Once upon a time, on the fifth story of the Broadway Theatre, actress Victoria Clark, dressed in a bright pink ball gown, sat on a swing, buckled her seat belt, and was propelled across the stage. But that really wasn't once upon a time. That happens eight times a week with Clark taking on the iconic role of the Fairy Godmother in Douglas Carter Beane's new take on Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. Watching the Tony Award winner, best known for her performance 2005's The Light in the Piazza, singing "Impossible/It's Possible," while flying across the proscenium arch is just one in a series of smile-inducing and surprising moments in the production, made even more surprising when you realize that the woman doing the flying is one of the leading sopranos of the contemporary musical theater.
But Clark doesn't just play Cinderella's Fairy Godmother. Early on in the musical, she dons rags and a curly gray wig to play "Crazy" Marie, a beggar woman whose only true friend is the title character, played by Tony Award nominee Laura Osnes. For Clark, both characters in this updated take on the classic make-over story have managed to provide some of the most satisfying character arcs in her illustrious career.
Days before the production opened, TheaterMania talked with Clark about how flying through the air is as freeing as it is frightening, her real-life fairy godmothers (including Tony Award nominee Mary Beth Peil), and how a lyric soprano such as herself views music in the age of televised singing competitions.
How did you get involved with Cinderella?
When we were working on Sister Act, Douglas Carter Beane [who co-wrote that show's book] was looking at the book for Cinderella and he hinted that there would be something for me to think about. [My character] is a good mix in that that it's sort of this fairy that takes on a disguise.
And you get to fly!
I enjoy it so much! I was really scared, but it's really spiritual for me. I have a fear of heights that I had to get over pretty quickly, but that's who she is – she's not mortal. To be able to experience [the flying] makes the characterization easier for me. It's freeing to experience that.
As you are afraid of heights, what was your first experience flying across the stage like?
I kind of hung there like a sack of cheese. Ira, our stage manager, said "You can't just hang there." I was so terrified that all I could think of was all the things that could go wrong. But then, you have to move from that frame of mind. [It's a] situation where you have no control, and it's very freeing. Nothing's ever going to happen, because it's Flying by Foy [the theatrical flying service], and there are two wires [in case one fails]. [But] the first thing that goes through your mind is, "These are all the ways I can die."
How did you develop a back story for your character?
The back story came from a bit of research, like reading some of these old Cinderella myths from thousands of years ago. The fairy was sometimes a tree, and the power came to her from various forces of nature. It was a collaboration between [director] Mark Brokaw and [costume designer] William Ivey Long, because Mark saw her as a giant winged, antennae creature. If that's the case, and that's what she's gonna look like, that's what the back story is.
Do you have your own Fairy Godmother?
I do! My deceased grandmother on my mom's side was a real fairy godmother, who lived to be 102 and who I always feel is looking after me. My mom really is, also. The older I get, the more I realize how much she sacrificed to make sure that my brothers and I had what we needed to pursue what our dreams were. To be able to have someone to grant every wish – she's my biggest inspiration. [And], Mary Beth Peil is my Fairy Godmother.
THE Mary Beth Peil?
She really is my living fairy godmother. With her silver hair, when I put my wig on, I saw her. And I thought "Oh, that's good." We met doing a show, and didn't do another show together for 25 years, and then we did Follies together in LA, and had so much fun working on it. She's known me since before I had my son. She helped deliver my son; she was in the delivery room. She's walked the walk with me.
What's the best piece of advice she's given you?
The one thing she just keeps reiterating is that you can do it all, but just not always at the same time. Yes, you can be a mom, yes, you can have a career, but sometimes you have to pick one.
You're also an accomplished voice teacher. What's the best piece of Fairy Godmother-ly advice you give your students?
It's not very popular with today's young people to give themselves a break or take the time that's necessary to just be. We're not given a lot of permission to stop and rest and take care of ourselves. Everything is so instantaneous. This career takes time, like a good red sauce. You can either… give a performance that is literally canned, or you can spend some time thinking and really dreaming about it. Don't be afraid of taking more time to do everything.
As a trained soprano, what's your take on the American Idol school of vocal technique?
I have a lot commentary because I'm a vocal technique nerd! I'm a lyric soprano. I can try to step outside that and do different kind of singing, but it's not something I can sustain over the long haul, and what is good for your voice is good for your career. We're all told that we can do everything. There are a lot of lyric sopranos that come to me and are screaming their faces off. Tragically, they don't know the shows where sopranos have roles. They haven't been taught to love that sound. They don't know it's more than okay, it's necessary.
Looking around at the audience for Cinderella, I was really heartened to see all of the kids who are probably experiencing live theater for the first time.
What I'm most excited is having them be exposed to this music. From the first three bars of the overture, you know it's gonna be a good show, with Danny Troob's orchestrations, and Laura [Osnes] and Santino [Fontana] and Harriet [Harris]. What a cast.
Speaking of Harriet Harris, did I see the two of you skip off stage together, hand-in-hand, after the curtain call?
[Laughs] We were just left there together the first night, and I was like "Harriet, we have to go off together every night!" I always like to tell a story in the curtain call …The ending is that the Fairy connects with the Step Mother… I'm always hoping that there's another piece of the story at the very end of the credits.