How the star of 'Kimberly Akimbo' found beauty in her voice again
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How the star of 'Kimberly Akimbo' found beauty in her voice again
Victoria Clark and Justin Cooley in “Kimberly Akimbo” at the Booth Theatre in New York, Oct. 9, 2022. When Clark was offered the starring role in the musical, she worried her singing had lost its luster. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Laura Collins-Hughes

NEW YORK, NY.- Victoria Clark’s first response was “Absolutely not.” Her voice was no longer the instrument she’d always known, so she was done with singing, done with acting, determined to funnel her energy into directing. That was the shape of her career now, and she was fine with it. There was no point in even discussing starring in a new musical.

But composer Jeanine Tesori has a gently persistent way about her. When she phoned Clark about a project she was working on with playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, she declined to take no for an answer unless Clark — a lyric soprano who won a best actress Tony Award in 2005 for “The Light in the Piazza” — at least gave the music a shot.

“People sometimes see things in us that we can’t see,” Clark told me one April afternoon in her narrow dressing room upstairs at the Booth Theater on West 45th Street in Manhattan, New York. We were talking over cups of green tea and slices of chocolate chip banana walnut bread that she had baked herself.

The Booth is where Clark began her Broadway career in the mid-1980s as a replacement understudy on the original production of “Sunday in the Park With George” and where she now does eight shows a week in the title role of the musical comedy “Kimberly Akimbo,” because she was unable to prove Tesori’s casting hunch wrong.

Of course, Clark was also there because she had decided to face down the fear that made her walk away from singing in the first place. This month, she picked up a Tony nomination — her fifth, and one of eight for the show — for her funny, poignant performance as Kimberly Levaco, a high schooler in suburban New Jersey whose fictional, rapid-aging illness has given her the body of a septuagenarian.

At 63, Clark is a little young for the part and nimbler than Kimberly — whose jeans, by the way, she had thrown on for this interview, along with a cheerful pair of “Kimberly Akimbo” socks and a T-shirt from Six Flags Great Adventure, the theme park that Kimberly longs to visit.

But Clark is old enough to know how it feels when a previously dependable body part suddenly doesn’t behave the way it always had.

“When I hit menopause,” she said, “my voice went through a lot of changes because that is what happens with most women. And women actors, performers, don’t talk about it very much because I think it’s something that fills them, fills a lot of us, with incredible terror. Like, something that we’ve depended on our whole lives, right?”

Since Clark’s early childhood in Dallas, singing has been her love. Her Bachelor of Arts from Yale University is in music. But around the time she was starring on Broadway in “Sister Act” (2011) as Mother Superior, she experienced what she called “a big vocal shift.” She could no longer simply open her mouth and know that whatever sound she commanded would come out.

She followed up that show with two more Broadway musicals, “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella” (2013) and “Gigi” (2015). She was Tony-nominated for all three. Yet she felt shadowed by uncertainty about endurance. Around 2018, she set aside a solo show she’d been making about the impact of music on her life, worried that she might run out of voice onstage.

“I had to fall in love again with myself and figure out how to love myself as I was changing,” she said. “What does it feel like to own an instrument that is also a muscle, but also your livelihood, but is also somewhat of your identity? Having to work through all of that was, is, its own very personal and emotional journey.”

By her own account, Clark has always been a perfectionist, habitually hard on herself. But it’s not that she can’t hit the high notes anymore, even if only one song in the pop-style “Kimberly Akimbo” asks her to. Talking about the requirements of Tesori’s music, Clark fired up a piano app on her phone and demonstrated, by singing, how her voice “starts to bloom at a D.”

“That’s as high as the whole score goes,” she said. “That one little note.”

Kimberly is, after all, a teenager. Lyric soprano would not be her usual sound.

TESORI, A TONY WINNER for “Fun Home” and a nominee for “Kimberly Akimbo,” has known Clark for decades. But it wasn’t until a pre-pandemic board meeting of the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, where they are both trustees, that Tesori looked across the table at Clark and realized she had found her Kimberly. She texted Lindsay-Abaire to tell him: “It’s Vicki.”

“She has the twinkle in her eye of a fourth grader who is about to play kickball,” Tesori said by phone the other day. “There’s of course an innate elegance about Vicki, but there is also something that reminds me of Joan Cusack in that way that she is goofy and funny and witty and she can throw her body around. She has an incredible comic side.”

That facet of Clark was on display in her dressing room when I asked her about an early credit, in the first national tour of “Cats.” She leaped up to do a brief soft-shoe, reenacting her audition. Then she dropped to the floor in an uncanny “Cats” crouch, her right leg fully extended, her gaze tilted upward through a curtain of blond hair. Aptly, she’d played Griddlebone, the opera cat.

Kimberly is the kind of oddball role that is Lindsay-Abaire’s authorial métier. The musical is adapted from his play of the same name, which starred his diminutive muse, Marylouise Burke, in its 2001 premiere. Both iterations require the character to seem simultaneously adolescent and elderly, in a performance sprightly enough that winsomeness prevails over melancholy, yet allows those darker tones to seep through. If a singing, dancing Kimberly opens up whole new dimensions of effervescence and intimacy, it also makes the part more complicated to cast.

Like Adam Guettel, who wrote the score of “The Light in the Piazza,” Tesori is one of the rare living composers who Clark believes truly understands the voice and writes for it. So despite her trepidation, she was tempted when, in early 2020, Tesori initially sent her some music from “Kimberly Akimbo.” Its score, in Clark’s estimation, includes “several perfect songs.”

“Everything in my blood, in my guts, I would have thrown myself down in traffic to do it,” she recalled. “But I said, ‘It’s not going to be right for me vocally.’ And she’s like, ‘Come to my office.’ She said, ‘Let’s just sing through it. It’s not an audition. I just want to hear you sing it, because I want to make sure you’re right.’ She didn’t say, ‘You’re wrong.’”

So Clark went, and Tesori put the Act I song “Anagram” down in front of her. Tesori played the music, and Clark started singing.

“It turns out, you know what?” Clark said. “My voice sounded OK, and I was kind of shocked about that.” An ambush of tears accompanied the memory, but she persevered. “When you’ve sung since you were 6, like I have, your voice is like your best friend, and I had kind of put her away for a little while. So, like, taking her out again? It was very emotional. And I had made such peace with it.”

Or maybe, she conceded, it was self-protection all along.

“I think a lot of it was just saying, I don’t want to disappoint myself,” she said. “Because stamina is the big thing. You can make a pretty sound, you can do a great show — once, two, three, four, even five times a week. We have to do it eight times a week.”

IN THE AUTUMN of 2021, when New York stages at last had opened up again after the long pandemic shutdown, “Kimberly Akimbo” made its premiere in an Atlantic Theater Company production. Tesori remembers it as a scary time because of the pervasive fear of the coronavirus; Clark remembers it as scary because she still wasn’t sure she was up to the job.

In her playbill bio, Clark made a joke about being an actual kid, and even close up in that off-Broadway house — where Kimberly’s adorable friend Seth was played by the now 19-year-old Tony nominee Justin Cooley — some audience members believed it.

Such is the teenageness of her Kimberly, whose physicality Jessica Stone, the musical’s Tony-nominated director, attributes somewhat to Clark’s “natural coltlike vibe.”

“That is not something that is studied,” Stone said. “It’s just, you know, she’s like a baby horse.”

During that run, Clark came down with assorted illnesses, including repeated sinus infections, but she found she could make those minor maladies part of her character.

“Pretty much anything works with Kim as long as you can get the words out,” Clark said, and laughed. “Because it’s a fictitious disease, right? So it could have any number of symptoms.”

Here is the other thing, though: “Part of what I was proving to myself was that, OK, you do have the stamina, actually.”

She had thought she might become one of those artists, like Beverly Sills, who simply stops singing, preferring to let people remember them the way they used to sound. Instead, she looks for inspiration from performers like Mikhail Baryshnikov, who have found ways to modify their style when age made it impossible to keep doing what they were first admired for.

On a mirror in Clark’s dressing room hangs a small sign that she takes with her to every show: “Don’t postpone joy.” That is, coincidentally, a major theme of “Kimberly Akimbo.”

But another of the show’s motifs is finding beauty in the unimpeccable — which, for Clark, has been life-changing.

“We’re all flawed,” she said. “That is the human experience. Kim is teaching me how to embrace time, and imperfection, with grace.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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