Merideth Kaye Clark is starring in Portland Center Stage’s production of “The Last 5 Years,” which is running through June 22nd. She is a singing actress who is known as the cover for the role Elphaba in “Wicked” and sang that role over 150 times. I talked with her last week about her career and her work in the show. Here is part of our conversation.
It is really strange to consider that your character in “The Last 5 Years” has to psychologically go backwards in time. Do you see that as a progression or regression?
Clark: I’m starting to not intellectualize it so much. It’s becoming more of a feeling. Now that I’m doing the whole piece every night, it doesn’t help to go through the whole process for every song: this is what happened before, this is what happened before, this is what happened before... Instead the feelings and actions that I’m playing start out angry and twisted and become simpler. So it’s about simplifying the performance.
At the top of the show, I have to think what just happened. What emotional state am I in. I do that just before I walk in.
It sounds, from your speaking voice and your laugh that you have a large singing range. Is it a Barbara Streisand range?
Clark: I don’t know. I’ve been training for a long time, and I like to think that I have a large range.
But you don’t have the stage fright that she has?
Clark: I do. I really struggle with it. I still get nervous. Sometimes I start to psych myself out. I thought that with experience, the problems with nerves would go away and that things would get easier, but it just gets worse.
Clark: Because you see all of the possibilities of how things could go wrong.
From a critic’s perspective, it’s always interesting when something goes wrong, because I’m eager to see how the actor responds to the problem.
Clark: Then it becomes less of a performance and more about life. The audience gets to watch people be humans rather than performers. Performers have a lot of charisma and humor, and in those moments, they get a chance to shine.
I’ve had crazy things happen in performance. One time, a fire alarm went off. Not only did it go off, but the entire auditorium was evacuated… while I was still singing. Then finally I got cut off by the conductor and asked to go outside. We had a twenty minute intermission and had to come back in!
Where did that happen?
Clark: Appleton, Wisconsin. Yep!
But in this show [knocks on wood table], nothing has happened yet.
I noticed from one of the preview photos that, you have stand on a table and sing.
Clark: I put a break put on the table to make sure that it won’t move. So I feel safe.
You have classical training as a singer. What made you decide to go with musicals?
Clark: It was based on the opportunities that I had. When I was in college, I was studying science, but I had a voice teacher and I sang standard classical repertoire in Italian, French, and German. But my performance opportunities came in musical theater, because there wasn’t a big opera program, and I wasn’t seeking that area professionally. At my college, Emory University, there was a group of student producers. We had so much fun! We’d spend an entire semester on one show. Those students became my friends, and that was the world that I fell into. Then when I went to New York, between my junior and senior year, I did a very specific musical theater program at NYU. After graduating, I went to grad school at San Diego State. By then, I had decided to work in theater and musicals.
When I was a kid, my dad used to run the New York City Marathon. So the whole family would go every year, and we would see Broadway musicals. That really planted the seed in my head.
You were part of the national “Wicked” tour. How many of those tours did you do?
Clark: I just did one tour, but I was on it continuously for three years. It actually started in 2003 and is still going. I hopped on for a three-year chunk.
Was that a year-to-year contract?
Clark: My contract was renewed every six months. About five months into a contract, they would ask me if I’d be interested in another six months, but there was no guarantee that you would get that offer. There’s not much consistency in this profession.
But that doesn’t worry you?
Clark: Of course it does! [Laughs!] I think about it all the time.
So you time in Portland will come to an end after this show?
Clark: I lived and worked in New York for ten years, but I moved to Portland a year and a half ago. I’m working from a regional perspective with my base in Portland. I’m recreating myself in a smaller market. It was a little slow at first, but after I got my first gig, I’ve hopped from show to show to show over the last year without any time off.
How long have you been working on “The Last 5 Years?”
Clark: Since April 2nd.
Had you seen it before?
Clark: No, I’ve never seen it. But in 2001 when the cast album came out, I noticed that people were bootlegging it and passing it around. Everyone was saying “Listen to this show!” I was in grad school at the time and listened to the album and loved it. I picked a few of the songs to put in my audition book. So I’ve come to the production through the music on the album. When you listen to the album from beginning to end you understand the time concept that the musical uses. Now it’s a real treat to actually do this show!
So for “The Last 5 Years,” do you sing with a pit band?
Clark: No, but we have Eric Little on the grand piano,which is great! And we are not wearing microphones. That is such a treat! There are some area mics for balance between the piano and the voice. We just get to fill the space with our sound, which is great!
We have to do eight shows a week. So, how I’m singing is constantly on my mind. I have to know how much to put out. Is the sound healthy and a repeatable action? I have to find that. The style of the show uses pop singing; so you have to be mindful of how you are using your choices. We have 60 performances over two months and there times when we do two shows in a day. Rick Lewis and the sound department have been amazing in how they are supporting us with the area mics. The sound in studio space is really live and terrific.
Is there an intermission?
Clark: No. Is just goes straight through for an hour and twenty three minutes. There’s very little talking, it’s almost all singing, just like opera.
So people might want to read the program beforehand.
Clark: It will be interesting to know if those who don’t read the program will understand the gimmick of how the story is told or if they are scratching their heads and wondering what is going on. Since there’s no intermission, won’t be any time for them to ask their neighbor. The show has visual cues and certain conventions that will help to indicate what’s happening.
Then after this show you are going to take a vacation?
Clark: Yes. A few weeks at least, and I’m going to work on “Girl Robot” a little bit. Plus I’ve written a ton of songs over the last few years, and I haven’t released an album since 2010. So it’s time to do another recording and release a new album.
I'd like take the “Robot Girl” concept and turn it into a show. Mostly the songs are exercises in writing in different styles and writing for a character, because I write music. One of the videos has a hundred thousand hits. It’s not viral [laughs!] …
But it’s pretty close to viral! Maybe somebody will do a Boy Robot.
Clark: Then the Boy Robot will start backwards. He’ll start at the end and the Girl Robot will start at the beginning, and they will meet in the middle [laughs!] on stage at their wedding!