DIVA TALK: Chatting with Shrek's Sutton Foster Plus News of Buckley, LuPone and Minnelli

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Shrek's Sutton Foster Plus News of Buckley, LuPone and Minnelli News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Sutton Foster
Sutton Foster Photo by Joan Marcus

SUTTON FOSTER
At the rate she is going, Tony Award winner Sutton Foster may end up originating more roles in the musical theatre than such legendary Broadway figures as the late, great Mary Martin and Ethel Merman. To date the young singing actress has created leading roles in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Little Women, The Drowsy Chaperone, Young Frankenstein and, currently, Shrek The Musical. That impressive list does not include the several other Broadway outings that kicked off her stellar career: the original production of Les Misérables, the 1994 revival of Grease and the 1997 staging of Annie that featured Foster as the Star to Be, a particularly prophetic bit of casting. There really is little mystery to why the Georgia native has achieved such success: She boasts a powerful, exciting, clear-as-a-bell Broadway belt; she can play glamorous or dowdy with equal ease; and she possesses perhaps the greatest comic timing of any musical theatre actress of her generation. That comedic gift was on full display in Millie, Chaperone and Frankenstein; in fact, her delivery of "Roll in the Hay," complete with startlingly good yodeling, was one of the highlights of the latter. And, now, Foster is thankfully back on The Great White Way in one of the more eagerly awaited new musicals of the season, the aforementioned Shrek the Musical, which is based on the story and characters from William Steig's "Shrek!" and the blockbuster DreamWorks Animation film of the same name. Foster plays Princess Fiona opposite the Shrek of another Broadway favorite, Brian d'Arcy James, in the new musical, which is currently in previews at the Broadway Theatre prior to an official opening Dec. 14. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the good-humored, down-to-earth Foster, who spoke about her latest Broadway role; that brief interviews follows.

Question: How did you originally get involved with Shrek?
Foster: I've actually been a part of it for, I'd say, three years or so. I did the first reading of the first act, which was back when I was doing The Drowsy Chaperone. I'm friends with [Shrek composer] Jeanine Tesori from Millie, and [Shrek director] Jason Moore and I worked together on Les Miz on the tour because he was the resident director. I knew about the project through them, and I was like, "Oh, Princess Fiona would be so fun!" I ran into Jason on the street once. He was telling me he was working on Shrek, and he asked me if I had ever played a princess. I said, "No, but I would love to!" [Laughs.] I did all but one of the readings.

Question: Had you been a fan of the film? Had you seen it at that point?
Foster: Yeah, I had seen it and liked it a lot. To be honest, I wanted to work with Jeanine and Jason and [Shrek lyricist-librettist] David Lindsay-Abaire. That was really the draw for me — and the character. I thought the character would be fun.

Question: What was the audience reception like during Shrek's out-of-town tryout in Seattle?
Foster: It was amazing. Really receptive, very encouraging, very supportive, and also very discerning, I thought. I really was proud of the creative team. It's been an incredible experience. They really used the out-of-town experience to work on the show and make it better and better. They used that opportunity to listen to what the audience was saying and giving. The show changed quite a bit in Seattle and then changed again between Seattle and here. Every choice that they've made has always been in the right direction, knock on wood! It's just been a really amazing, inspiring [experience] — that doesn't always happen.

 

Keaton Whittaker, Sutton Foster and Marissa O'Donnell (all as Fiona) in Shrek
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Has much has changed with your character?
Foster: One of my songs from Seattle was removed from the show, and it actually serves the show much better, I think. A new finale is going in tonight that we learned two days ago. It's amazing — Jeanine and David write songs in two days. They bring it in, and we're like, "Oh, my God!"

Question: What's it like, as an actor, getting a song and having to learn it in two days?
Foster: It's a little nerve-wracking. The finale, I start singing it. You have to kind of remove all of the pressure and [think], "Alright, we're in previews. It's okay if you mess up," but you're also starting to feel the pressure of the time running out. In Seattle, at least we knew we had previews in New York — we had lots of time. And now it's like, "Oh, my gosh, we have three weeks!" All of a sudden the time is now. We can't just keep working on it. [Laughs.] So there is a bit of that pressure, but you try to let it go, because it can cripple you.

Question: I know that there were two actors who left the show after Seattle. Was that difficult for the rest of the company?
Foster: It's always incredibly difficult. It's always so hard. That stuff never gets easier when things like that happen. Daniel Breaker is so wonderful in the show and such a wonderful addition, and I love Chester Gregory so much. It's just so hard. It's always a very difficult thing.

Question: This is David Lindsay-Abaire's first time as a Broadway lyricist. What are his lyrics like?
Foster: I think David is incredibly inspired. I think his lyrics are smart, funny and touching . . . I am an obnoxious fan for both David and Jeanine. I feel like they are an incredible pair. Not only are they both inspired as artists and as composer-lyricists, but they are also incredibly inspiring to all of us because they never stop working and never stop trying to make it better. They never stop pushing themselves. So we're all like, "Okay, let's do it! Let's just make it as awesome as we can." The standard is just so high. It's all because of them and Jason, too. They truly set the bar so high and just never stop.

Question: How would you describe Princess Fiona?
Foster: She's not your typical princess. [Laughs.] She's a little bipolar, but rightfully so. She's been locked in a tower for 20 years. She's grown up, like we all have, with ideas of how the world works. She's surrounding herself with fairytales, and that's basically what she's trying to emulate. She's trying to be this perfect princess, but ultimately she is struggling with her inner ogre. She really finds herself when she meets Shrek. But it's still a bit of a struggle, because everything she's been told is that she's supposed to look a certain way and act a certain way, but everything on the inside is telling her something different. So it's fun to play a truly conflicted character and to be a princess who burps and farts and gets to do silly things. [Laughs.]

The message, of course, is that beauty is from the inside — that beautiful ain't always pretty. It's a great thing to remember everyday, whether you're an ogre or not! [Laughs.]

 

Sutton Foster in Shrek The Musical
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: What was it like when you were first starting out with the character, trying to create a human version of a character that's best known as an animation?
Foster: There are tons of fairytale creatures in the show, and there are these stereotypes of fairytale creatures [that we all have]. So, for a week during the workshop last year, we actually did a lot of [exploration about] people's perception of what it is to be a princess, what it is to be a wolf, what it is to be the three little pigs. . . . Everyone picked a fairytale, and we had "story time" everyday . . . . The three little pigs would go up, and they would read "The Three Little Pigs." We would talk about what we remembered "The Three Little Pigs" to be about, and even the misconceptions of the Witch and the Big Bad Wolf and the Pinocchio story.

There is such a fantasy, a wish, of little girls wanting to be a princess and the ideal of finding Prince Charming. I watched "Sleeping Beauty" and "Cinderella" and "Beauty and the Beast." I [thought], "This is probably what Princess Fiona did in the tower. She put in a DVD player and watched them all." [Laughs.] I'm literally trying to emulate these things, and yet even my own persona of Sutton, who fights all sorts of stereotypes — this is getting way too deep — but there are the fashion magazines and what you think you're supposed to look like. Or even being an actor, you think, "Oh, I'm supposed to look like this and this, but that doesn't feel right to me. I'll try it, but ultimately I just want to be in jeans and a t-shirt and I just want to be myself." It's that constant struggle of what you're supposed to look like. . .

It was really fascinating, especially going down the whole princess [road]… really exploring that whole thing. And now even looking out in the audience and seeing little girls dressed up with crowns on their heads. And, I love what they've done with the musical in that they've deglamorized that a bit. We show Princess Fiona literally trapped in a tower. It's like, "This isn't actually as romanticized as I imagined." She's trapped in there for 20 years going crazy! [Laughs.] . . . . It's really exciting to see all of the fairytale creatures. They're so developed with all of the back story that the [creators] have been working on. It's exciting to watch every night.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for your character?
Foster: It changes a lot. I would say right now it's "I Know It's Today," Fiona's first entrance where they show her in the tower. That's probably my favorite right now, but it always changes. It's different every week. I would say that today that's my favorite. . . . I'm also a big fan of the opening of Act 2. We just changed it, so I'm a little scared of it right now, but I think I will like it.

Shrek stars Brian d'Arcy James, Sutton Foster and Daniel Breaker
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Question: How would you say the demands of this role compare to some of your previous Broadway outings?
Foster: It's surprisingly demanding. I wouldn't say it's as demanding as Millie, but it's somewhere in between Drowsy and Millie. What makes it harder is that Fiona goes on a real journey, but that's also what makes it so exciting.

Question: Is there talk of a cast recording?
Foster: Oh, definitely. I think the score is so fantastic. I can't wait to record it. I think that's definitely going to happen.

Question: You also have your first solo album coming out.
Foster: Yes! I'm literally just putting together the song order right now! I can't seem to settle. I'm sending out all these options, like, "What about this? What about this?" But it's being released in February. It's something I've been working on for awhile, and I'm just so proud of it. I can't wait to release it. It's something I've been wanting to do for a long time.

Question: What type of music is it?
Foster: It's definitely a Broadway album. I would say it's eclectic: a little vocal jazz and one original, a new song that's written by Jeff Blumenkrantz. We unearthed some old standards that are really special that I had never heard before. Michael Rafter, who I worked with on Millie, is my music director, and he did some beautiful arrangements. I'm really excited to share it.

Question: Who are some of the other composers that are on the CD?
Foster: Maury Yeston. There's a Duke Ellington song. "Sunshine On My Shoulder" by John Denver. Frank Loesser, Christine Lavin, Craig Carnelia's "Flight." I do it as a duet with Megan McGinnis. Patty Griffin, Noel Coward… Question: Do you know the release date of the CD?
Foster: I'm actually doing a concert at Lincoln Center on Feb. 19, so it'll be that week.

Question: I know you're a big fan of Patti LuPone, and I was wondering if you've gotten to see her in Gypsy.
Foster: I have not! Isn't that horrible? I'm embarrassed. . . . I have to do it now, because I'm such a huge fan of hers. She's so lovely, and I still freak out that she knows my name and says, "Hi." Thank you for the reminder. My brain is so immersed in "Shrek Land," but that's definitely a priority on my list.

[Shrek The Musical plays the Broadway Theatre, located at Broadway and 53rd Street; for tickets call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com]

DIVA TIDBITS
Eden Espinosa, who is currently playing the green-faced, misunderstood Elphaba in the Los Angeles production of Wicked, will go it solo Monday nights beginning Dec. 15. Espinosa will perform in concert at the Upright Cabaret at Mark's Restaurant Mondays, Dec. 15, 22 and 29, 2008, and Jan. 5, 2009. Show time each night is 9 PM. Eden Espinosa — Live will feature direction by Grease!'s Billy Porter and musical direction by Espinosa's former high school show choir director, Trennie Garza. Upright Cabaret at Mark's Restaurant is located at 861 N. La Cienega Blvd. in West Hollywood, CA. For tickets, priced $15-$25, call (310) 652-5252 or visit www.uprightcabaret.com/events.

"Liza's at The Palace," a new two-CD set celebrating Liza Minnelli's upcoming return to Broadway's Palace Theatre, will arrive in stores Feb. 3, 2009, on the Hybrid Recordings label. Helmed by producer Phil Ramone, the recording will also be on sale during Minnelli's Broadway engagement, Liza's at the Palace . . .!, Dec. 3-28. The first CD (Act I) features Minnelli's signature hits, while the second disc (Act II) features a tribute to Minnelli's godmother, Kay Thompson.

Feinstein's at Loews Regency, which is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary season, will kick off the New Year with Hollywood legend Tony Martin, who returns to the club following two sold-out engagements. Martin will perform at the New York nightspot Jan. 13-17, 2009. He will be followed by jazz singer Jane Monheit, who is scheduled for Jan. 20-Feb. 7, 2009. Tony Award winner Betty Buckley will return to Feinstein's with her critically acclaimed Broadway By Request program Feb. 10-March 7, 2009. The evening, directed by Richard Jay-Alexander, will feature Seth Rudetsky at the piano. Comedian Jackie Mason will debut his new show, Not on Broadway, March 10-21, 2009. And, husband-and-wife Broadway stars Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley will offer Opposite You March 24-April 4, 2009. Feinstein's at the Regency is located at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street. For ticket reservations call (212) 339-4095 or visit feinsteinsatloewsregency.com or TicketWeb.com.

The work of a host of up-and-coming composers and lyricists as well as several established writers will be on display Dec. 12 and 13 at the Lion Theatre at Theatre Row. The 8 PM concerts, presented by kef productions, are titled Artists Rising and will boast the songs of Brad Alexander, Janet Allard, David H. Bell, Rob Broadhurst, Nathan Christensen, Julianne Wick Davis, Carmel Dean, Jeremy Desmon, Ed Dixon, Kyle Ewalt, Vadim Feichtner, Kevin Fisher, Anna K. Jacobs, Rachel Jett, Steven Lutvak, Adam Mathias, Dianne Adams McDowell, Scott Murphy, Matte O'Brien, Mac Rogers, Todd Schroeder, Niko Tsakalakos, Matt Vinson, Michael Walker, Jordana Williams and Sean Williams. Among those who will be interpreting the work of these rising artists are Tracy Bersley, Justin Brill, Kristy Cates, Alexis Fishman, Demond Green, David Gurland, Simotra Houston, Rob Maitner, Carrie Manolakos, Michael Pesce, Niko Tsakalkos, Michael-August Turley, Sally Wilfert and Cassie Wooley. The evenings will be directed by Adam Fitzgerald with music direction by Michael Pesce. Eddie Rabon will host the concerts, which feature Matt Vinson at the piano. The Lion Theatre at Theatre Row is located in Manhattan at 410 West 42nd Street. Tickets, priced $18, are available by visiting www.ticketcentral.com or by calling (212) 279-4200.

And, finally, congratulations to two-time Tony Award-winning Gypsy star Patti LuPone, whose "Patti LuPone at Les Mouches" CD — a digitally restored recording of LuPone's 1980 club act — reached #25 on this week's Billboard Heatseekers Chart. This marks the first time in LuPone's award-winning career that one of her solo recordings has charted on Billboard. For more information visit www.sh-k-boom.com or www.ghostlightrecords.com.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.