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02 Sep 2003

Hunter Foster.
Hunter Foster.
Photo by Ben Strothmann
It’s September, "when the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame," and while Little Shop of Horrors has just planted itself at the Virginia — with Hunter Foster — Big River, starring Michael McElroy, has taken root at the Roundabout.

When Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’ Off-Broadway hit Urinetown moved to Broadway, some cynics predicted it would tank. Instead, the three-time Tony-winning musical has been flush with success, and one of the No. 1 reasons it was a privilege to see it was Hunter Foster. The 5-foot-10 actor from Lumberton, N.C., played the rabble-rousing rebel Bobby Strong and stopped the show with "Run, Freedom, Run."

Now, Foster is playing Seymour in Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s Little Shop of Horrors, which just began playing to enthusiastic previews Friday and opens Oct. 2. As a nebbishly nice guy working in a seedy flower shop, he finds his budding affection for Audrey (Kerry Butler) growing almost as rapidly as the monstrous, man-eating plant that he’s cultivated and divinely named "Audrey II."

Foster, 34, has been in Footloose, Les Misérables and Grease! (with his equally gifted sister, Sutton Foster). His Tony-winning sibling and star of Thoroughly Modern Millie recalls seeing him as Linus in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, in Athens, Ga. He was 13; she was 7. Sutton says, "Hunter inspired me to be a performer. He still does!" Foster is married to Jennifer Cody (Urinetown, Taboo); the cute couple live in Teaneck, N.J., with Zach, their Yorkshire terrier.

Question: Hi, Hunter! So how do you see Seymour? Is he a nerd?
Hunter Foster: Seymour’s a good guy who gets caught up in the wrong thing. It’s kind of similar to Bobby Strong in Urinetown because his idealism leads to his downfall. He’s in love with this girl, and he’ll do anything to make her happy. My wife says this part is perfect for me because I’m Seymour around the house. I trip over things, screw things up. I don’t think he’s a nerd. He’s a social misfit.

Q: What’s it like working with Kerry Butler as Audrey?
Foster: Kerry’s great. She’s a very giving actress. We really connect.

Q: And how is it doing scenes with Audrey II?
Foster: Audrey II and me worked in Florida, so we’ve got a lotta history. What’s great this time is it’s taken on a lot more character and personality. Jerry Zaks has worked hard to make Audrey II a real person. It’s fun.

Q: Speaking of Florida, what happened? You opened May 16 in Coral Gables, got good reviews and then on June 2, the producers announced they were canceling the production, which was headed for New York. Now Zaks has taken over the direction, recast the whole show, except for you, and it’s on Broadway.
Foster: Alice Ripley was wonderful as Audrey. I loved working with her, so it was a shock when they said we weren’t going to Broadway. They [the Routh-Frankel-Viertel-Baruch Group] said they were rethinking everything. I respected them for having the guts to do what they did. We did get good reviews out of town, but they felt it wasn’t up to the level of their other shows, Hairspray and The Producers. They said they wanted [Little Shop] to be the best that it could be.

Q: Now, Seymour, of course, has a green thumb. How about you?
Foster: I’m notorious for killing plants. I either water them too much or not enough. I can’t keep plants in my house to save my life.

Q: Let’s talk about another cult musical: Urinetown. You were fantastic. What did you enjoy most about playing Bobby Strong?
Foster: Just being in that great cast. And that part let me do everything I’ve ever wanted to do in a musical: to be funny, to lead a revolution, to sing a gospel number. It was like The Fantasticks, Les Miz and Dreamgirls all in one show.

Q: You got rave reviews and Outer Critics Circle and Lucille Lortel nominations, but you and Jeff McCarthy, who was brilliant as Officer Lockstock, were robbed of Tony nominations. What was your take on that?
Foster: Urinetown has an incredible cast, and four people got nominated. We were so happy for them. And if we had been a more mainstream show like The Producers, I know Jeff and I would have been nominated, too. But what can you do? That’s the way it works. There were people who were nominated for Best Actor in small parts. John McMartin was nominated for the Narrator [in Into the Woods], and that’s not even a part. You can’t put stock in that. Look, I'm not knocking McMartin, who's a wonderful actor, but the Narrator's role is supporting, not lead. Kerry Butler should’ve been nominated for a Tony [for Hairspray], too. Politics is part of it. Hopefully, someday the politics will work in my favor. But I was very happy for Sutton. That made it okay.

Q: How did you feel when your show competed with hers?
Foster: Of course, I wanted Sutton to win [for Best Actress], but I thought our show deserved to win Best Musical. Not that Millie’s not a great show. It is. But it’s a standard, old-type Broadway musical. Shows like Urinetown are changing the face of theatre. Without Urinetown, there’d be no Avenue Q.

Q: You’re doing your own bit in developing new musicals. You and David Kirshenbaum wrote a sweet show called Summer of ’42. What can you tell us about your next project, Bonnie and Clyde?
Foster: There’s something romantic about the notion of these two people on the run that fall in love, even though they’re cold-blooded killers. It’s gonna be a black comedy. It won’t have anything to do with the movie. We’ll be doing a number from the show at a forum on Sept. 22 for the National Alliance of Musical Theatre.

Q: Talk about falling in love: How’d you meet your wife?
Foster: We met ten years ago on a tour of Cats. I proposed to her six years ago in Paris, and we just celebrated our anniversary. Jennifer has a really good heart and soul. Until I met her, I didn’t have any focus in my life, and she’s very organized. I don’t think I’d be here [in showbiz] if it weren’t for her.

Q: Your wife and Sutton will be on the Learning Channel’s "A Makeover Story" on Oct. 7. Sutton jokes, "We’re gonna look like dorks." Is she right?
Foster: Neither of them needed a makeover, but it was great.

Q: Maybe you should’ve done "Trading Dressing Rooms" instead.
Foster: Now that’s an idea. We’re working on it!

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