‘Kimberly Akimbo’ Tony Watch: Star Victoria Clark & Director Jessica Stone On How A Friendship Led To Broadway’s Captivating Musical
Victoria Clark and Jessica Stone met in 1996 when both were appearing on Broadway in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying – Clark had originated the revival’s role of Smitty and Stone replaced Megan Mullally as Rosemary. The friendship would prove both lasting and fruitful.
Twenty-seven years later, the two are nominated for Tony Awards, Clark for her starring performance as the title character in Kimberly Akimbo, and Stone for directing it. The musical, featuring music by Jeanine Tesori and a book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire, has been championed by critics and audiences since premiering Off Broadway two years ago, and its transfer to Broadway last October was no less the talk of New York theater.
The premise is as unlikely as it is captivating. Based on Lindsay-Abaire’s non-musical 2001 play of the same name, Kimberly Akimbo tells the story of, as the show’s official synopsis puts it, “a bright and funny Jersey teen who happens to look like a 72-year-old lady. And yet her aging condition may be the least of her problems. Forced to maneuver family secrets, borderline personalities, and possible felony charges, Kim is determined to find happiness in a world where not even time is on her side.”
At 63, Clark is one of musical theater’s most lauded performers. She won a Tony in 2005 for her role in the musical The Light in the Piazza, and her Broadway credits alone include Titanic, Cabaret, Urinetown, Sisger Act, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, The Snow Geese and Gigi.
Stone is no stranger to Broadway either: As an actor, she has appeared in Anything Goes, Butley, The Odd Couple, The Smell of the Kill, Design for Living and Grease. She’s been directing for the stage since 2010, but Kimberly Akimbo marks her Broadway debut in that capacty.
With eight Tony nominations, Kimberly Akimbo is the happy culmination of both a friendship and more than a little risk-taking. In this conversation with Deadline, Clark and Stone discuss their road to one of the most surprising and joyous musicals to hit Broadway in years.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
DEADLINE: Victoria, tell me how Kimberly came into your life. I know you had some reluctance.
VICTORIA CLARK: I did, because it was sort of like asking Tom Brady if he wanted to quarterback eight games a week for 52 weeks. I’ve been so blessed in my life and my career, and this is the biggest part I’ve ever played. So you do have to pause when someone gives you a script this good, and you see what the contract is, and what the commitment is. You have to think because you know you’re going to sacrifice a lot of other things in your life in order to do it.
And I knew I wanted to alter my lyric soprano for this part. I knew I wanted to sing it really well and beautifully, but I also knew that I couldn’t sound like an old lady. So that involved a lot of technique, and practicing, and skill. It’s not a part you can just roll out of bed and do.
DEADLINE: One of the things people are so taken by when they see this show is that your performance feels so ageless. You don’t do what so many actors who play children do, which is overplay the childishness. Maybe your voice is the key to that?
CLARK: I think it must be part of it. The voice doesn’t lie. That’s one thing I’ve learned as a voice nerd, and also a teacher of voice, and also I’m a director. When you look at someone’s face, you see the lines, the laugh-lines and the worry-lines, and you can see the map of a person’s life. I think that’s true, too, of our voices – they don’t really know how to lie. You can’t change your sound fundamentally, because then you’re lying, but in a way, you have to draw out the timbers and the elements of the voice that speak to whatever character you’re playing, and allow those to take center stage. And that’s something I’ve worked very, very hard on – what are the elements of my own speaking and singing voice that have Kim in them, and then let those lead.
DEADLINE: Jessica, you came on to Kimberly around the same time as Vicky, yes?
JESSICA STONE: I was with it for a little bit a little while before she was. David Lindsay-Abaire and I started talking about it, I believe it was 2018, and we were meeting on a play that I was directing of his in Boston, and I wanted to do right by him, because he’s a Boston boy. And so we had coffee to meet about that play, and we got on like a house on fire, and he mentioned that he was adapting his play Kimberly Akimbo into a musical, and I gasped, and thought, oh my God, that’s such a great idea, never really imagining me connected to it.
I just was so excited for him, and then they asked me to do a lab of it at Sundance, and I was unavailable that summer. I was directing something else, but then it came back around, maybe the following fall. So we’ve been at it for a while. And Vicky and I have known each other for a really long time, and we all began to talk about the possibility of Vicky doing it, and wondered if she even would, and I just remember, and I can let Vicky speak for herself, that she was feeling trepidation around whether or not it was the right thing for her. So she met with Jeanine separately, and then she and David Lindsay-Abaire and I all met together to read through stuff, and sing through stuff, and talk about it, and that was right before the pandemic.I think we just, like, bumped elbows.
CLARK: Yeah, I think we bumped elbows. It was the week before everything went into lockdown.
STONE: So that was the trajectory. Once things started opening up again, it was such a pleasure to actually begin to talk about it with Vicky in earnest, and begin to think about Kim and the world. The lucky part for anybody who’s working with Vicky is that she’s so emotionally wise, and she has so much access to many different facets of just being a human being, that the collaboration is very, very fertile, and full of imagination, and laughs, and she’s very, very brave.
DEADLINE: Did either of you have any trepidation just about the entire concept, of how to convey a teenager without actually being a teenager?
CLARK: One of the things I’ve learned directing college kids, who have to play all the characters, young and old, is that, as I always tell them, we will believe it if you believe it. And that was my mantra [with Kimberly]. I just told myself over and over again, ‘Vicky, if you believe you’re a teenager, that’s all that matters.’
And Jess would say, ‘We’ve got the first five or six minutes for them to suspend disbelief, and then we’re either in or we’re out.’
STONE: Vicky has a way of completely serving the needs, as an actor, of being the gatekeeper of the character, and being able to step outside and look at things from a longer view, which is super-helpful.
As for approaching the teenage part, I think that we’re all kind of who we were when we were five, and when we were 12, and when we were 16. Our bodies are a little saggier, but I think we all have access to that same person in those years. And so, for us, we’re saying that you are a 16-year-old that looks different on any given day. There were moments where Vicky and I would discuss, like, okay, right now it’s reading like Kim is too young, like she’s five, or now we’re in the land of, like, too sullen-teenager, so let’s find where she’s more hopeful, which can sometimes read even younger. We were constantly adjusting the dial because that’s such a funny period in life. When you’re a teenager, you’re a toddler and you’re a grownup, you know?
CLARK: That’s actually one of Jess’s great gifts, that she’s able to say, very directly but kindly, this is tonally where we need to be. This piece is incredibly tricky in terms of tone. One minute, it’s, like, knee-slappingly, roll-in-the-aisles hilarious, and then the next minute, you know, it stabs you in the guts. And so, you’ve got to ask how can one vision encompass both the hilarity, like the top of the roller coaster, and then it goes flying down to the depths.
I also want to say really quickly, for me, it wasn’t…yes, it was the fear and a little anxiety, but mostly it was the fear of being exposed, right? Like walking in front of an audience with no clothes on, that kind of raw exposure. I don’t get stage-fright. We’re not talking about that kind of fear. It’s more about, like, will people believe me, and what will it feel like if they don’t? And Jess was very much like, well, fuck them, you know? Like, do what you do and let’s find out. Let’s not worry about the what-ifs. My grandmother always said, there’s only one direction, and it’s forward, and I feel like that’s very much Jess.
STONE: It’s like, just be in this scene, right now, and play what needs to happen. Think about what needs to happen in this very moment, right now, and we’ll get to the next scene in a minute.
DEADLINE: What do you think the Tony nominations mean for the show? And what your thoughts were when you heard that the Tonys might be cancelled?
STONE:The economics right now on Broadway are still really rough, post-pandemic, and so, every bit of affection and attention that every single show on Broadway can get is helpful, and it feels great. We worked really, really hard, and it feels really nice to have people give us a pat on the back. Because it doesn’t always go that way, for a thousand reasons, some justified, some not.
CLARK: I agree. I mean, I’m just also incredibly proud of you Jess. This is your Broadway debut, and you’re just fresh out of the gate. You’re not a kid, you’ve had a full career as a professional actor, and now you, like, started over again, and now you’re an established director in your Broadway debut, you’re nominated. I mean, it just doesn’t usually happen that way, especially for women. I mean, seriously, the number of women who have directed musicals on Broadway is very small. And the number of those women who’ve been recognized is much smaller. So, this is a huge achievement for Jess, and I stand behind her as her friend and her colleague, and someone who knows how difficult it is to make a name for yourself in this business.
DEADLINE: Do either of you know what you’ll do on Tony night, in terms of what will be performed?
CLARK: It might be a secret.
STONE: It’s a secret. It’s a secret. And you know, it’s been a little bit challenging to figure out how best, not just how best to represent ourselves, but how best to represent ourselves with a musical number when we’re not able to really write [an introduction] and give context for a number. And we are a very different show from a traditional splashy Broadway musical, or what’s typically thought of as a Broadway musical. I think we’re a beautiful show, I love our show, but it’s been an interesting, fun puzzle to solve in terms of how do we put our best foot forward.
CLARK: Yeah, our show is working-class New Jersey, about folks that are kind of misfits, and everybody’s trying to make a way for themselves in the world. So we’re not a glitzy show. We’re a beautiful show. We’re a deep show. Our show’s about character, and relationships, and life.
STONE: And joy. But it’s complex, you know? It can seem misleading – you think, a show about a girl who has this fictional condition, and we’re dealing with mortality, but the things we actually are talking about and singing about are life, and how do you choose to live it.