ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Catching Up With Sutton Foster and Vocal Classes With Tina Fey

By Seth Rudetsky
July 8, 2013

A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.

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To quote Stephen Sondheim, "It's hot up here." I am on the deck of the Anchor Inn in Provincetown, just like I was last week when I wrote my column. Still beautiful, but now 15 degrees hotter. Holy cow! Houses on the Cape didn't even used to have air conditioners because it never got hot enough to use one. Now, all I want to do is strap a 8000 BTU Freidrich to my head.

I'm here for my second concert of "Broadway at the Art House." I'm doing a show with not one but two-time Tony Award winner Sutton Foster! Speaking of the Tony Awards, Sutton recalled watching them when she was a kid and hoping to win one. When she heard the opening number on this year's Tony Awards with the part about the actors onstage being just like the kids today watching the show at home, she totally bawled. Sutton actually used to practice her Tony award speech when she was a teen and dedicate her triumphant Tony win to her classmates. Mind you, not the children who believed in her and inspired her...specifically, to the girl who tied her to a bus seat and the boy who called her dog-face. However, during her two Tony speeches, she wound up not giving them her well-practiced shout-out. There's always the next speech.

When she was young, Sutton was completely obsessed with Patti LuPone and idolized her. Sutton thinks it's so weird because she knows some young people look up to her like she looked up to Patti but, "I don't know sh*t." Then she added that maybe the whole time she was looking up to Patti, "Patti didn't know sh*t." That's the surreal thing for her about winning; she would watch those people onstage at the Tony Awards and suddenly she was one of them, but she's the same person she always was.

As a matter of fact, the one thing she was focusing on when she won the first time was to not trip; her dress was long and she concentrated extra hard on not falling while walking to the stage. Speaking of clothes, Sutton recalled auditioning for the role of "star-to-be" for the 90's revival of Annie wearing a crazy dress, foam shoes with Velcro laces (?) and singing the title song from Oklahoma! She didn't have a headshot or resume. And this wasn't her first audition nor her first job. She had already done the national tour of The Will Rogers Follies and played Sandy in Grease on Broadway. Her headshot and resume were packed in a box somewhere so she didn't bring it. After she sang, there was an akward pause...then they told her to come back but, get a different dress/shoes, sing a different song and bring a headshot and resume. Naturally, she immediately got her photos done...at Woolworths. That's right, she went to the high-end photo area of Woolworths and came back to the audition with a crazy 3x5 shot of herself and, since she didn't have a computer and apparently they were none to be found in the entire of city of New York, she also brought along a resume that was handwritten. Cut to: She got the part. Listen

Joel Grey and Sutton Foster in Anything Goes.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Sutton also talked about the struggle she had with the role of Reno Sweeney. Reno is not like Sutton; Reno's very confident and when she walks in a room, she wants everyone to notice her, whereas Sutton is very goofy and wants to blend in at first (except when she wears foam shoes). When Sutton began previews for Anything Goes she knew her performance wasn't what it should be and she brought in an acting coach (Larry Moss). One of the best pieces of advice he had for her was regarding the first scene, which leads into, "I Get a Kick Out Of You." She was walking on with the subtext of, "I know I'm not really right for this role. Sorry!" He told her to walk onstage with the same feeling she would have right after "Blow Gabriel Blow," her big Act Two number. She was able to conjure up that feeling of confidence/sass and enter with it and then the rest of the show was easier to do. Cut to: second Tony Award.

The other role she struggled with was playing a dominatrix in Trust Off-Broadway. She met with an actual dominatrix (!) and, even though she felt the part was vastly different from her, she was able to identify with the feeling of wanting power and control. In order to see what it was like to be really controlling and powerful, she would practice on...her dog. She then demonstrated what she'd do. Suffice it to say, I've never heard a sexier version of, "Sit!"

On SiriusXM, I did an hour interview with Tina Fey and her husband Jeff Richmond. I'd heard from Kerry Butler that Tina and Jeff listen to my radio show and were fans of it. Then I got an e-mail from Tina a few weeks asking for a "favor." She wrote, "Why should you do me a favor when I've never done one for you? Don't over think it!" She asked me if I'd help her for an audition. I was free that afternoon, and I'm an enormous fan of hers, so I said for shizzle! But first, I had to put aside the part of me that's devastated I'll never get to be on "30 Rock." I went in for so many different parts but never got cast. I decided to let it goand went to get meet her at her office. She quickly explained why she wanted me to coach her for this musical audition and not her husband (he's a musician that wrote all the music for "30 Rock"). Turns out, he started working with her in the morning and as soon as she started singing he said, "What was that?!"

Tina explained that she was going in for a role because "her bluff was called." She heard they were doing a film version of Into The Woods and she asked her agent if the role of the Baker's Wife was cast. Suddenly her agent called back and said "I've set up an audition for you." Busted! Tina decided to go in but she was so nervous. She told me that the only reason why she felt she could do it is because they can electronically manipulate a voice in a movie. I started working with her and she was great. She wouldn't need any manipulation. First of all, great acting and second of all, a really pretty voice!

Seth with Tina Fey and husband Jeff Richmond

We worked for a while but kept segueing off-topic, discussing all the Broadway people who came on her show and, it turns out, Tina didn't know that Tituss Burgess sang! I had to show her this Obsessed video immediately. I also brought up the numerous times I auditioned for the show and she mentioned the one episode I was cast on. I told her I wasn't cast on that episode but had thought I gave a great audition. She looked confused and confessed that sometimes, she'd show up on set thinking someone was cast and a totally different actor was there. So I guess I can take solace in knowing that she thought she had cast me. It's the thought that counts?

The whole session ended with her e-mailing me later on that afternoon and telling me that she subscribed to SethTV.com. Yay! A celebrity subscriber! A week later, she auditioned for the part but Emily Blunt wound up getting the part. But I got a little inside scoop and heard that the creative team thought she was fabulous. I told ya! When I interviewed her and her husband, Tina said that she's never gotten a part she's auditioned for. All of her acting work has been because someone she knows got her the part or because she actually wrote it. She recalled being in Chicago with her friend Rachel Dratch in the '90's and they would drive an hour and half to audition for a one line part, not get it, and then drive an hour and half back.

We talked about out mutual love of Patti LuPone and Tina remembered the one episode where Patti is supposed to enter with a live chicken she's going to kill for dinner. Tina loved that moment on paper, but when it came to filming she realized that Patti would have to act the rest of the scene holding a live chicken. They went to film it and Patti immediately told Tina is would be no problem because she knew how to handle it because she had a chicken farm. Within five seconds she had the chicken upside down and was able to do the whole scene with no problem. Tina was mind-boggled by how capable Patti is with poultry and was touting Patti's skills to the person who books the animal. The animal booker wasn't that impressed because claimed he hired a chicken that was particularly easy to work with. Seriously! On a Broadway note, Tina and Jeff are working on a musical version of "Mean Girls"! Tina's writing the book, Jeff is writing the music and Nell Benjamin is doing the lyrics. Maybe I'll be in the audience opening night, even though Tina will think she's cast me.

Back to Patti LuPone; I was obsessed with her directness while in London. During our show together, I was talking about Madonna's version of "Rainbow High" in the film version of Evita and how it's a step down and instead of sustaining the thrilling modulation ("I'm their savior!!!!") Madonna holds the note for barely a second and then slides off of it. I was asking Patti why she thinks Madonna did it that way, expecting Patti to say it was a choice, or it's a particularly hard section to sing. Instead, Patti responded, quite directly with, "She can't sing!" Point taken.

All right, the next big show in Provincetown is the amazing Audra MacDonald July 21-22. Get tix at PtownArtHouse.com and Peace out!

(Seth Rudetsky is the afternoon Broadway host on SiriusXM. He has played piano for over 15 Broadway shows, was Grammy-nominated for his concert CD of Hair and Emmy-nominated for being a comedy writer on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." He has written two novels, "Broadway Nights" and "My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan," which are also available at Audible.com. He recently launched SethTV.com, where you can contact him and view all of his videos and his sassy new reality show.)