THE LEADING MEN: Hunter Green

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.

Hunter Foster.
Hunter Foster. (Photo by Ben Strothmann)

HE’S WORKING AT THE PLANT
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!

For more info, visit www.littleshopofhorrors.com.

MANY BLESSINGS FLOW FROM HIS ‘RIVER’
In the Roundabout and Deaf West Theatre’s rousing revival of Big River, Michael McElroy plays Jim, a runaway slave who goes with the flow of the Mississippi. With his booming baritone and dynamic delivery, he has received a raft of rave reviews for his singing and signing in Roger Miller and William Hauptman’s musical of Mark Twain’s "Huckleberry Finn." Inventively directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun, it’s been extended through Sept. 21 at the American Airlines Theatre.

"Doing Big River has been a blessing to me in so many ways as a person and as a performer," says the 6-foot-3 McElroy. "As an African-American actor in 2003, it was hard for me to go back to an era where you’re considered property, even less than cattle. I’ve never played a slave before, but there’s such an inherent dignity in Jim, and he has an enormous heart. The role has been such a gift and so has the chance to work with deaf actors and communicate with them on a whole different level."

Even though hearing and non-hearing actors and audiences might be "Worlds Apart," this revival of Big River shows that theatre can speak to everyone and bring them together. McElroy, 36, says, "Here, Ty [Giordano, the deaf actor who plays Huck] has what some people might consider a handicap, but he gives his heart and soul to his character without making a sound. He’s not just a good actor; he’s a wonderful person. Ty is such a ball of energy, and we’ve had a great time."

For McElroy, Big River has been a life-changing experience, and his rich resume has included Rent, The Wild Party, The Who’s Tommy and Miss Saigon. Plus, he got a Drama Desk nomination for his wonderful work in Violet. "I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have the career I’ve had," he says.

Born in Shaker Heights, Ohio, he grew up in a musical family where everyone sang in church. In high school McElroy appeared as Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Will in Oklahoma! and wrote "tons of musicals." He then attended Carnegie-Mellon, landing his first paying gig in New York even before he graduated: in Richard III at the New York Shakespeare Festival.

But performing has always meant more than a paycheck for McElroy. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, this spiritual actor organized a gospel concert featuring ten Broadway singers, including Adriane Lenox, Billy Porter and Alice Ripley, and the money went to Broadway Cares. It was such a success that this nondenominational and multiracial group, known as Broadway Inspirational Voices (BIV), now boasts over 50 members and will celebrate their tenth anniversary on Oct. 19 at Town Hall. Patti LaBelle and Toni Braxton will be the special guests. McElroy says, "So often we let race divide us, religion divide us; we look like the United Nations, and that’s a blessing." This amazing Technicolor choir of many creeds has performed at the Tonys and for President and Mrs. Clinton, and on Sept. 21, they’ll appear at a Gregory Hines memorial at the Apollo Theatre. The following night, Sept. 22, "Mahogany" (aka Michael Benjamin Washington from Mamma Mia!) will do her one-woman show at Joe’s Pub as a benefit for BIV. McElroy adds, "She’s like a black Lypsinka." Also, Sh-K-Boom Records will release the choir’s Christmas CD on Oct. 21.

When he’s not performing, McElroy lives in Manhattan and shares his life with Sean, a doctor and his best friend and partner of eight years ("Our relationship is incredibly rewarding"), and Cecil, their "friendly and crazy" Akita pitbull.

Meantime, there is talk of Big River moving to another Broadway house. McElroy says the show deserves a longer life because it has something to say. Asked if he encounters racism, he says, "Of course, but the levels of discrimination are so multilayered now. When I go out on the street, if there’s a white female, I walk faster and pass her because walking behind her will make her nervous. Depending on where I’m headed, or how I’m dressed, cabs will pass me by. I get followed in stores. That’s a reality. But I use that anger to work harder on my career and hopefully I can influence other young African-American men who might want to do what I’m doing [in showbiz]. That makes me feel good about myself, and it’s my way of giving back to the community."

For more info, visit www.broadwayinspirationalvoices.com.

WHERE THE GUYS ARE
There are so many things to see in New York, and you can find songwriters by the score. The King Kong Room at the Supper Club, 240 W. 47th St., is hosting a terrific trio on Mondays at 8:30 PM: Jason Robert Brown on Sept. 8, Larry O’Keefe on Sept. 15 and Larry Grossman on Sept. 29. (212) 921 1904. . . . The New Voices Collective kicks off its new season on Sept. 29 at 8 PM at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia at Symphony Space, 95th Street and Broadway. The concert will celebrate the art songs and theatre tunes of Jeff Blumenkrantz, Peter Foley, Joseph Thalken and John Kander. Expect one of the highlights to be Brian D’Arcy James singing Kander’s lyrical setting of a 1861 Civil War letter by Sullivan Ballou.

Just for the record, MAC Award winner Scott Coulter will be honored at Barbara and Scott Siegel’s "CD Picks of the Month" concert on Sept. 7 at 7 PM at Dillon’s, 254 W. 54th St. His special guests will include Stephen Schwartz and Tim Di Pasqua, whose songs are on Coulter’s acclaimed self-titled CD. (212) 307-9797. . . . David Kenney, one of radio’s biggest boosters of Broadway and cabaret, celebrates the 25th anniversary of his show on WBAI-FM, "Everything Old Is New Again," on Sept. 8 at 7 PM at Danny’s Skylight Room, 346 W. 46th St. The festive fund-raiser for WBAI will headline Tom Andersen, David Friedman, Jessica Molaskey, John Pizzarelli and Mary Stout. With any luck, Andersen, whom Time Out New York calls "simply the finest male vocalist in town," will offer a sneak peek at his great new CD, "Who Knows." (212) 265-8133.

"Timeless Divas" toasts the "magnificent males" of cabaret on Sept. 14 at 7:30 PM at the York Theatre, 54th Street and Lexington Ave. Produced by Sandi Durell, this Broadway Cares benefit will include Eric Michael Gillett, Steven Lutvak, Phillip Officer, Sal Viviano and John Wallowitch. Tony Randall and Ben Vereen will co-host. (212) 615-6966. . . . Meantime, the Actors’ Fund of America’s fund-raising concert of Chess promises to be a spectacular "one night in Bangkok" kind of bash. Directed by Peter Flynn and music directed by Seth Rudetsky, it will star Josh Groban, Julia Murney, Lara Fabian, Adam Pascal, Norm Lewis, Jonathan Dokuchitz and Raul Esparza on Sept. 22 at 7:30 PM at the New Amsterdam, 214 W. 42nd St. (212) 221-7300, ext. 133.

And many happy returns to three-time Bistro Award winner David Gurland. The ever-appealing pop tenor is back Sept. 12, 19 and 26 at 7 PM at The Duplex, 61 Christopher St. (212) 255-5438. . . . Mark Nadler and KT Sullivan have returned to New York to open Mama Rose’s, a new East Side cabaret, with their Irving Berlin show, "The Melody Lingers On," on Sept. 15-16 at 7 PM at 219 Second Ave. (212) 533-0558. . . . After a three-year absence in the clubs, Doug Ladnier ( Jekyll & Hyde), the mellow baritone with movie-star looks, plays Sept. 19 at 11 PM and Sept. 21 at 9 PM at Dillon’s, 254 W. 54th St. (212) 307-9797. . . . Finally, Feinstein’s, 540 Park Ave., brings back two of its faves: Irish tenor Ronan Tynan (Sept. 23-27) and "Taxi’s" Tony Danza (Sept. 30-Oct. 11), whose theme song ought to be "Life Is a Cab-Away, Old Chum." (212) 339-4095.

Got comments or questions? E-mail me at waymanwong@hotmail.com.

Until next month, let’s hear it for the "boys"!

Wayman Wong edits entertainment for the New York Daily News. He has been a movie and theatre critic for the San Francisco Examiner, a writer for The Sondheim Review and a Drama-Logue Award-winning playwright.

Michael McElroy at <i>Big River</i> and a Broadway Inspirational Voices rehearsal.
Michael McElroy at Big River and a Broadway Inspirational Voices rehearsal. (Photo by Wayman Wong and Ben Strothmann)