DIVA TALK: Chatting with Young Frankenstein's Sutton Foster Plus Betty Buckley at Town Hall

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Young Frankenstein's Sutton Foster Plus Betty Buckley at Town Hall News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Sutton Foster
Sutton Foster

SUTTON FOSTER
Tony Award winner Sutton Foster is enjoying a stage career unlike any other musical theatre actress of her generation. After stepping into the casts of the original production of Les Misérables (a late-in-the-run Eponine) and the 1994 revival of Grease! (a replacement Sandy), Foster created the role of A Star to Be ("NYC, Just got here this morning! . ." ) in the 1997 revival of Annie. She was featured in the ensemble of The Scarlet Pimpernel and then landed her breakthrough role, Millie Dillmount in the 2002 Tony winner for Best Musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie. That Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning performance brought Foster to the attention of theatregoers: Here was a young woman with a clear, rangy and powerful belt, who could also act and dance — and had a rare gift for comedy. Foster also received Tony nominations for her next two Broadway outings: as Jo March in the musical version of Little Women and for her work as Janet Van De Graaff, the young starlet of The Drowsy Chaperone, who plans to leave showbiz behind for the love of her life. The celebrated singing actress is now back on Broadway in what may be her most high-profile assignment, playing Inga (the role created on screen by Teri Garr) in the eagerly awaited new Susan Stroman-directed Young Frankenstein. The musical, based on the classic Mel Brooks film of the same name, is currently in previews at the Hilton Theatre and will officially open Nov. 8. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of chatting with Foster about her latest stage role.

Question: When did you originally become involved with Young Frankenstein?
Sutton Foster: About a year ago we did a reading. The first day of rehearsal was on Halloween. We walked in, and there was a pumpkin with a Frankenstein face on it. It was a week-long reading.

Question: Were you playing the same role?
Foster: I was playing Inga, yeah.

Roger Bart and Sutton Foster in Young Frankenstein
photo by Paul Kolnik

Question: Was the cast much different at that point?
Foster: At that point Brian d'Arcy James was playing Dr. Frankenstein, Kristin Chenoweth was playing the Elizabeth part, Roger Bart was playing Igor, Cloris Leachman was playing Frau Blucher. Shuler was the monster, and Fred Applegate played the blind man, but Marc Kudisch was also involved and played Inspector Kemp. That part got combined for the production now. Now, Fred plays Inspector Kemp and the blind man. So I guess it was a little different. [Laughs.] I think Shuler and I were the only ones that stayed the same. Question: Had you been a fan of the film before this — did you know Mel Brooks' work?
Foster: I think my first Mel Brooks film was "Spaceballs." I guess that was more my generation. I remember "Spaceballs" very vividly. I saw "Young Frankenstein" for the first time when I was out of town with Little Women. I think that was the first time I had seen it. We had a party for Halloween. We were down at Duke University before Little Women came to New York, and someone brought "Young Frankenstein." It was funny because there was a woman involved with the show [who] kept saying all of the lines along with the movie, and everyone was getting really annoyed. [Laughs.] But it's that kind of iconic film, where people know the lines and they say them along with you. Question: Were you involved with Young Frankenstein at that point or was that before you had been asked to be part of the show?
Foster: That was way before. I think it was just an idea at that point. I just became involved last year, I guess toward the end of the summer. My agent called and said they wanted me to be in the reading. I freaked out and ran around in circles and then sat back down and was like, "Are you serious?" I was just so honored to be asked to be a part of it.

Question: Were you in Drowsy at that point?
Foster: I was in Drowsy. It was in between shows on a Wednesday when my agent called. I was eating dinner with my dresser in the dressing room. [My agent] called and I jumped up and ran around, and my dresser's like, "What? What? What?" And I said, "I just got asked to be a part of Young Frankenstein!" It was just so cool. I couldn't believe it because it came out of nowhere.

Question: How did your character change from that workshop to the rehearsals for the Seattle out-of-town tryout?
Foster: It was pretty much the same. They had added quite a considerable amount to my first number, and they wrote another song for me. During the reading I only had one song and then a little reprise of something else. So they wrote a new song for the second act and then they really elaborated my first song.

Question: What was the new song?
Foster: The new song they wrote is called "Listen to Your Heart." It's basically "Let's forget about thinking/Thinking's never smart/Flush your brain right down the drain/ And listen to your heart." I'm basically trying to get him to have sex with me. [Laughs.] It's like, "Don't think about it! Just have sex with me!"

Sutton Foster and Roger Bart
photo by Paul Kolnik

Question: How would you describe the character of Inga?
Foster: Well, she is a Transylvanian farm girl who went to Heidelberg Junior College to study laboratory science. She's very smart, but she's very European, very free, very loving. She enjoys a good roll in the hay. She's just very joyful and a free spirit. She adores the doctor and is just there to serve him. Question: What was the Seattle tryout like? How did audiences respond?
Foster: It was amazing. . . . I've never been in a show that had so much anticipation. . . . At the first preview we stood at the end of the show, and the response was so extreme that it just negated itself. I have nothing to compare it to, so it just flipped back to zero, and I just stood there drooling with my mouth open. I didn't know how to take it all in. [Laughs.] I just felt like this is such a rare opportunity and experience to be able to be in the same room with Susan Stroman and Mel Brooks and all of these incredible people. I mean the cast — just the level of talent and professionalism and experience is just amazing. It's just so cool to be included. I had that moment, even during rehearsals, I was like, "How did I get here? How did this happen?" So much of my career [has been] things that happened just so fast, and I was just like, "What? How did this happen?" It was just amazing to be there in Seattle. You always hope that New York audiences will love it, and I'm so excited for our first preview here. There's nothing like that first preview, the first time people are seeing a show. They're discovering it, and we're discovering it, too. I will never forget that first preview in Seattle. I feel that way about all the shows I've done. The first preview of Drowsy in Los Angeles, I will never forget the first time people laughed at [the line] "I hate theatre." We were all standing backstage in the dark. And you know that first line. And we're like, "Will they laugh, will they not?" Then you're like, "Oh my God, they're laughing! They like us!" . . . You think, "Oh, this is a really cool number," and you hope that [the audience does] too, and when they do, it's so victorious, it's so exciting.

Question: How much did the show change during the Seattle run?
Foster: The main things were cuts and tightening. That happens a lot. The good thing about it was that there were no major structural changes. Sometimes you go out of town and they're like, "Oh my God. We have to completely rework the second act, we have to cut numbers and rewrite numbers." One number was cut in the first act, and that happened a week or two into previews. And then just lots of internal cuts, little line additions. Mel and Tom [Meehan] were there the whole time, and they would be like, "Try saying this…" And you go, "Okay!" Or we would come up with an idea. It was just an incredible collaboration of comedians. Everyone is so smart. We kept working throughout the whole run in Seattle, primarily cutting time and trying to tighten the show. Then when we got here, we've been in rehearsals, and it's been more tightening and tweaking. It's like giving it a little plastic surgery, trying to make it as perfect as we can [by] altering all of the little details.

Question: Is this your first time working with Susan Stroman?
Foster: Yes, first time.

Question: Tell me about her style as a director and a choreographer.
Foster: I've admired her forever. Crazy for You is probably one of my favorite shows of all time. She brings with her a level of talent and respect. She walks into a room, and she is so prepared that everybody who works with her rises to the occasion. They all rise to her level. She's working on a ten out of ten. She comes in, and I've never seen someone more prepared. Her vision and the way that she works things out in her head and then the way that they unfold in front of your eyes [is amazing]. . . . There's a number in the first act that I'm not in. I had come to rehearsal early, and they were still working on it. I was like, "Oh, I get to see the number!" So I sat down and I watched. Next thing I know I'm bawling because it was just so thrilling. She draws the best out of everyone on every level. Everyone's bringing their "A" Game. Everybody — props, sets, lighting, sound, musical department, everyone in the cast. She uses everyone's strengths. She only wants to make you feel amazing. She's so supportive. I can't say enough about her. I love her, and I admire her so much, but I also think she's unparalleled with what she can do with a musical number and what she brings out of people. It's unbelievable. I'd work with her again and again and again. I hope I get to.

Sutton Foster and the Young Frankenstein ensemble.
photo by Paul Kolnik

Question: She and Mel Brooks seem to have a really good working relationship. Was he at all the rehearsals as well?
Foster: Yeah, he was ever-present. There was a time when we would work and do choreography and staging, then he and Tom would come in at the second half of the day and watch the rehearsals. But they are so ever-present. They saw every show in Seattle. You know, you're in a room with Mel Brooks — I was really nervous at first because I'm like, "Oh, I don't want to bother him." The next thing I know he's kissing me on the cheek, we're having dinner, and I'm like, "I'm hangin' out with Mel Brooks!" [Laughs.] But he's been, of course, an integral part of the whole thing. It's exciting just to have him in the room and [hear him] shout out an idea or a line. We pitched him ideas. We're up there pitching to him, and if he laughs, you're like, "Yay!" It's just been incredible. I'm just trying not to take any moment for granted because it's such a rare, awesome experience and such an awesome time in my life. It's just been amazing. Question: Do you have a favorite moment for Inga in the show?
Foster: I really love my character. I have a lot of favorite moments. I really love working with Roger [Bart]. I think he's fantastic. We do the bookcase scene, which is iconic from the film. It's so fun to do every night. And then in the second act with "Listen to Your Heart," I get to seduce him every night. That's really fun, too. I look forward to those two moments. He's so fun to work with.

Question: Do you get any stage time with Andrea Martin? I'm a big admirer of hers as well.
Foster: She's a genius. First of all, I think the world of her, and I think she's brilliant in the show. But I also think she's a wonderful person offstage as well. We're like kindred spirits that come together and support each other. We don't have a lot of stuff one-on-one, but Roger, Chris, Andrea and I spend a lot of the show together. We're like a little foursome. We do a lot together, and that's really fun.

Question: Has there been any talk of a cast recording yet?
Foster: Oh, definitely. I just don't know when we're recording it, and I don't know who's recording it, [but] there'll definitely be a recording.

Question: There's been a lot written about the premium ticket prices for the show. I was wondering what your thoughts about that are.
Foster: What makes me sad is that I hate that that's become the negative focus about our show. It seems like anytime anything is written about the show, they're like, "Oh, the ticket prices, blah blah blah." But the whole point behind those premium seats is to combat the scalpers. I also think that what's not written about often is the fact that these are only a select small amount of seats, and that there are tons of seats available at various prices, as well as student tickets that I think are for the first two rows of the orchestra, which I think are $25. I feel like it's getting a sort of negative rap that that's all that we're offering, when that's not true. It's a tricky thing because I have nothing to do with [setting the prices of tickets]. If I wanted to go see Young Frankenstein, I'd buy a $120 ticket. For me, I'm not going to buy a $450 seat. I'm going to buy a $120 seat, [and] it'll still be a great seat. . . I hope that, as people write more and more about the show, they'll write less and less about the tickets and more about the awesomeness of the show itself.

Question: With Millie and Little Women you pretty much were carrying the show, while in Drowsy and here, it seems like it's more an ensemble piece. Do you have a preference?
Foster: When I think about the type of career that I want, I really love doing new musicals and I love being a part of creating a new musical. I love being on Broadway, I love live theatre, and I really want — hopefully, knock on everything — to have a long career here. So I feel like that includes doing everything. What appealed to me about Drowsy was the idea of being a part of something that was completely original [as well as] working with [director-choreographer] Casey Nicholaw and working with [producer] Kevin McCollum. The character was totally different. I loved the idea of being part of an ensemble because I felt like the pressures of carrying a show were starting to weigh on me. I was having a hard time balancing my life and doing a show. Then when this opportunity came, again it was like, "Oh my God, this is an offer I can't refuse." Working with Susan Stroman, working with Mel Brooks, being part of something so mammoth. And then also, again, a character that's unlike anything I've ever done. I love being able to play supporting characters. I enjoy playing leading characters, too. I don't know what I prefer. Right now, where I am in my life, I think these type of jobs are very rejuvenating and healing against the demands of carrying a show. Right now, this is perfect. And then maybe down the road, I'll be ready to take on the reins of being the leading lady of a show again. And I hope I get that opportunity.

Question: I'm sure you will. Your brother [Hunter Foster] is in the other Frankenstein musical this fall, Off-Broadway. Do you two joke about that?
Foster: Yeah, we had dinner the other night and were talking about it. We were just like, "People are going to have a field day!" [Laughs.] ...It's this crazy thing, but they're completely different projects. I'm actually really curious. We're both so curious about the other. I'm like, "Do you have a huge lightning machine?" [Laughs.] But I think that what's cool is that they're taking a very artistic, simple approach, which will be a really nice contrast to what we're doing. And again, we're a spoof comedy. They're like apples and oranges — they just happen to share Frankenstein. And, luckily, he's not playing Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein because then it would be incestuous and gross. [Laughs.] So this is working out very well.

Question: And, your husband is in Legally Blonde. Do you find it's easiest when you're both working in shows?
Foster: Right now it's hard because we're on opposite schedules, but once we're on the same schedule it is easier. It's easier than when we're out of town, but right now we're like ships passing. And then you go, "Oh my gosh, look at us. We're so lucky. We're both employed and working on Broadway in two great shows." We try not to take that for granted either because that's not always going to happen.

Question: Are you involved in any other projects at the moment?
Foster: I am, but I don't know if I can talk about it. Ask me in maybe a month and a half! [Laughs.]

Question: Have you ever thought about doing a solo album?
Foster: Yes. It's on the top of my list. It's something I've been wanting to do for a really long time, but I haven't had the time to really devote to it the way that I want. But it's something that I think I'll be working on this year.

Question: What type of music do you think you'll record?
Foster: It'll be a lot of theatre [music], but it'll be eclectic. I really enjoy folky, sort of Norah Jones, Patty Griffin, Eva Cassidy, that type of sound. So I would kind of love it to be along those lines. But there'll definitely be theatre songs. It'll be a theatre CD, I guess, as opposed to trying to break through. I'm not quite sure. I was just trying to think of what I like to listen to. It'll be very similar to the music that I've done in my two concerts.

(Young Frankenstein plays the Hilton Theatre, 42nd Street at Seventh Avenue. For tickets, call (212) 307-4100 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.)

Betty Buckley at Town Hall

BETTY BUCKLEY at Town Hall
Something is happening to Betty Buckley that is rather mystifying: She's getting better! No, she's not belting higher than she did when she was in The Mystery of Edwin Drood or Carrie, but, to borrow a few adjectives from Stephen Sondheim, her interpretations of lyrics have grown "better and stronger and deeper and nearer and simpler and freer and richer and clearer." At a time in her career when many would simply offer rote interpretations of their signature tunes, Buckley manages to find new meaning in her best-known songs, and she performs them with an emotional fragility that is entrancing. There were many high points in Buckley's Oct. 20 Town Hall concert, the second evening of Scott Siegel's acclaimed Broadway Cabaret Festival. The first was her rendition of Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Come On, Come On," which the singing actress admitted is currently her favorite song. It would be impossible not to be moved by Buckley's passionate rendition of this heartbreaker about the remembrance of the loss of a first, great love. Buckley is so present in every lyric that she seems to be reliving these experiences ("We rode in his daddy's car down the river road. . .") before the audience's eyes.

Buckley — who was backed by Clifford Carter on piano, Tony Marino on bass, Dan Rieser on drums and Billy Drewes on reeds — followed with three tunes from "Betty Buckley 1967," the wonderful, new and never-before-released CD on the Playbill Records/Sony BMG Masterworks label that was recorded by the award-winning actress at the tender age of 19. I have to admit I was a bit nervous to hear how these songs would sound 40 years later, but I needn't have been. Buckley's versions of "One Boy," "C'est Magnifique" and "They Can't Take That Away From Me" were so full of joy and vocal power they were rejuvenating; the latter, which built to stunning climax, was particularly thrilling. In fact, that segment of the evening — which began when Buckley sheepishly played a snippet of "1967" on an onstage record player — may have been the most exhilarating.

Betty Buckley at Town Hall

I'm always amazed by the multitude of layers Buckley can find in a song one has heard dozens of times: Her take on the classic James Taylor tune "Fire and Rain" was so intensely emotional one could have heard the proverbial pin drop as the entire audience was transfixed by her performance. She followed the Taylor gem with an upbeat "It Might As Well Be Spring" that preceded the Act One closer, "With One Look." I've probably watched Buckley perform that Sunset Boulevard anthem nearly two-dozen times, but I remain astounded by the vocal and emotional colors she brings to the lyric. And, her singing on the final "With one look, I'll be meeeeee" was as staggeringly powerful as ever. The second half of the evening, which began with a simple reading of "Some Enchanted Evening," also included "The Man I Used to Love," a poignant pairing of "Heart Like a Wheel" and "The Water Is Wide" and a belty rendition of "Come Rain or Come Shine" that threatened to blow the roof off the cavernous theatre.

Buckley also offered a beautiful version of the Fantasticks ballad "They Were You," another tune from "Betty Buckley 1967." Full-voiced renditions of My Fair Lady's "On the Street Where You Live" and "I Could Have Danced All Night" were followed by the touching story song "Dreamin'."

Betty Buckley at Town Hall; photos by Ben Strothmann.

Buckley concluded her generous two-act concert with Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Memory," which she first performed in the original Broadway production of Cats 25 years ago. As she transformed into the faded glamour cat Grizabella before the audience's eyes, Buckley poured out her heart and voice in a soul-stirring version of her signature tune. A good friend remarked that her interpretation was a master class in the art of song performance, although I'm not convinced her kind of brilliance can be taught. Buckley's two encores were equally memorable: a thrilling rendition of Brenda Russell's "Get Here" and a particularly moving version of Tom Waits' "Take It With Me When I Go," where Buckley seemed to become one with the lyric.

I do have one quibble with the evening — Buckley's choice of an opening number, "Angel from Montgomery." Not to say that she doesn't perform it beautifully, but the first line she utters, "I am an old woman named after my mother," is quite misleading. Okay, she may have been named after her mother, but Betty Lynn Buckley is anything but old. In fact, she is as vibrant, exciting and emotionally engaging as anyone currently performing on a concert stage.

One final thought: Isn't it time some intelligent producer brought this master storyteller back to Broadway?

DIVA TIDBITS
And more Betty! "Betty Buckley 1967" has hit the Billboard charts. The new release, which arrived in stores Oct. 16 on the Playbill Records/Sony BMG Masterworks Broadway label, has placed at #2 on the Top Heatseekers (Middle Atlantic) chart. "Betty Buckley 1967" is also #33 on the Top Heatseekers Chart and #19 on the Top Internet Albums Chart. Buckley spoke with Playbill.com about her new recording, the first of her acclaimed solo discs to chart on Billboard. "I am blown away! I cannot believe this," said the award-winning actress. "When Richard Jay-Alexander kept saying, 'We're gonna chart,' I honestly thought it was some major positive thinking, but pie in the sky. I am amazed. . . I am just along for the ride and totally shocked and so grateful. What a trip!"

DRG Records has released a CD of a solo album recorded by the late, Tony-winning performer Gwen Verdon. Entitled "The Girl I Left Home For," the recording was originally released by RCA Victor in 1956. The 12-track disc features vocals by Verdon, who is backed by Joe Reisman and His Orchestra. The CD includes a ten-page booklet with photos of Verdon in her various Broadway outings as well as new liner notes penned by Will Friedwald. Song titles include "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Sand in My Shoes," "It's a Hot Night in Alaska," "Mister and Missus Fitch," "Bettin' On a Man," "Why Can't I?," "I've Got The World On A String," "Jenny," "Find Me a Primitive Man," "No-Talent Joe," "The Lady Is a Tramp" and "Daddy." "The Girl I Left Home For" has a list price of $13.98. For more information visit www.drgrecords.com.

A high definition DVD of the Los Angeles Opera's February production of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny — co-starring Tony winners Audra McDonald and Patti LuPone and directed by John Doyle — will be released by EuroArts Music International Dec. 18. The DVD release will follow the Dec. 17 airing of the production on PBS stations around the country. The "Great Performances" telecast is scheduled for 9-11:30 PM; check local listings. For more information visit www.pbs.org.

Cabaretgoers who attend Chita Rivera's upcoming engagement at Feinstein's at Loews Regency can expect to hear songs from the Tony winner's legendary stage career. Rivera, who will play the intimate nightspot Nov. 6-24, will perform tunes from West Side Story ("America"), Sweet Charity ("Where Am I Going?" and "Big Spender"), Chicago ("All That Jazz" and "Nowadays") and The Rink ("Chief Cook and Bottle Washer"). The singer-actress-dancer will be backed by musical director Carmel Dean on piano, Michael Croiter on drums and Jim Donica on bass. Show times at Feinstein's are Tuesday-Saturday at 8:30 PM with late shows Friday and Saturday at 11 PM. All shows have a $75 cover and a $40 minimum. Feinstein's at Loews Regency is located in Manhattan at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street. For reservations call (212) 339-4095 or visit ticketweb.com or feinsteinsattheregency.com.

The fourth annual Broadway Unplugged concert — featuring Broadway stars performing without microphones — will be presented Nov. 19 at Town Hall. Created and hosted by Scott Siegel, the evening will feature tunes from the American musical theatre. Those performers currently scheduled to lend their unamplified voices to the 8 PM event include Sarah Uriarte Berry, Marc Kudisch, Aaron Lazar, Beth Leavel, Michael McElroy, Sarah Jane McMahon, William Michals, Paul Schoeffler, Emily Skinner and Martin Vidnovic. Additional stars will be announced shortly. Tickets for Broadway Unplugged, priced $25-$75, are currently on sale by calling (212) 307-4100 or by visiting www.ticketmaster.com. Town Hall is located in Manhattan at 123 West 43rd Street.

And, finally, congratulations to Barbara Cook, who celebrated her 80th birthday Oct. 25! The inimitable Cook will mark this milestone with concerts in Los Angeles, New York and London in the coming weeks. On Oct. 27 Cook will offer No One Is Alone at the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, CA. Cook will then perform with the New York Philharmonic Nov. 19 and 20; those concerts, featuring musical direction by Lee Musiker, will include songs penned by Sigmund Romberg, Harold Arlen, Kurt Weill, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Bacharach & David. The birthday celebration will culminate Dec. 2 in London with World AIDS Day Concert – Barbara Cook and Friends at the London Coliseum. Those scheduled to join the veteran performer include Elaine Paige, Julia McKenzie, Ruthie Henshall, Anne Reid, Maureen Lippman, Nicholas Parsons, Sian Phillips, Daniel Evans, Graham Bickley and Sally Anne Triplett. The evening will benefit Interact Worldwide, a UK-based international AIDS charity. For the Los Angeles concert, visit LAPhil.com or call (323) 850-2000; for the New York evenings, go to nyphil.org; for the London benefit, call 011-44-870-145-2200.

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

Betty Buckley at Town Hall surrounded by musicians (from left) Clifford Carter, Tony Marino, Billy Drewes and Dan Rieser.
Betty Buckley at Town Hall surrounded by musicians (from left) Clifford Carter, Tony Marino, Billy Drewes and Dan Rieser. Photo by Ben Strothmann