PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Hunter Foster

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Hunter Foster Just a few months ago, when word came that someone named Hunter Foster, 32, would be starring in a Broadway musical, it was easy to ask the question, "Who is Hunter Foster?" But now that Urinetown is becoming a bona fide hit at the Henry Miller Theatre, the question has become "Who isn't Hunter Foster?", since the University of Michigan graduate has also turned librettist, with The Summer of `42 receiving a commercial production at Off-Broadway's Variety Arts Theatre in late fall. Actually, the 32 year old is no tyro to the stage, having toured in Martin Guerre and Cats and appeared in Footloose and Les Miserables on Broadway. Still, playing Bobby Strong, the idealistic hero of Urinetown, eight times a week while readying a major New York production of his very first musical book is a tall order.
Michael Ball and Emma Williams in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Michael Ball and Emma Williams in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Just a few months ago, when word came that someone named Hunter Foster, 32, would be starring in a Broadway musical, it was easy to ask the question, "Who is Hunter Foster?" But now that Urinetown is becoming a bona fide hit at the Henry Miller Theatre, the question has become "Who isn't Hunter Foster?", since the University of Michigan graduate has also turned librettist, with The Summer of `42 receiving a commercial production at Off-Broadway's Variety Arts Theatre in late fall. Actually, the 32 year old is no tyro to the stage, having toured in Martin Guerre and Cats and appeared in Footloose and Les Miserables on Broadway. Still, playing Bobby Strong, the idealistic hero of Urinetown, eight times a week while readying a major New York production of his very first musical book is a tall order.

PBOL: So, how are you managing. Are you on speed?
HUNTER FOSTER: No, it's really not unlike the process you go through doing one show normally. When we did Urinetown, we rehearsed during the day and did a show at night, which was pretty difficult. Now I'm kind of used to it, though I haven't been able to relax since we opened. It's exciting to do both things, which gives you the adrenaline to do both. That's what keeps you going.

PBOL: People who saw Urinetown at the Fringe Festival and then downtown generally loved it, but figured it had zero commercial potential, owing to the title and subject matter. Did you have any clue Urinetown would have such a real shot at Broadway success?
HF: The topic made it seem like kind of a downtown show, very artsy and cultural against the commercial backdrop of what Broadway is. But the producers, creators, director and designers took it and made it into a Broadway show. The scope of it looks like a Broadway show. So we were kind of skeptical, but people were telling us it could definitely be on Broadway and that this is kind of something special.

PBOL: Will you stay with Urinetown or do you need to take a Summer vacation? HF: I will take some time off, but it'll be spotty — days here and there (opening night, first previews), and I'll check in Wednesday matinees. I'm gonna try to juggle both.

PBOL: And in your spare time (ha ha), do you have other projects in the works?
HF: David Kirshenbaum, my collaborator on Summer of `42, and I are trying to musically adapt a movie called "Fearless" that starred Jeff Bridges. That's our next project. And I'm possibly working with another composer on a show about a fabled crime gang. PBOL: How did Summer of `42 come about for you?
HF: It was my idea to do in the first place. I always wanted to write my own musical, and the first time out I figured it was best to adapt something from a popular movie and something I could relate to a lot. The Goodspeed production two summers ago got things into high gear. We got extended up there and broke box office records. It surprised us how quickly it took off. Our initial scope was for Broadway, but at the time there were nine Broadway shows coming in this season, from Dance of the Vampires to Assassins. Since then, many have dropped out, but we'd still be competing against Mamma Mia!, Urinetown, etc. We wanted to be on a playing field where we wouldn't get lost. And it was the lesson of Urinetown: starting small is not necessarily a bad idea. For awhile we teetered between being a large Off-Broadway or a small Broadway show. Who knows? If the show catches on and warrants a move, then that will happen.

PBOL: Was there a "lightbulb moment" that told you you were on the right track with this project?
HF: When we did a workshop at my Alma Mater in Ann Arbor. I saw how what my collaborator and I had written was actually affecting people. It's different from an actor making people laugh; it's deeper when it's something you created and put out there. I think that's when I thought, "Okay, this is going to work."

PBOL: Do you have a favorite moment in the show?
HF: For now it's "Promise of the Morning" [a ballad for the lead actress]. Because of what happened in our country since Sept. 11, that song has become a message of hope. Even though bad things are happening, there's still another day, and the sun will still rise the next morning.

PBOL: Do you recall your first experiences with live theatre?
HF: The first professional show I ever saw was Cats, which makes only so much of an impression on you. The first musical that really made me wanna be on Broadway was Les Miz. I saw it back in 1988 or `89. It made me go, "This is what I want to do! I wanna move to New York."

PBOL: Did you get any helpful advice when you were first starting out in the business?
HF: When I first came to the city, someone told me: "No matter how good you are, not everyone's gonna like you." That really hit me. As actors, and humans, we want everyone to like us. But this says, "so maybe I don't have to worry so much if so-and-so doesn't like me so much, or what I've written. That's just the way the world is." That was a big lesson. If I didn't get a job, it didn't mean those people don't like me. It doesn't mean I'm not good. If I ever feel down about what I'm doing I remember it's just one person's opinion.

PBOL: Well, at least one other person in the biz thinks you're pretty special. You're married to an actress, Jennifer Cody, who's also in the Urinetown cast. What's that like?
HF: It's okay. It's strange being married to someone in theatre. You spend nine months away from someone, then nine months working with them day after day. She's in Urinetown (she came into the company after I was already in it) and she's been helping with Summer of `42, too. We know we have to cherish these moments, because there'll be times when we're separated. I think there'll come a time when it all evens out.

PBOL: Any memorably unusual or funny onstage moments that also come to mind?
HF: I was doing the Grease! revival. My wife and I have a dog, Zack, and we got to bring him to the theatre a lot. I was understudying Danny Zucco, and I had my door in the first-floor dressing room open. In the opening scene, Zack got out of the room and ran across the stage. He then froze and looked around, looking like, "I'm not where I'm supposed to be." Then someone picked him up and lifted him out. The audience applauded and thought he was part of the show.

— By David Lefkowitz