Composer Tesori should consider herself forewarned (and very fortunate): Whatever she wants, Foster will do.
The composer and musical arranger, whose credits include Thoroughly Modern Millie, Caroline, or Change and Shrek, is currently serving as artistic director of Encores! Off-Center, which presents Off-Broadway musicals in concert. The aforementioned Violet features music by Tesori and libretto by Brian Crawley. The show played Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 1997, winning the Drama Critics' Circle Award and Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical.
The City Center production will star two-time Tony Award winner and TV star Foster, whose collaboration with Tesori began in 2002 when Tesori adapted the movie "Thoroughly Modern Millie" for the stage. Foster was cast in the title role and won her first Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.
"My career changed when I began working with her on Millie," Foster said of Tesori. "I think she's a genius; I will follow her everywhere. I think she's extraordinary. As a composer, as a musician, and as a person — I just admire her so much. Whenever she calls and says anything, I say yes. I will put down anything I'm doing to follow her wherever she goes."
Foster will play the title role in Violet, Tesori's first musical, which tells the story of a young woman who, disfigured as a child, travels from North Carolina to Oklahoma to seek the help of a televangelist. Based on Doris Betts' short story "The Ugliest Pilgrim," the musical follows Violet's physical and emotional journey. The concert will also feature Tony Award nominee Joshua Henry, Van Hughes, Austin Lesch, Anastacia McCleskey, Tony Award nominee Keala Settle, Tony Award nominee Christopher Sieber, Emerson Steele, Chris Sullivan, Rema Webb and Paul Whitty, as well as the Songs of Solomon gospel choir.
Foster cites the cast recording of Violet as one of her favorite albums, but she has never seen the musical performed, despite having recorded one of the songs, "On My Way," on her solo album "Wish."
"It became that show that was so beloved," she said. "I'm obsessed with the music. I never in a million years thought I would be able to play her [Violet]. I'm thrilled."
One aspect of Violet's story that spoke to Foster was the theme of physical beauty and the struggles Violet faced due to her disfigurement.
"She stayed at home, she's never ventured out, she's never had love, and she thinks she can't have any of these things until she's 'healed,'" Foster said of her character. "She begins a journey to be healed and thinks once she looks like a movie star, then happiness will come. Unfortunately, that's what I think a lot of our society goes through."
Foster, who described herself as having been a "lanky, geeky teenager," joined the touring cast of The Will Rogers Follies when she was 17 and experienced a culture shock when playing the role of a showgirl onstage.
"I was 17 years old in these scantily clad clothes, parading around onstage, and whenever we went anywhere, we were ogled and looked at," Foster said. "It was the first time that had ever happened in my life. I wasn't used to it."
Following the tour, Foster rebelled against the cultural standards of beauty by cutting off all of her hair, saying she was tired of being looked at.
"I wanted people to like me for who I was on the inside, as opposed to what I looked like," she said. "It was sort of an interesting journey that I went through personally, and it's interesting the journey that Violet goes through because she really does believe that matters. Of course, in the context of the show that changes. It's an interesting battle and balance that we all sort of struggle with, inner beauty and inner confidence and inner self-esteem, because unfortunately we live in a cruel world."
Along with beauty, and societal standards of beauty, some of the other themes Violet addresses are religion and faith, family, and letting go of traumas. "There are a lot of things to get you thinking," Foster said of the show. One aspect of Violet that got Foster thinking was the show's setting, which is in the South. Foster, who is from North Carolina, said the idea of Southern morality is a new aspect for her to face in a role.
"There's a whole other layer of that!" she said. "This will be fun to delve into as well."
It also gives Foster an excuse to call her relatives who live down South to brush up on her Southern drawl.
Along with her collaborations with Tesori in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Shrek, Foster's stage credits include a Tony Award-winning turn as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes, Inga in Young Frankenstein, Janet Van De Graaff in The Drowsy Chaperone and Jo March in Little Women. Foster said she has enjoyed playing such a wide range of female characters.
"One of the things I love about musical theatre is it does seem to give an outlet for strong women," she said. "It does seem to lend a hand to the strong woman who goes onstage and goes after what she wants. Millie, Jo, even Reno — such a strong character."
Foster most recently played the character of Michelle Simms on the TV show "Bunheads," and she is currently waiting on confirmation if the show has been renewed by ABC Family. In the meantime, she is touring the country, performing concerts throughout the fall. Her schedule includes a return visit to the Cafe Carlyle in New York for three weeks of concerts.
She said she hopes to return to Broadway in the near future and lists Charity, The Baker's Wife and Mama Rose as roles she would like to play one day.
"I have no idea what will be in store, what the next chapter will be," she said. "It's been fun to be out in California for a change of pace, and working on something so different, but I have no idea. We'll see."
PHOTO ARCHIVE: Two-Time Tony Award Winner Sutton Foster on the Musical Stage