PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Sutton Foster; Catching Up With the Broadway and "Bunheads" Star

By Kenneth Jones
September 8, 2012

We snagged a few minutes with two-time Tony Award winner Sutton Foster to get a post-mortem on her newly renewed TV series, "Bunheads," and her fall concert schedule.



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Sutton Foster has a lot to sing about this summer. Not only has her ABC Family series "Bunheads" — the offbeat dramedy with music and dance — received an order for additional episodes, Foster has concerts lined up in the coming months, before and during her fall shooting schedule.

We caught up with the Anything Goes, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Shrek star by phone from Los Angeles before her Labor Day return to her New York City home where she was prepping for the first of several national (and international) concert bookings, from Omaha to Palm Springs to Japan, and places in between. Check her website for dates and deets

Read the June Playbill.com Stage to Screens interview with Foster, who admitted that she was a longtime fan of Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of "Gilmore Girls" and "Bunheads." 

"Bunheads" beautifully plays to your strengths — your ability to play daffy but play incredibly sincere.
Sutton Foster: Thank you. I was thrilled. I'm thrilled with how everything turned out, and I just love the show, and I'm happy that we get to do more. It was such an incredible experience — incredibly challenging — but I felt like I was having the time of my life. I loved it.

What was chief among the challenges?
SF: Primarily the dialogue — just learning the amount of dialogue. And the hours. I've never experienced that type of exhaustion. I've felt that [physically], but not like that with your brain and learning so much material every day. I was memorizing and then working and then sleeping and then waking up, and working and sleeping…! I would basically spend the weekends working on the script because I had such a big workload. But, yeah, those were primarily the biggest challenges — just exhaustion and brain melt.

 

Sutton Foster on "Bunheads."
photo by Adam Taylor

Did you shoot one episode per week?
SF: We had seven days an episode.

When you were shooting, were the scripts fairly frozen or would you get new pages every week as well?
SF: There would be some changes… but from the table-read to filming, most of the scripts stayed pretty set. There would be little things, but nothing major, which was great. We weren't thrown any major, last-minute curve balls.

Did you know from the start of the show — from the first few weeks — what the "bible" of the series was? That is, did you have some idea where the plot of the next ten episodes was going? Or were you getting surprised by the script every week?
SF: [Creator] Amy [Sherman-Palladino] kind of told me an overview of what was going to happen. She talked me through it. When we first started, I think only the first couple of episodes were fully written. You know, everything else was written as we went. They knew where we were going, but they allowed themselves a lot of flexibility to change within those first ten episodes. One of our first meetings, once the show got picked up [after the pilot], she kind of talked me through the first ten episodes. She knew that it was going to end with The Nutcracker. She knew that there would be three men that I would meet. And, I was like, "Oh, okay!" [Laughs.] She didn't know exactly how, but she knew little tent poles along the way, of what was going to happen. So I kind of had an idea, but I didn't know the details.

 

Kelly Bishop and Sutton Foster of "Bunheads."
Photo by Andrew Eccles

Did you know that the whimsical nature of the pilot would continue throughout the series — that your character, Michelle, would be navigating oddballs and absurd situations?
SF: [Laughs.] Well, that was set up from the pilot, really. So I kinda knew that was my role — to be the one surrounded by, sort of navigating, a bunch of weirdos. But it's such a fun world. And, Michelle — she's full of her own oddities, as well — but it's a really fun world to play in. It's fun to live in a world that's a little skewed. That's how "Gilmore" was. I was such a huge fan of "Gilmore," and so I knew, totally, that "Bunheads" would have that same sort of vibe.

Amy has said in interviews that "Bunheads" is about Michelle. She is at the center. That's the reveal of the series — it is very much us following you, though some people thought it would be more about you and the four girls in the dance class. That relationship is building slowly.
SF: Yeah, it is. I've actually read some interviews with Amy, as well, and she wanted it to feel organic, so that the relationship with the girls [would grow to] where we are right now. Definitely the first ten episodes are leading to Michelle [connecting]. Michelle is reluctant in many ways, but she is reluctant to form any type of bonds or roots or responsibility. She just wants to kind of flit about, but that's definitely where it's headed toward — the girls. They're just great young women, and they're getting more confident and stronger. I really feel like all of their stories, too, are building and we're going to be able to delve more into their characters in the next episodes.

Yeah. I listened to a really interesting podcast on Slate.com featuring three women critics who were loving the un-usualness of the series. One of them said that the entire season, in a way, feels like a extended pilot — a kind of set up — and you never know where it's going. And that that is the strength of it. At the climax of the first ten episodes, it now feels like we are about to jump into whatever the next chapter is — which is clearly a deeper relationship between these characters. It's so un-network and un-TV-like to build so slowly
SF: Yeah. I do feel that the show isn't really following any rules, which I think is a good thing. I'm proud of that. It might seem like nothing has happened, but so much has happened in those ten episodes. I'm thrilled that people are responding to it and have so many different thoughts about it, and I'm proud to be a part of it. I feel so proud of the show.

Amy is shaping it around you. Does she draw from stuff in your show-business life? Does she draw from your life as a performing artist?
SF: I guess. I actually have a lot of similarities with Michelle. The line between Sutton and Michelle [blurs]. Michelle has a lot of my same sensibility and sense of humor. One of the writers wrote a line — I think it was in episode eight — the line was, "Victory!" or something like that, and I went, "I don't know how you want me to do it." And he said, "I wrote it because I felt like it was something you would say!" And, I went, "Oh! How do I do it?" [Laughs.] The more they get to know me — Sutton — they begin to write and sort of tailor toward my sensibility and sense of humor. Obviously, Michelle being a dancer and an artist, [Amy is] writing a lot of opportunities for me to sing and dance and tackle the trials and tribulations of being an artist. And, that, of course, I know firsthand.

Foster with "Bunheads" castmates Emma Dumont and Julia Goldani Telles.
Photo by Adam Taylor

I wonder what kind of reaction you're getting from viewers. What kind of fan mail do you get? Do you get a range of responses from kids to 40-year-old people?
SF: Yeah… I guess the only gauge I have is that I joined Twitter [@sfosternyc], which I was so "anti" about, but then I was like, "Oh, I should just do it." I only tweet about food and silly things, but it's really fascinating because I get a lot of response on Twitter, and I'm always looking at the type of people who write me on there, and it is such a variety. There's a lot of teenagers, obviously, but then there's a lot of like men and older women — it's like all over the map, which is kind of cool. It's obviously on a network that's geared toward teenagers, like young women, teenage girls, but it's exciting that people beyond that are responding and enjoying it. And, I think it's really cool.

I have to confess that I had never watched ABC Family until this series, so I had a specific expectation of what the content would be, and it's remarkably grownup. It's not a teen soap opera or after-school special. "Sophisticated" is what I mean.
SF: Yeah. I think so, too.

 


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Can you tell me about your concerts coming up? You're doing small gigs like trios and piano-and-voice?
SF: Yeah. Piano and voice and some trio [dates] — bass and guitar, piano. A eight different cities until the end of the year. I'm excited; I haven't been singing, really, since I've been out here. I think [musical director] Michael Rafter and I are sort of heading toward working on a new album. The best way for us to kind of try out new material is to do it live. We're going all over. We're in Omaha, and then we're going to Tokyo, which I've never been, Virginia, Galveston and Palm Desert, Costa Mesa, Miami, Santa Fe. But I'll be doing the concerts while in production with "Bunheads," so it will be a little hard. On my weekends, I'll be getting on the plane, but it will be good to do both again. I miss performing live, so it will be fun to do that.

Will the concerts include stuff from your albums, plus new stuff?
SF: Yeah. We're doing a lot of the stuff from the albums — from "Wish" and from the Carlyle album — and then we have about six or seven new songs that we're throwing in, and we'll see. We'll see what works and what doesn't, and then we'll just start heading toward laying down a new album. I don't know when, but maybe over the next year, which would be really cool.

Does Michael pitch you a lot of songs or do you bring a lot of songs to the table?
SF: We kind of do it half and half. Our director is Mark Waldrop, and he also brings stuff into the mix. So between the three of us, it's like a total collaboration. And, I've just been listening to a lot of Pandora. [Laughs.] So as I'm driving around L.A., I put on Lena Horne Pandora, and I get a lot of ideas that way. A lot of that I've never heard of — or I'll just write things down and shoot them off to Michael and see what he thinks. He brought a bunch of great new things the last time we worked, so it's just total collaboration.

Michael introduced you to Noel Coward's "Come the Wild, Wild Weather," right?
SF: Yeah.

Which is one of my favorite songs this year, and I heard it for the first time on your albums. I love that song.
SF: I do, too.

Any chance your concert will be done in New York?
SF: I hope so. That's a goal for when we wrap. We'll finish filming in January, so that would be something really fun to do on a hiatus — to come back and play the Carlyle. I'd love to play the Carlyle again or come back to New York in that way. That would be really, really cool.

And an album would result, we hope?
SF: Yes, that would be really, really, really great. I feel like we've been waiting for a while. We started trying to work before, during Anything Goes and before I left to do "Bunheads." Michael and I were meeting, and we were trying to toss around ideas, but it felt forced. It didn't feel like the right time, but we've come up with some really, really cool stuff in the last couple weeks, so I really feel like we're heading toward something.

Foster on "Bunheads."
photo by ABC Family/ Adam Larkey

This summer, after months of shooting, you've been decompressing? Are you just crashing?
SF: I'm trying! It's weird to have leisure — to have time off. I'm not used to it. [Laughs.] I've gone on a couple of trips. I went up to Napa, I went to Santa Barbara, I've been spending time with friends, and I'm going to come back to New York to prepare for the concerts. From there, I think I'll be primarily in New York over the next month — six weeks — or so. But it's been good. It's been nice to have free time. It's weird, though! I'm not used to it. [Laughs.] I'm so used to just working all the time! I know! High-class problems! But it's been really, really good.

Do you still have your place upstate?
SF: I do.

Are you going up there?
SF: I am. I think when I'm back in New York, I'm going to live there and just commute into the city because it's only about an hour away, so I'll be able to have a little bit of lake life and then come into the city when I need to.

Before I let you go, give me a sense of what Amy Sherman-Palladino is like.
SF: She's indescribable. She's singular. I think she's a genius. If she would have me, I would work with her forever for the rest of my life. [Laughs.] I feel so lucky that we met and that we found each other.

Is she as funny in real life as she is on the page?
SF: Yes, she is. That's her. Her writing is her, so it's kind of cool. She's that smart and that witty in real life. She's a lot of fun to be around. She's very passionate about what she does and very, very hands-on, which is exciting. She's in charge. This is her show. She's there every single day. It's cool to be a part of something like that, where there's such a clear voice. The dialogue itself is its own character. It's all her. It's her.

Have you had time to be social with her or is it not that kind of relationship?
SF: We've become friends. My brain kind of like explodes because I was such a fan of "Gilmore," and I've been such a fan of hers for so long. But we've gone out. She's been taking me to all her favorite places in L.A. She and her husband, Daniel, who is also one of the writers on the show, they're just awesome. We've hung out quite a bit, so it's been really fun.

There's such a consistent sense of authorship — of voice — on the show.
SF: You see a lot of stuff on TV, and I'm a huge fan of television — I watch a lot of television — and you're like, "I don't hear the writer's voice," but you do on "Bunheads." [Laughs.] You hear it! It's so evident. It's like that with Aaron Sorkin or… I'm trying to think of someone else where the words and the writing is exciting. She's exciting.

When do you start shooting again?
SF: End of October.

How many episodes coming up this spring in what the network calls a "back-order pick-up"? It's not the second season, it's a continuation. Do we know?
SF: I think it's eight more, so it will be 18 for the full first season. They do it in blocks. That's how they do it on ABC Family, so the first season will be 18. We'll see what happens!

(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)