Read my interview with the delicious Sutton Foster in GAY CITY NEWS here
AND HERE’S MORE WITH SUTTON BELOW. She’s as refreshingly warm and down-to-earth, eating a scumptiously built salad out of a cardboard container, as any fan could hope. To describe her physically, I need to steal what Cecil Beaton once said about Norma Shearer: “Her face is so clean one could off it.”
NOHWAY: You are appearing the Encores! series’ revival of Stephen Sondheim’s ANYONE CAN WHISTLE. Tell me about your part in this famously nutty show.
SUTTON FOSTER: I was familiar with the music but not the story at all. I’m so naïve about musical theater – I should know more about it than I do. When I found out they were doing it I got so excited. Casey Nicholaw was directing it and I saw him and said, “I hear you’re doing ANYONE. I’d love to do it in any capacity.” Because I’ve never done a Sondheim show.
I play Fay Apple. She represents science and order and control in this corrupt town with a corrupt mayoress, Cora Hoover Hooper, played by Donna Murphy, who basically fakes a miracle in this town to save it and bring hope to the people. It’s sort of a battle between religion, faith and science. And so they’re faking this miracle and my character comes in and says you can’t do this. It’s a crazy story. Basically, my character desperately wants to believe in something and learn how to love. It’s human nature –we all try to control everything and as we grow older and the more hurt we get, we just build up more walls. And Fay represents someone who’s so blocked but desperately wants to learn how to feel and that’s what “Anyone Can Whistle,” the song, is really about. The hardest things are simple. Fay can climb mountains and do all these things, but the simplest things, like whistling, she can’t even do and no one can teach you how. It’s an inherent natural thing. It’s a crazy circus of a story but it’s got big themes about human nature and goes to the core of what human beings are, our wants and desires. It could be cartoonish – it’s a fascinating crazy atmosphere with ballets -and yet there’s a real struggle in the story, so we’ll see…
NOHWAY: And you get to sing that lovely title song [which Sondheim himself chose as the climax to his review SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM].
FOSTER: I get to sing that song and the score is extraordinary. To work on that music and have Sondheim be in the room – I don’t have the vocabulary to express it, it’s so amazing. We just started working on it on Monday. Encores! is insane: our first runthrough is Friday so we’re just throwing it up there. It’s my first Encores!
I know Raul [Esparza] but we’ve never done a show before. We know each other through the industry and did a reading in January. It was an adaptation of LEAP OF FAITH written by Alan Menken and he’s just extraordinary to work with. I’ve never worked with Donna [Murphy] and have always admired her. I just kind of wanna go and watch their rehearsals, how they work. I can learn so much from both of them.
NOHWAY: This is a revival, of course, but, you know, you are the absolute queen of original musicals. How many have you done?
FOSTER: I’ve done five new musicals in a row. I’m tired, but it was amazing and I think I can look back and think wow, that was really cool. I did all that but now I’m really excited to be taking a little time off, although I’m doing rehearsals and concert work, and am going to be at the Carlyle in June.
NOHWAY: I just caught Leslie Uggams there and she was a total phenomenon.
FOSTER: We did [THOROUGHLY MODERN] MILLE together. She lives in my neighborhood so we each other all the time. I love her and think she’s incredible and she’s an extraordinary person.
NOHWAY: You were plucked from the chorus – an unknown – to play the lead in MILLIE. A non-name in a Broadway lead never happens these days – Kate Baldwin in FINIAN’S RAINBOW is a rare example – and now you’re like this veteran queen of Broadway!
FOSTER: It’s weird. I still feel like I’m finding my legs. I don’t know – I feel so lucky to have had that opportunity in MILLIE. People took a risk on me and you’re right, it’s not happening as much and that’s exactly what happened to Kate. She’s a friend of mine and had been making a name for herself all over, regionally, and I’m just so happy that they went ok, now it’s your time, and she came and made a splash. It could not be more deserving or happen to a better person. But it’s tough now with the economy and people are more afraid and feel they need a TV or movie person.
NOHWAY: Like – shudder – BYE, BYE BIRDIE.
FOSTER: I know.
NOHWAY: But John Stamos? Gina Gershon? They’re not even names! That’s what makes me crazy, just because they made some indie movie or a TV show twenty years ago. I really don;t care what you;ve done, but at leas have the real chops to do it…
FOSTER: I know, trust me, I know.
NOHWAY: So, tell me, what was the MILLIE experience like for you. That must have been a whirlwind, right out of 42ND STREET.
FOSTER: I can look back on it now and have a concept of it, but, while it happened, I was trying to survive and not completely implode. It was a whirlwind – like all these shows I’ve worked on until the last one. My life feels like it has passed me by, which is part of the reason why I’m consciously taking a step back because everything was going at this fast pace. I wasn’t allowing it to soak in the way I wanted it to.
My whole career changed with MILLIE and it’s interesting because even doing something like this Encores! and working with Raul and Donna, all of a sudden, I feel like I’ve graduated from the kids’ table to the adult table. You know what I mean – it’s like this weird thing.
NOHWAY: But you have the Tony, honey!
FOSTER: I know, I know. I should just bring that with me everywhere.
NOHWAY: Yeah, put that down right in front of Raul.
FOSTER: I know, right? [laughs] But I feel like I have so much to learn and grow.
NOHWAY: In the case of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and SHREK, both shows got critically drubbed. What was that like after all you invested in them?
FOSTER: It was interesting. I had been a part of SHREK for three years and was much more personally attached to it. Not that I wasn’t with YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, but it just had more years for me. There was so much anticipation for YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, all that hype. It felt like a big let-down. We were so disappointed that it didn’t take off the way we all hoped.
As for SHREK, I just wished it had been more welcomed. I think both shows were two gi-normous spectacular shows back to back, so complex. Ohmigod! that was intense. But I always wish people had liked them better and they ran longer. But I had great experiences on both shows. SHREK was the one I really wished had had a longer life and it will on the road.
NOHWAY: It is an audience show.
FOSTER: yes, the audiences loved it and that’s really all that mattered.
NOHWAY: What was Mel Brooks like?
FOSTER: He was part of the whole procress. It was incredible to be in a room with him or sit in a bar with him after a show and talk and have him tell jokes and give you a kiss on the cheek and call me for my birthday. Just a wonderful man and funny and charming and witty – everything you’d expect and more.
NOHWAY: LITTLE WOMEN was interesting to me, because I was one of those weird little boys who read it when I was eight and just became obsessed with it.
FOSTER: I have another guy friend of mine who loved it, too. When I do concerts, at the stage door so many people say it’s their favorite show I’ve done. I think that’s so interesting because it was such a beautiful story and beautiful production and it has such a life in colleges and high school. Everywhere I turn, someone’s doing that or MILLIE.
NOHWAY: How did you see the character of Jo March?
FOSTER: How did I see Jo? I saw myself in her – determined, she was completely out of the box, wanting desperately to blaze a new trail for women at that time, to be a writer. With every character I come in contact with I try to see myself, or relate to them in some way. Both Millie and Jo were young women but Millie was different because what she wanted was to marry well. Her means was to find a man, which is not me. I probably relate more to Jo because she never wanted a man. She wanted to make a name for herself, be successful as a writer and be respected. I felt that like growing up, that determination and drive and also the love she had for her family and sisters, the glue of that family. Probably out of all the characters, I’ve played, I’m probably closest to her, and after that, maybe Joanna in SHREK. These strong women who are determined are always interesting. They don’t want to be married which is fascinating in those time periods when the only way a woman could find happiness was through a man or being married. Jo had her sisters, so there’s something comforting in that. I don’t have sisters, but I have a brother [actor Hunter Foster].
NOHWAY: Were you both crazy little theater kids?
FOSTER: We did it because it was fun. I can’t believe that both of us are successful and working. I’m going to see his show, MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET on Sunday, so I’m excited about that. But growing up, we did it because it was fun and a place where we fit in. Theater attracts little misfits and we found a place, our niche. I loved it and always thought I was meant to do it but the fact that I’m now making a career of it was not what I thought was going to happen going into it. I just did it because it was fun and then it kind of kept going.
NOHWAY: What did you want to be?
FOTSER: I wanted to be a bank teller. I liked the window, the little key thing. That was cool and I wanted to be in the drive-through, which they don’t have it anymore in Georgia. Then I wanted to be an astronaut. After the Challenger exploded, I thought no one else is gonna want to do it. Everyone will be too scared, so I’ll do it. I also wanted to be a teacher and would play teacher by myself, create costumes and tests.
I actually just started this semester at NYU as part of their faculty for their brand new theater school, called The New Studio. I’m on the advisory board and part of their new faculty. I have a class I’m teaching now and doing more next semester. I’m also adjunct professor at Ball State in Muncie, Indiana. That’s something else that’s happening now that’s bringing me amazing joy and fulfilling me.
NOHWAY: Do you get a college degree?
FOSTER: I did not, isn’t that fabulous? I had one year at Carnegie Mellon and I quit, basically. I don’t have the credentials, the diploma, but I have the life experience, so it’s cool. I can give them literally what I’m actually doing. Hopefully, I will be able to weave it all together. My goal is to be a working actor in NY and be a teacher and share what I know. It’s great and a great addition to my life.
NOHWAY: And I’ve got to ask you about what has become such a favorite show of mine, DROWSY CHAPERONE. It’s that rare musical with a really brilliant book, like the film of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN.
FOSTER: It’s such a love letter to us theater geeks. [Director] Casey Nicholaw is a friend of mine and after LITTLE WOMEN, I’d asked him what he was working on and he said, “Actually this weird show called THE DROWSY CHAPERONE. There’s a part for you in it. I want you to it. I said OK and remember when I read it, I laughed out loud. Sometimes I’ll get a script and be like “Oh God,” but this I read from top to bottom, laughing out loud. The spit take! I have to be in a show that has a spit take! There was something about the sensibility of the show, the humor. And Casey is so wonderful because he using a lot of the same people from DROWSY, especially on the creative team, like [costumer] Gregg Barnes, and also the cast, in ANYONE CAN WHISTLE.
It was a perfect cast and everyone was this group of veterans. I loved being a part of it because it was so unexpected. People sat down thinking I don’t know what this is and they went on the journey with us. I’ll never forget our first preview. We were like, we hope this is funny, we hope this is cool. Bob Martin started his first monologue and we all were backstage in the dark, listening, and we went, “Ohmigod, ohmigod, ohmigod, they’re laughing. They like it!” And then we all made our entrances and did our stupid thing and to be a part of audiences discovering it for the first time, I’ll never forget that moment. Ohmigod, this is something special. And now we’ve all gone off and done different things but we all come back and we’re like DROWSY – nothing will be able to top that experience. It was just such a cool show and everybody in it was so amazing from top to bottom.
NOHWAY: It kind of reminded me of what happened with Kristin Chenoweth after WICKED, your role was such a fun, campy glamorous diva role that it solidified you, career-wise.
FOSTER: Yeah, I’m not going anywhere!
NOHWAY: You just dazzle ’em with virtuosity.
FOSTER: There aren’t many roles that are just fun like that. I had to do some carzy stuff and it was so fun to be able to do it!
NOHWAY: Any roles that you dream of doing?
FOSTER: Well, hopefully, we’ll see. I have some irons in the fire, stuff coming up. I would love to play Mama Rose some day. I will have to wait a while. I almost had the opportunity to do it my senior year in high school. They almost did GYPSY, but I think it was all for the best. Nothing like seeing a seventeen-year-old as Mama Rose!