Victoria Clark: Willing to Find the Voice Inside

 

Tony Award-winner Victoria Clark is the kind of Broadway artist that makes singers dream of singing professionally. In this interview, she shares how she created the title character in Kimberly Akimbo and how the belief others had in her talent built her confidence as a performer.

 

Victoria Clark, her soaring, lyrical soprano, and her unmistakable artistry have long served as a bridge for classical singers and their teachers, joining core tenets of operatic vocal technique to the full spectrum of Broadway resonances, ranging from the immediate contemporary to the golden age. Her Tony Award-winning portrayal (Best Leading Actress in a Musical, 2005) of Margaret Johnson in Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza was captured on PBS Live From Lincoln Center, and the original cast recording continues to enchant and educate listeners and singers on either end of the crossover spectrum. 

When I interviewed star soprano Kelli O’Hara (Clark’s co-star/show daughter in Piazza) for Classical Singer Magazine in 2021, she spoke on the importance Guettel’s sweeping and challenging score as well as his vocal writing had in her early career, and how it aided in further unlocking her authentic voice and artistry. I asked Victoria (Vicki) Clark if she’d experienced a similar moment of vocal and artistic arrival in her own career: “I think that the show where I really just got to sing as me authentically was Piazza. I was 45 when I did that. So, can you imagine waiting? I got my equity card when I was 25.” She laughs and continues, “I waited 20 years, because I have a lot of facility in other registers and because I was also a clown and love doing comedy.”

Clark’s superior clowning prowess is on immediate and deft display in a YouTube video of her singing “Don’t Laugh” (Sondheim/Rodgers) at the Sondheim 80th birthday concert. If you haven’t already, watch and you’ll doubtless hear and understand how Clark instantly draws an audience to the edge of its collective seat within moments and is at once hilarious and earnest—and you’ll catch more than a glimpse of why the show’s creators (Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire) wanted Clark to give musical life to Kimberly Levaco in Kimberly Akimbo.

In a wide-ranging conversation, beginning with Clark’s most recent Tony Award win (Best Leading Actress in a Musical, 2023) for Kimberly Akimbo, I asked her to share about her journey in finding Kim’s physicality and to discuss how her characterization impacted her strategic vocalism for the show. (Note: the teenage character Kim Levaco suffers from a condition that causes rapid aging). For classical singers and their teachers and coaches, this topic finds easy and frequent application—being cast to play a role a wide distance from your actual age. 

Clark shares, “Great question. A lot of people have asked me about how did I find the way Kim moves in her body and, honestly, it’s so kind of alchemical. It’s just sort of knowing who she is in my gut, and then how does she move around in the body that is kind of betraying her, in a way. It’s not doing what she wants it to do all the time. 

“But I do think Kim has a lot of energy, so there was a basic choice when I started: do I give in and move like a 65 year old, a 70 year old, with hurts and aches and pains…or do I just let my body do what it’s going to do but have quicker impulses and quicker reflexes, and then let my own body break down the way it’s going to break down because it will naturally get more tired toward the end of the week, and the muscles will hurt some days, and the knees, the joints might hurt or be weak. 

“And I chose the latter, and I’m not sure why, because I just feel like her spirit—at least in the first act—would sort of dictate that she approaches things with high-octane energy. And that could be right or wrong. And, you know, another Kim might decide to make another choice and sort of have slower reflexes, but the first thing I would investigate with was speed—how quickly does she move and how quickly does she react?

“And by making that choice, it’s more in alignment with her spirit. Her body has only been on the planet 16 years, so it’s significantly fewer years for it to hurt and break down, right? So, my thought was that her aging happens sort of in quantum leaps. So, no, I don’t think she walks like an old lady. I don’t. That was the first decision I made…I’m way over 400 performances now, not even counting off-Broadway, and it’s a hard thing to carry in your body, so I’ve been working with teachers throughout this experience. I’m still in voice lessons and Alexander Technique…I’m excited that I extended my contract because It’s a great playground to keep learning.” 

Clark shares how she found Kim vocally and how embodying her physically and vocally is very much in process: “Now the voice part of it is really fascinating to me, because I turned down the role originally. I turned Jeanine [Tesori] down because I heard the score and I thought, oh she’s going in kind of in a poppy direction, and I can do folky, but I think my voice is just probably too trained to pull off poppy. So, she said, ‘Well, just come sing some of it for me. Let me just hear it, instead of you just telling me you can’t.’ 

“So, she did a very kind of wise thing—because Jeanine is very wise and intuitive—and she invited me to her studio. And the first song she played for me was ‘Anagram,’ which I think is a pretty perfect song. It sits in kind of a conversational part of your voice, and then it goes up into where my voice begins to bloom, but doesn’t really—it just starts to bloom a little bit. And we never touched it—never touched the key, we didn’t change anything. She said, ‘Kim can sound like that. There’s no reason why she can’t sound like that.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but I can’t belt this and I can’t do that.’” 

Clark continues that the show’s composer Jeanine Tesori used this in shaping Kim’s vocal writing. “The way we set the keys for the show is whenever the role got to a place where I was tempted to bloom—I’m just going to keep using that word—past the C above middle C, C# going into the passaggio, you know, going into those Es and Fs, she’d say, ‘No.’ So then she kept moving the key down so that people would not be reminded of—well, she didn’t really explain, but I think it’s because she didn’t want people to think about Margaret [Clark’s role in Piazza]—she didn’t want to think about Vicki Clark, the soprano. She wanted people to just be with Kim. And so, frankly, the whole score is kind of awkward for me.” 

Clark laughs and continues, “But I think Kim is awkward. So, what I have to resolve within myself is how do I be okay with singing in a range that’s often just a stepping stone to other parts of my voice that don’t really get airtime in this particular role. In other words, I’m on the diving board ready to jump the entire show. And, so, there is a sense of frustration in that I never really get to soar—but I don’t think Kim does either, in a way. So, vocally, it’s extremely smart what she’s done. And I’m thrilled that she chose me, because I’m learning so much about myself and how to deal with that sense of imperfection—and how beautiful and how human it is, and it makes one very vulnerable. I think Kim is at the stage of her life where she has to give up her sense of control. 

“So, what I, Vicki, have to do during the performance is the same. I have to give up my sense of achieving anything, because I can’t, and the role won’t allow me to. What I have to do is dig back down into my acting and allow her to be whatever she can be that night. And sometimes I feel great about my performance vocally, and sometimes the schoolmarmy part of me comes out and I think, ‘Oh, that could have been more beautiful. That could have been more perfect, or that it could have been shaped in a better way.’ But then I remember, hey, I’m 15—she [Kim] doesn’t have that facility yet, anyway. I have to remember part of what I’m doing here is allowing people to see Kim and Vicki in process, and that feels extremely risky for someone of my age and experience. It’s both terrifying still after a year, and it’s incredibly liberating.” 

Clark is very generous sharing what aging has meant—and continues to mean—for her own voice. She uses this topic to further highlight some of the intuitive genius of leading composer Jeanine Tesori, for whom she has obvious and deep admiration and affection: “I can’t say enough about how she chooses her subject material…she doesn’t shy away from complex subjects or complex people. And what she and David [Lindsay-Abaire, Kimberly Akimbo playwright] are dealing with here are very complex family dynamics—and how do we emerge victorious from a family situation, a family heritage that might bind us, might drag us down. 

“She has said publicly that she wanted to create a role for an older actress because there just aren’t that many good ones. Right? So, the fact that they chose me to be the spokesperson for this woman, this young lady, is a testament to her trust and her faith in me and, also, her trust and faith in older people in general—and how much respect she has for people older than herself, and the gold that she finds in these relationships and in these characters. And I will always be grateful and in debt to her because she wouldn’t let me say no, and she knew I had it. 

“And this is another thing with younger folks coming up—we don’t always know who we are—and even in this later stage in my career, I didn’t know I had that person inside of me. But Jeanine knew. And we have to be willing to turn around in our tracks and trust—especially if what we do involves something that we never see. You know, you have to let other people guide you and say, ‘Oh, I think you’re wrong. I think you can do this,’ and let that confidence inspire you to be strong and to do things you didn’t know you were capable of.”

Voice teachers are well acquainted with this power of willingness as it relates to working with singers of all ages, at all stages, as they use something that they will never see—the voice. Clark’s insight on the life cycles and career surprises further underscores her own masterful understanding her own voice’s versatility and sustainability. “My fascination with the voice started when I was 6 years old with my weekly music lessons every week (30 minutes of piano and 30 minutes of voice). The kinds of voices that appealed to me as a child were lyric sopranos, and I listened obsessively to Barbara Cook and Shirley Jones. I guess you could say they were my first voice teachers. Their expression, tone, and diction are impeccable! I have to say all these years later, I am moved by all kinds of voices but still incredibly inspired by sopranos. 

“Our church choral director in Dallas, Don Hermonat, was my first serious teacher, followed by Sharon Grahnquist in high school, Blake Stern at Yale, and opera singer Eva Likova and coach Jack Lee when I moved to New York. I also studied with the opera singer Gottfried Hornik in the bowels of the Vienna State Opera when I was in college. Hornik had basketball hoops set up in a studio, and I sang arias while shooting baskets. No doubt this is where I learned about the athleticism of singing! 

“I continued study with Edward Sayegh and Beret Arcaya who both influenced me in myriad of life-changing ways and helped me develop an ease and facility moving between registers. Arcaya combines classical voice work with Alexander Technique, which I found both fascinating and revelatory. The coaches Shirley Tennyson and Tom Vasiliades have helped shape my current work, especially around stamina, endurance, ease, and the breath. All my teachers have been a tremendous blessing to me and have given me confidence and 425 exercises from which to draw, depending on the role or task at hand. And all have given me inspiration and many techniques to draw from in my own teaching!” 

Like Barbara Cook and Shirley Jones were to her, Victoria Clark is doubtless at the top of many sopranos’ lists of first teachers. And Clark’s discography, ever growing, provides spectacular sonic evidence of a voice that’s been expertly trained and strategically employed and that tells artistic, human stories. I asked Clark which albums and repertoire she’d like to record, and she mentioned two immediately. The first is an album of spirituals from a Southern tradition—recording this album was a promise she made to her late mother.   

“Okay, that’s one album. And then the other album, I’d love to do all women composers and lyricists from the musical theater tradition—and they’re not that many, unfortunately—but to feature some of our great women—Susan Birkenhead, Mary Rodgers, Jeanine Tesori, Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, Carmel Dean. You know, just really dig in there and just promote the heck out of that.”

I can’t wait to hear those albums and share them with my students! 

For more information, visit victoriaclark.me

Peter Thoresen

Dr. Peter Thoresen is an award-winning voice teacher, countertenor, and music director. His students appear regularly on Broadway (Almost Famous, Beetlejuice, Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton, Moulin Rouge! and more), in national tours, and on TV and film. He works internationally as a voice teacher, conductor, and music director in the Middle East and Southeast Asia with the Association of American Voices. He is an adjunct voice faculty member at Pace University and maintains a thriving private studio in New York City; he also serves as music director with Broadway Star Project. Thoresen has served on the voice faculties of Interlochen Summer Arts Camp, Musical Theater College Auditions (MTCA), and Broadway Kids Auditions (BKA) and holds a DM in voice from the IU Jacobs School of Music where he served as a visiting faculty member. He teaches a popular online vocal pedagogy course for new voice teachers and performs throughout the U.S. and abroad. To learn more, visit peterthoresen.com, @peter.thoresen (Insta), and @DrPetesTweets (Twitter).