Interview: Sutton Foster



Sutton Foster
  • Sutton Foster
Bernadette Peters played with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra last night (on her birthday!), and what I'm calling Broadway Lovers Fantasy Week continues with a concert/interview with Sutton Foster at NOCCA on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 (the 7:30 p.m. show is sold out). It's part of Seth Rudetsky's Broadway at NOCCA series which in January brought Patti LuPone to the arts school (in case you missed it, she sang both parts from "A Boy Like That" from West Side Story by herself, among other things).

Broadway fans likely know Foster for originating the title role in Thoroughly Modern Millie and then reigning as The Great White Way's Permanent Leading Lady for many years after: following that Tony Award-winning turn in Millie, she starred in musical adaptations of Little Women, Young Frankenstein and Shrek, in The Drowsy Chaperone and in the revival of Anything Goes, for which she won her second Tony.

Now TV audiences know her from the ABC Family series Bunheads, in which Foster plays a Las Vegas showgirl transplanted to a small town where, after some tragic occurrences, she gets a job as a ballet school teacher. Here's some more from my interview with her that appears in this week's issue; we talked about the differences between doing theater and television, what she's watching on TV and what audiences can expect from tomorrow's show.

Will this be your first time in New Orleans?

I want to say I’ve been there three other times. It’s been a long time, though. In my early 20s I did a lot of touring shows and so I know I’ve played there at least three times with various tours coming through ... probably 15-20 years ago. This’ll be my first time back in a while.

Do you have any exciting memories from your previous visits?

Oh lord. I think (memories) probably involve late-night, Hurricane-induced trolloping around in the French Quarter. The one thing I really want do (when I come back) is go on a graveyard tour. That’s what I really want to do.

How did you get involved in this series?

Seth Rudetsky asked me if I wanted to come to New Orleans and do a concert with him and I said of course. He’s a friend, and I’m a fan of his, so it was a no-brainer.

Patti LuPone said she left the setlist mostly up to Seth. Will that be the case for you?

Totally. It’s actually kind of fun ... I work with another musical director Michael Rafter, and we travel and do concerts together, and our songlist is pretty much set. Working with Seth, one of the things I love so much about him is he’s incredibly unpredictable and spontaneous. We basically sort of pow-wowed and picked about 20 songs. I have a feeling it’s just going to be a very spontaneous evening. We’re doing two shows, and I think both shows might be completely different.

How candid are you willing to be in the interview portion? Are any topics off the table?

I’m curious as to what (Seth's) going to start throwing out. I’m pretty good about talking about anything career-wise. Once you get into your personal life … I don’t necessarily want to talk about all the loves in my life. I like to try to keep that as private as possible.

Do singing songs from shows you did every day get tiring, or are you happy to revist material that you’re really familiar with?

When you do a show and you’ve sung the same songs for over a year for every day, there could be a bit of a [makes exasperated noise]. But now having a distance from things, it’s actually fun to revist things. Especially songs you know inside and out, because you did sing them over a thousand times, or whatever. There’s some fun things I’m looking forward to singing that I might not ever sing in any other type of context. That’s what I love about doing the show with Seth, it’s an opportunity to do material that I may not do anywhere else. It’ll be a bit of a walk down memory lane. I’m excited.

You're going to be doing a master class with NOCCA students while you're here. What do you want to focus on with them?

Oh lord. I actually don’t know how it’s structured, if it’s just a Q&A or if I’m working one on one with students — I’m not sure. If I’m ever working with a young person and working on a song, it really is about interpretation of lyrics. It really comes down to basics. You can watch someone sing, and if they don’t know what they’re singing about, or what the words are, if they’re just making sounds and being loud or whatever, then you’re like "OK that’s interesting, but I feel nothing." So it really is about interpretation of lyrics, and understanding what it is they’re trying to get across. That’s what I would focus on.

You've taught before at NYU and other places. Do you like teaching? If so, what draws you to it?

I absolutely love it, and I think what draws me to it is the opportunity to work with young performers. In many ways … I’ve changed as a performer from working with young people because I’ll hear myself saying something to someone that my teachers have been trying to get me to do for years, and next thing you know I’m like “oh, I understand why they’ve been telling me to do that!” But I also love being able to support the next generation of performers, especially in musical theater. It’s incredibly rewarding.

Do you think the Broadway lanscape is different for the next generation?

I think it’s still a very tricky business to get into. I think you do have to work hard, I think you have to never stop working, I think you have to be incredibly creative. The things that are changing are that there are a lot more self-created projects. I look at some of the web series people from college are creating with their friends and I’m like, yes, that’s what’s different. The internet has changed thigns — when I was first starting out I didn’t have that, I didn’t have that connection. I lived outside Detroit, and now people who live in Detroit are intimately connected with what’s going on in Broadway. There’s websites, there’s videos, they can know the performers, they can watch things on YouTube. If I had that growing up, oh my God, that would have changed …. Who knows what I would have done. I probably would have been posting videos of myself singing all the time because I was obnoxious that way. I feel like that, in itself, has made the world kind of shrink. It’s connected like-minded people all over the world in a way that wasn’t when I was starting out. I do think it’s a very difficult business to break into, and you have to be really creative. You have to think outside the box. You can’t sit and wait for the phone to ring; it just doesn’t work that way. You have to get in line, go to open calls, talk to people and work hard and never stop learning.

At the Patti Lupone concert, she talked about how doing a TV series can often be more difficult than doing a Broadway show, because you're constantly getting new material and have to turn it around quickly. Has that been your experience doing Bunheads?

It’s just different. It's a total different pace. With Bunheads, I’ve never experienced such exhaustion and brain melt because it’s just learning new material and you’re right, there’s no rehearsal time. You’ll get pages the night before or the day of and you have to produce a scene that day. But there is something freeing about that because you have to just sort of leap. You can’t get in your own way, you can’t be like “I’m scared, I don’t want to do it" because there’s no time — you just have to do it. There’s something kind of freeing about that, but it’s interesting. There are pluses and minuses to both, and I love both equally, and I hope to be able to have opportunities where I can do more Broadway, do more television, film — I would love to be able to have a variety of experiences. … Primarily it’s the pace (of television). The pace is totally different.

Do you find yourself having to make adjustments to you performance style to more conform to the style of television?

I think there’s the obvious, which is that you’re playing to a 2,000-seat house (on stage). It’s just more intimate. Luckily, though, in the show that I’m doing, Amy Sherman-Palladino, who wrote and created Bunheads, she creates a very theatrical world. I feel like I don’t have to completely pare to down to this incredibly small, intimate performance. The character’s a bit theatrical, sort of goofy and out there, and all of that is sort of OK in that world. It’s all ultimately the same thing. You’re just trying to create characters, trying to tell a story, and it’s a matter of … you wear a lot less make-up and you don’t have to wear giant false eyelashes and big red lips and wigs and lots of sequins. Things are just dialed down, they’re a little more simpler. The adjustment isn’t major, it’s just a more realistic reality, not so much a heightened reality.

You're very adept at physical comedy. Do you have any training in improv?

I don’t. It slightly terrifies me, but I would love to — I don’t even know if I would love to because it would terrify me. But maybe that would be a good reason to do it, to take an improv course, do like Upright Citizens Brigade or something. But I don’t have any formal training in improv, no.

Where does the comedic aspect of your performance style come from? Your influences growing up?

I guess. I don’t know. Even growing up, I was obsessed with The Muppet Show. I was obsessed with Carol Burnett. There were things I found so funny. Or Donald O’Connor in Singin' in the Rain. There’s this sense of goofy freedom, and I can’t really put my finger on how it evolved. A lot of it is because I performed so much doing eight shows a week and working with an audience every night and just learning how to fine-tune a joke, or having that opportunity to sort of play around with how to land a joke. That’s how a lot of just kind of fell into place, because I had an audience for 10 years of my life.

Now that you're on TV you probably have to see yourself perform a lot more. How is it watching yourself? Do you watch the show?

I do watch the show, because I still feel like I’m learning so much. ... I sort of watch and see what’s successful and what isn’t in my mind, and what can be improved upon … and a lot of it, especially with camera work, is realizing when things read and when they don’t read. I sort of scrutinize some of the details, just because I feel like I’m still very much in the learning process of what it is to be on camera.

I guess with an audience you know right away what’s working.

Yeah! You have no clue with TV. And a lot of it’s left up to the editing and the way the show’s put together. A scene that I think I totally bombed, they can put something together in editing ... or they can capture moments just with a glance, or with a music cue. It’s just amazing what can be done. It’s a really incredible process. I like watching to see how it all comes together.

Based on your Twitter account you seem to be a fan of TV. What are you watching right now?

I’m obsessed with Scandal, because it’s crazy and I love it. I’m like "what?!" every time. It’s insane. I just started watching American Idol, which I watch almost every season ... I just finished Downton Abbey which freaked me out. Girls is so good. I still watch Grey's Anatomy; I watched it from the beginning, I love it. Started watching The Americans which I really like. Those are probably my top shows right now.

What are you working on at the moment?

We wrapped Bunheads two weeks ago, and I'm doing primarily a lot of concert work right now. Got some concerts coming up in L.A., New Orleans ... I'm bouncing around and doing some other little projects here in L.A., keeping busy. It’s all very good.

Is there anything you haven’t done that you want to do, or anything else on the horizon?

I would love to do more film work. That would be amazing. I would love it. I guess I just want to keep challenging myself creatively and pick projects that are exciting no matter what genre or what field it’s in. I don’t even know at this point, just want to keep moving forward.

Finally, if you could pick any of your Broadway roles to revisit in a concert setting or elsewhere, what would you pick?

I would love to revist Millie I think, because I was so young and green when I did it ... it would be fun to do it again. It was so long ago, 11 years ago, so I think that would be a really fun one to try again.

(this next clip doesn't include Foster — it's just a delightful scene from Bunheads)

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