"I had come to New York to visit with my family a couple of times, and I came up a year and a half ago to do a workshop at NYU," says Clarke. "That was how I met Kim Grigsby [who now conducts Piazza]; a mutual friend connected us. Kim was the one who got me to audition. I had only done one professional show in Houston, Anything Goes, and I was just in the chorus. It's more taxing when you're one of the principal characters and you have to do a show eight times a week on Broadway! The stakes are a lot higher but, I have to say, I'm having a blast."
What are the pluses and minuses of a Broadway schedule? "It's a little easier to forgive yourself if something goes wrong," says Clarke. "If you crack on a note or something else goes wrong, you can tell yourself, 'Well, I got it right last time and I'll make sure I get it right next time.' I'm always going back to my score. You discover things in a long run that you probably wouldn't in a three-week run in community theater or a university production. There are so many things to learn about Clara."
For Clarke, one of the most thrilling aspects of the Piazza experience has been the opportunity to work directly with the show's brilliant composer-lyricist, Adam Guettel. "He's wonderful," she says. "I'd never sung music to the composer before in my life. It's a very intense experience. He has very specific ideas about the way he wants his music to be sung, but he has been so generous, gracious, and patient with me." Clarke is also full of praise for Aaron Lazar, who plays her love interest, Fabrizo: "Since we're both replacements and we came into the show at different times, we didn't get much rehearsal time together. All of the chemistry and love between the characters, that had to develop in front of an audience. It was, 'Hi, I'm Aaron.' 'Hi, I'm Katie.' 'Let's go make out on a bed!' But he's easy to work with, a very good actor and an amazing singer, so it hasn't been difficult to develop that relationship."
Needless to say, Clarke is eternally grateful to Grigsby for recommending her to replace O'Hara in Piazza. "When I first met Kim in New York," she recalls, "we chatted for a long time and I sang a couple of songs for her. We really hit it off. Then I went back to school in Texas. During that time, Kim joined the show as conductor. When it came time to replace Kelli, she said, 'I actually know someone. She's in Texas and she has no experience. This is a complete long shot.' But it happened for me -- and I believe this kind of thing can happen to anybody."
Aaron Lazar is overjoyed to be playing Fabrizio Naccarelli opposite Katie Clarke's Clara in The Light in the Piazza, but don't think that he hasn't paid his dues on the way to being awarded such a plum role. "I covered Raoul in Phantom," he says, "but my favorite job in that show was that I got to pull the elephant on. I guess I was supposed to be a slave to Hannibal; I wore a brown pajama unitard with a mask and chains. It was a very strange costume! I left Phantom to do Oklahoma! and, three and a half months later, that show closed. But I have no regrets because it was my dream to be in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical on Broadway. That's why I got into this business, and the natural extension of that is doing Piazza. I can't tell you what an honor and a privilege it is to sing this score." (Adam Guettel, the show's composer-lyricist, is Rodgers' grandson.)
When I remark that the character of Fabrizio is thoroughly endearing, Lazar deadpans, "I thought it was just my own irresistible charm." Then he says: "Fabrizio is a ball of energy. He and Clara are at a point in their lives when every look, every touch, every word comes right from the heart. It's amazing to discover love for the first time like that. For an actor, it's emotionally exhausting to play that because you really have to pour your heart out, but it pays off. We move audiences to tears every night, and a lot of people keep coming back to see the show again and again. Katie is fantastic as Clara. To graduate from college, pack up her life, and step into this kind of a role as her Broadway debut-- it's really amazing. I'm proud to be on stage with her."
One of the major talents that Lazar brings to Piazza is an opera-quality voice. "When I first started taking voice lessons, I studied classical," he says. "I sort of emulated baritones like Thomas Hampson and tried to sing like that. When I got to grad school, I tried to stretch my range a little, but I still thought I was a baritone. When I got to New York, I started working with Bill Schuman -- who's my voice teacher to this day -- and we really started stretching my range. Fabrizio is 20 years old and the role calls for a tenor, but there's so much richness and depth in the music. That goes for all of the characters; what they're singing comes from such a deep, soulful place. When I open my mouth to sing 'Il Mondo Era Vuoto,' I get to express the most meaningful discovery in this boy's life." Lazar has been married to model LeAnn Garris for over a year, and he says: "Had I not met her four and a half years ago, I don't think I'd be able to bring to the table what I do as Fabrizio. The depth of the love that I put onstage is thanks to her."
Prior to Piazza, Lazar had an amazing experience in London, playing Gabey in a rapturously received English National Opera production of On the Town. "It was my first time in Europe, let alone living and working in the West End," he says. "I loved doing the show with Adam Garcia and with Tim Howar, who's in Rent now. We got to perform in front of 3,000 people at the Coliseum every night, with a 50-piece orchestra, singing Bernstein music."
He also has fond memories of Harmony, the ill-fated Barry Manilow-Bruce Sussman musical in which he was to have been featured. The show was abruptly shut down in December 2003 just prior to its scheduled pre-Broadway run at the Forrest Theater in Philadelphia when it turned out that -- whoops! -- the producers were millions of dollars short in capitalizing the production. "I'm still in touch with Barry and Bruce and everyone who worked on the show," he says. "In fact, some of the guys came to see Piazza last night. We all became dear friends, and that alone is worth all the time we spent on the show, regardless of the outcome. But I believe Harmony is eventually going to see the light of day, because it's too good not to. Like Piazza, it was a rare opportunity to tell a moving story on stage, to be involved in something that's more than a musical -- whatever that word has come to mean on Broadway nowadays."
Just before our interview ends, Lazar mentions a major project that he has in the works: "I'm doing an album in the legit pop vein. It's Josh Groban/Andrea Bocelli sort of stuff, really romantic music. I think it should be done by late fall or early winter, and I'm really excited about it." Does the album have a label yet? "I'm going to keep that information off the record for now!"