cats—covering the role of Jennyannydots no less. Well, eventually.
After landing the role by auditioning on stage at the Winter Garden Theatre—where she improvised a routine to “Tea for Two”—Clark headed to Chicago two days later and walked into rehearsals in the middle of a blizzard. Things didn’t much improve either: She pulled a hamstring on the first day… while making fun of the choreography. Out of commission for a while, she was on the mend when she got a sinus infection. “I couldn’t sing or dance for like two weeks,” she says. “And Richard [Stafford, the dance captain] kept calling New York and saying, ‘Is she good? She can’t do anything!’”
Clark had actually turned down a workshop to take the job, reasoning that a role in a show was a better bet. “‘It’s a fairy tale musical and you would play one of Cinderella’s stepsisters,’” Clark remembers them saying. “And I thought, ‘Cinderella’s stepsisters? No, I’m going to do Cats!’” So she turned down James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim and Into the Woods, and spent nights after rehearsals in the laundry room of her apartment building, teaching herself how Jellicles move.
“In those days, you didn’t say, ‘Modify it.’ You just learned it,” she says. “And you put in the extra hours. When Richard Stafford showed me the first pose, I just looked at him. ‘Now, Victoria, you really need to get down and do this.’ And I was like, ‘That’s where you want me to start?!’ It was basically a caterpillar with your arms in the air, and you’re crouching down. So I just watched him do it a few times and finally he said, ‘You have to do this, too. I’m not doing this for your entertainment.”
Technically, Clark made her Broadway debut as an understudy in Sunday in the Park With George, but she never went on. And between that and her true Broadway debut in Guys and Dolls, she did one more national tour of a 1980s blockbuster musical: Les Misérables, playing a very young Madame Thénardier.
From Guys and Dolls to Gigi: Celebrating the Stage Work of Victoria Clark
“That was back in the beginning of turntable technology,” Clark says, “and they had to set up a turntable in every city. I played Thénardier really young with my hair in pigtails. Terrible makeup—I don't know how anyone let me on stage! And you also had to play the bishop’s wife or the servant and bring in a tray of food as Jean Valjean has this conversion moment. And during this sweet moment, the turntable malfunctioned and began to speed up, and the props started to fly off the table. I, of course, found this to be wildly hilarious. I just stood there and waved as the set went round and round. I didn’t know what else to do—it’s not like you can pretend something wrong hasn’t happened. So I thought, ‘I’ll make the best of it!’ And the spot operators kept the spot on me.”
Clark hadn’t intended on being a performer to begin with. She had her sights set on directing, and was in NYU’s musical theatre graduate program with Winnie Holzman and George C. Wolfe. None of the writers wanted to perform in their material, so Clark began taking on roles. Egged on to audition for the Sunday in the Park With George understudy role, Clark landed it and then had to put it on her résumé. And once a Sondheim show is on the résumé, everyone sees you as a performer.
Plenty of meaty roles came her way after Guys & Dolls, from stepping in as Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret to Titanic to the Fairy Godmother in Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella. But Clark has always been a director at heart.
“Every now and then someone would say, ‘I know you’re a director,’” she says. “Bartlett [Sher, her director in Light in the Piazza] always knew, because when we were working together he’d say, ‘Stop directing! Try to be here in this moment.’”
Clark was days away from her highest-profile directing gig in New York City when the ban on mass gatherings was first issued. Helming the long-awaited return of Love Life as part of City Center Encores!, they were set to begin performances less than a week later.
“If someone said to me the only thing that could prevent me from pulling off Love Life was a global pandemic I would have laughed,” Clark says. “I’ve been working on it for two-and-a-half years, nothing was gonna stop me! Crushing it every day in rehearsal—and then we were all thrown out of the vehicle.”
Still, she’s confident that Love Life—the 1948 Kurt Weill-Alan Jay Lerner musical that was to have starred Brian Stokes Mitchell and Kate Baldwin—will find a way once audiences can return to the theatres we all miss so dearly. And during her time in self-isolation and looking back over her career, she says, "I was struck by all the advantages and protections I’ve had as an Equity member. When a friend called and asked me to run for AEA council, I just couldn’t say no. I felt really called to step up and run, and if elected, serve and take my turn. It is such a critical time for actors and all artists in the world right now. And I feel really strongly we all need to take a turn at the wheel."
As for the future, Clark understand the importance of art and artists in the world.
“If we succumb to the fear mongering, we’ve failed our true calling, which is to lift each other up and heal,” Clark says. “We have to rise above it, whether it’s calling friends and telling stories like these and laughing… We were all taken by surprise. We did a final run through on [March 12] of Love Life. Everybody, their hearts were in it. It was probably one of the most beautiful afternoons I’ve ever experienced. But what’s been really sanity saving for me is I’ve been working on the piece. I’ve been taking notes on things I could do better, and that’s been very cathartic and soothing. That’s what we like to do. Work.”