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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles
The Broadway premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, now at the Broadway Theatre, is certainly family-friendly, but it's far from childish.
The production's ambitions are most apparent in the radically revised book by playwright Douglas Carter Beane, which gives Ella (Laura Osnes) a political spirit as she helps Prince Topher (Santino Fontana) realize he must take care of his neediest subjects. Meanwhile, new characters like a quasi-political organizer populate Cinderella's village, and even the fairy godmother makes her first appearance as a bag lady named Marie. It's only after Cinderella is kind to her that she reveals herself as a magical force of nature.
For Victoria Clark, a Tony Award-winner for The Light in the Piazza and a recent nominee for Sister Act, playing Marie means coming to terms with magic. "This part is giving me the opportunity to tap into the supernatural part of my life and the supernatural part of this world," she says. For research, she's read everything from Joseph Campbell's work on mythology to Anne Lamott's reflections on prayer, and she says those large ideas strike at Cinderella 's heart.
"There are several threads going through the show, and one of them is that all of nature and all these spiritual forces support Ella in her growth," Clark explains. "As her life improves, she takes everyone and everything with her. Animals get better. Flowers get better. Even the supernatural character, even the fairy, learns something from her. I'm trying to show that it's not just the animals, but all of nature that comes to her aid."
She continues, "And this is where [costume designer] William Ivey Long comes in. He and I discussed at length that my character's family tree is supernatural. There are humans here and there, but she's only part human. She's mostly not. Nature responds to her, and William has given me these costumes that are so extraordinary in capturing that. He showed me the renderings and said, 'I don't know how we're going to get this shape, but this is the shape.'"
The research and collaboration help Clark ground her performance in something substantial, but it's not enough to simply think, "I'm magical." Her acting craft is essential, too.
Clark stresses that she doesn't want to wink at the audience or overplay something just to make it funny. That's especially true because there are children in the crowd: "There's no more honest audience than an audience that has children in it," she says. "Children know if you're just skimming along the surface or if you're living it. And preparing for this, I studied all those epic sagas that children love: The Harry Potter series, the Star Wars series, Lord of the Rings. And those movies all have these great actors in common. Their commitment to the writing and their commitment to these characters is so intense."
The classic score also supports her open-hearted approach. (Though Beane's book is brand new, Rodgers and Hammerstien's music is intact, with two of their trunk songs added to the mix.) "You wouldn't be able to do this with a modern score, I don't think," Clark says. "There's a sincerity in the lyrics that can't be done tongue-in-cheek."
Of course, it's hard to imagine Clark ever sounding ironic or detached. "I have an old-fashioned soprano voice," she says. "And I think that in every singing voice, every speaking voice, there's the history of our lives. I'm 53. My son is leaving for college in a few months. For me, this story is all about saying goodbye. It's about having this girl touch me in a way that I didn't think was possible and then having to say goodbye. Now, would you be able to see that as an audience member? Who knows? But for me, that's what's going on personally. It doesn't matter if you see exactly what I see. As long as it evokes something familiar, then I've done my job."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Carol Rosegg