DIVA TALK: Chatting with Drowsy Chaperone's Sutton Foster Plus Pajama Game on Disc

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Drowsy Chaperone's Sutton Foster Plus Pajama Game on Disc
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Tony Award winner Sutton Foster in The Drowsy Chaperone.
Tony Award winner Sutton Foster in The Drowsy Chaperone. Photo by Joan Marcus

At 31, Sutton Foster seems to be accomplishing an extraordinary feat: She is quickly becoming a true Broadway musical theatre star in a business where the shows and the companies that produce them have managed to steal most of the spotlight. But listen to the entrance applause Foster receives when she makes her way onto the stage of the Marquis Theatre — home of her earlier Broadway triumph, Thoroughly Modern Millie — as Janet Van De Graaff in the joyous, charming, delightfully clever and ultimately moving The Drowsy Chaperone, one of the best musicals of the current season. Foster, who possesses a crystal-clear, rangy and powerful Broadway belt, is also a talented actress and dancer, but it is her remarkable gift for comedy that, for me, sets her apart from many of her peers. Chaperone allows Foster the chance to further explore those gifts, which she first displayed to Tony-winning effect as Millie Dillmount. As Janet, the young starlet who is about to leave showbiz behind for the love of her life, Foster also has the chance to strut her stuff in one of the evening's most thrilling offerings, a tour de force simply titled "Show Off," where Foster performs a mix of vocal and acrobatic feats that the New York Times says "lifts the audience into a helium paradise of pure pleasure." Earlier this week I had the great pleasure of chatting with the down-to-earth actress, who comes across as sweet and kind as one would hope and possesses a joyful laugh that seems filled with the faith in life's many possibilities. My interview with Foster, who will wed Spamalot's Christian Borle in September, follows.

Question: Do you and Christian look for projects where you can work together?
Sutton Foster: We were in Millie together. It's incredible working with him. We didn't know how we would be working together. We didn't know if we would drive each other crazy, working and living together. But it was incredible. It sounds cheesy, but I respect him so much as a performer and as an actor, and when I was working with him, I never thought of him as my boyfriend. I thought of him as a really good acting partner. The only drawback is that you don't have much to talk about when you come home. "Remember during the second act? Oh yeah, you were there!" [Laughs.] Right now, we're both working [in separate shows], and it's ideal to not be in the same show, but we are working on this Patty Griffin project together, where we're playing opposite each other. It's a work in progress, but it's been fantastic working with him. I would love to do projects with him. I hope that we have many opportunities to work together [and] to both be working on Broadway at the same time.

Q: How did Drowsy Chaperone come about for you?
Foster: Drowsy came about last year when Little Women was winding down. I'm friends with [Drowsy director/choreographer] Casey Nicholaw from Millie. I was asking him what he was going to do next after Spamalot, and he said he was working on this new show called The Drowsy Chaperone. Of course, I'd never heard of it, and he said he was going to direct and choreograph it out at the Ahmanson [Theatre in Los Angeles]. And, he looked at me and said, "There's a part for you in it." He sent me the script, and I just thought it was a hilarious script and really thought the part would be a lot of fun. And, at that time I was looking for something to do, and I really wanted to work with Casey, so it just worked out. And Kevin McCollum is our producer, so I was like, "Kevin McCollum and Casey Nicholaw, sign me up!"

Q: Is the part as much fun to play as it looks?
Foster: It's pretty amazing. "Show Off," which is my big number in the first act — Casey called me [about it] last summer. They were doing dance workshops before we left for California, and he was asking me what kind of tricks I could do. I was like, "I don't know what you mean. I can touch my tongue to my nose!" [Laughs.] I said I could do cartwheels and splits and kicks. I could do stuff when I was a kid, [and he said], "Do you think you could go back and take lessons?" And I was petrified. I also thought, "Well, I'm not in the best shape. I'm not in dancer shape," so I got a trainer at the gym and went down to Chelsea Piers and took gymnastics lessons.

I was with this one-on-one private gymnastics coach, and I would be surrounded by ten-year-old girls in their summer camp doing back handsprings, and of course I'm just terrified to do a front roll. But I learned how to do a dive roll, and I learned how to do front handsprings and walkovers. A lot of that stuff we didn't put in the show because I wasn't ready to do it eight times a week. But I learned how to do cartwheels in place, and it was just a really fun thing for me to do. I had never done anything like that before, and for some reason I was just determined to try to achieve something. It's so exciting to be dancing and doing all these things I did when I was a teenager. I don't think of myself as a dancer. I think of myself as a singer-actress who moves really well. I was a dancer when I was in high school. Now I'm like a 31-year-old! So it was really amazing that Casey wanted me to dust off all my skills and bring everything back, and it was just a phenomenal challenge. And, now, every night I'm dancing on Broadway. I don't think I've ever been happier in a show. I just love everybody, and I just love what I get to do. It just came at the perfect time. It's been a dream. Q: In "Show Off" you have one amazingly quick costume change. Can you say how that works?
Foster: I can't. [Laughs.] Just know that it involves magnets and a little bit of help from someone, and the rest are secrets.

Q: It is a great moment.
Foster: It's amazing. I'm just back there making sure I'm doing everything correctly, but people are like, "How do you do it? How do you do it?" They're freaked out by it — they want to know. But it's magic!

Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Janet?
Foster: I think my favorite moment now is "Accident Waiting to Happen," the number with Robert [Troy Britton Johnson] when he's on roller skates. I think [it is my favorite] because I've overcome a lot of fear. One of my biggest fears in life — besides snakes — is roller skating or skiing or anything where my feet are attached to something that doesn't stop. Like rollerblading and ice skating. . .

Q: Did you have any injury as a kid doing any of that stuff?
Foster: No, I just was never really good at it. And, as an adult, I tried skiing, and I ended up in tears. [Laughs.] And, I tried rollerblading and I've fallen, and it was just awful. I think I was really scared at first of that number, even more than "Show Off," which is probably more dangerous for me. With "Accident," I was really nervous with Troy being on the skates . . . and then that was the number that I got hurt in in L.A. because I fell. I was just standing there, and I fell and broke my wrist. But I think I love that number the most now because I overcame a huge obstacle — my fear of the roller skating and then breaking something. And now I just love it. I look forward to it every night, and I just love working with Troy. And I really like being a dancer — we get to waltz, and I turn, and my dress flows, and I'm like, "I'm Ginger Rogers!" [Laughs.]

Q: The show was originally written as a wedding present for Bob Martin and Janet Van De Graaff, and your character is named Janet Van De Graaff. Is there anything about the real Janet that was incorporated into the role, or did they just use the name?
Foster: I think they [just] used the name. [The real Janet] is just a wonderful person. The whole ego-driven starlet is not her, but I think primarily it's just the name and the fact that she's marrying Robert Martin. Of course, [the] Robert Martin in the show is nothing like [the real] Bob Martin. They're both self-deprecating, sweet and kind and they're not at all attention-seeking, career-driven monsters. [Laughs.]

Q: Do you think the character Janet will be happy without show business?
Foster: [Laughs.] I don't know. She does find her true love. . . . It's a 1928 musical. I guess if it had more of a Millie twist, she would keep her career and have her love. But in this story she does end up giving up her career for her true love, so I think she will be happy.

Q: I think you have such great comic timing. Has comedy always come easy for you, or is it something you've worked on?
Foster: Thank you. I grew up sort of a geeky, tall kid, and I think I was always the one trying to make my friends laugh. I remember I would sit and watch those comedy specials on HBO — not the dirty ones — but I was obsessed with comedians and comedy, and I loved the funny movies, and I would watch them over and over again. My favorite movie as a kid — speaking of geeky kids — was "Revenge of the Nerds." I was obsessed with that movie. I think it's probably in my top five favorite films. [Laughs.] It was funny, and I was really always attracted to personalities as opposed to how you looked. All the people that I was attracted to — all of my friends — were funny.

And I think I've learned a lot about comedy or timing from just watching other brilliant people — watching how Marc Kudisch delivers a line or Harriet Harris. And, also, you learn by just doing a show eight times a week and learning how to play off an audience. That's really how you hone your skill. With Janet, it [took] awhile to find it, and you don't really know what you have until you're in front of an audience. All I try to think of every night — and I'm really lucky because the material is so funny, so I don't have to do anything to make it funny — I just have to get out of its way. And I think that sometimes is harder to do, so I just try to play it very sincere, and I try to get myself out of it and say the lines. The authors are so brilliantly funny, and they've given me such great material to work with that it makes my job very easy.

Q: Do you think the show has a message or what does it mean to you?
Foster: What it means to me is growing up in Michigan and Georgia, I had an outlet, and my main outlet was theatre and dance. I think everybody has something that takes them away or makes them happier. To some people it's baseball or sports or knitting or the movies. Everybody has something that when they're feeling blue, they can pull out their favorite comic or film. I feel like this show validates me. It validates my passion, and I feel like it validates everyone's passions, whatever that passion is. For me my passion is musical theatre — I love what musical theatre does and the power of it, and I feel like [this show] really honors it. The use of Man in Chair and what he says — all he wants is to be entertained and to be taken away for a couple of hours, and for him this musical does it for him. I just feel like it's celebrating our passions.

Q: After shows like Millie and Little Women where you were onstage for most of the show, does Drowsy seem a little less demanding?
Foster: Yes, awesome! [Laughs.] I love it. That's another main reason why I took this job is I really wanted less to do. Millie was very demanding, and I really thought that Little Women was going to be less, and it ended up being just the same amount of workload, and I was just burned out. I was very close to just taking a long time off, and I told my agents, "I have to do something smaller. I have to do more of an ensemble [piece]." And then this came along.

Q: And I think it showcases you just as well as the others.
Foster: That's what I feel too. I feel completely satisfied without being completely depleted.

Q: How long are you contracted with the show?
Foster: A year.

Q: Do you know what the show will do on the Tonys should it get nominated for Best Musical?
Foster: I don't know yet. A little part of me would love to do "Show Off" because I love it so much, but "Toledo Surprise" or the opening number or "I Do, I Do in the Sky." I think they have a bunch of really great options. I would just love for the show to be nominated. There's not a greater thrill than performing at the Tony Awards — it's really up there with the greatest moments of my life. I would just love for this company and this show to have that experience.

Q: You've pretty much concentrated solely on theatre. Do you have an interest in pursuing TV or film work?
Foster: I'm starting to become more interested. When I first started with Millie, I was just like, "Okay, easy everybody. I'm just now starting in theatre. I'm just getting my toes wet in theatre; I don't want to jump ship." Theatre's my passion, and I feel like I'm just getting started, and I love it, and I can't imagine anything else fulfilling me the way that being onstage does. I'm starting to open my horizons only in hope that it can continue opening my career in theatre. We'll see — I have no massive plans to move out to L.A. and try to be in the movies. I really just want to do theatre forever if I could, if they'll have me.

Q: Were there singers or actors who influenced you as a kid?
Foster: Patti LuPone was pretty much my idol and still is. Every time I meet her or see her and she knows my name, it freaks me out. She was a huge, huge influence. I would listen to her and try to sing like her. Lea Salonga. I wanted to be them.

Q: Are either of your parents performers?
Foster: No, neither. My dad worked for General Motors, and my mom was a homemaker. My mother was very interested in the movies, but never performed or sang. There might be this hidden talent somewhere that was never found, but they were never in show business.

Q: What do they make of all your success and your brother Hunter's success?
Foster: They are huge supporters. They live in Florida, so they don't get a chance to come up to New York a lot. They support from afar and are avid readers of all the things on the internet, and they really keep up with everything. They're like, "I hear that such and such is happening. How was that luncheon that you went to?" [Laughs.] I think they are just so thrilled for us that we're both successful and working and doing well. I just wished that they lived closer. They just live so far away, and it's hard sometimes because they don't get a chance to come up very often. Q: When did you know that performing would be your career? When did it change from just something you did just for fun?
Foster: I was never interested in anything else, but I never thought, "Oh, I'm going to do theatre for a living." I didn't realize that you could make a living doing this. I don't even know if there was an exact time. I've had an unbelievably lucky career because I started really young. At 17 I did the national tour of Will Rogers, and that was the first time I was like, "Oh my gosh, I can get paid and I'm making money, and I'm doing this, and it's awesome." I think that was when it changed because I thought, "Oh, I guess this is my career, this is what I'm going to do." But I always sort of fought it because I thought, "I don't know if I can handle the pressure." Then around 25, something just clicked, and I didn't know what else I would do — I just loved it, and everything just changed from then on. And now I'm like, "You're going to have to pull me away!"

Q: Going back a bit, where were you born and raised?
Foster: I was born in Georgia, and then when I was 13 we moved to Michigan.

Q: What shows did you do in high school?
Foster: We did Grease, and I played Frenchie. We did Oklahoma! and I played Ado Annie, and then Camelot and I was Guenevere.

Q: Is there any classic musical that you would like to do someday?
Foster: I want to do Gypsy — I want to play Gypsy Rose Lee. . . and then in like 20 years I'll do Momma! [Laughs.]

Q: You mentioned before a project you're working on with Christian [Borle]. Can you tell me a little about that?
Foster: It's a work in progress, [so] it doesn't really have a title. [At this point it's just] called the Patty Griffin Project. Patty Griffin is this beautiful singer-songwriter, and it's incorporating her music. Keith Bunin wrote a beautiful play, and it's a four-person musical directed by Michael Mayer. Tom Hulce is producing. . . . We're going to do some work on it this summer. It's very different, totally different than anything I've done. It's very contemporary. It's four people, and it's very small. I have no idea what it will do, but it's definitely been fun to work on.

Q: Since it's almost Tony time, I was wondering what your memory of winning the Tony Award for Millie is.
Foster: My biggest memory is that we had just moved into a new apartment, the apartment we live in now. And, we had moved the week before, which was absolutely insane. And we're actually moving again in just two weeks, [so] that's bringing back memories. We moved the week before Tonys, and we had just moved into this new building, and our doorman — his name is Pete, he doesn't work here anymore — an older man, he had white hair. He was always like, "Hello!!!" He was so fantastic. He would greet you at the door and tip his hat. We didn't get home Tony night until like four in the morning. We got to the door of our apartment, and then there was a sign on our door that said, "To our newest tenant, Sutton Foster, for her first of many Tony Awards. Congratulations." It was all scrawled out, and it was from Pete. It was so sweet. We felt so welcomed to this new building. It was just awesome.

[The Drowsy Chaperone plays the Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway. Call (212) 307-4100 for tickets or visit www.ticketmaster.com]

FOR THE RECORD: The Pajama Game
The new Columbia Records cast recording of the Roundabout Theatre Company's acclaimed revival of The Pajama Game — which ends its run at the American Airlines Theatre June 17 prior to a commercial Broadway run in the fall with a new cast — does the Richard Adler-Jerry Ross score proud. The company is led by pop crooner Harry Connick, Jr., who lends his lush tones to such songs as “A New Town Is a Blue Town,” “Hey There” and “The World Around Us.” He is equally matched by his co-star, Kelli O'Hara, who leaves behind the beautiful soprano she displayed in The Light in the Piazza for a beltier sound reminiscent of such fifties gal singers as Doris Day and Dolores Gray. O'Hara sounds wonderful belting out “I'm Not at All in Love” as well as the reprise of “Hey There,” and her duet with Connick on “There Once Was a Man” is perhaps the highlight of the recording. Other toe-tappers include “Once a Year Day,” “Steam Heat,” “Hernando's Hideaway” and the title tune. The two-disc recording — titled "Harry on Broadway, Act I" — includes a second CD featuring Connick's score to Thou Shalt Not, the short-lived Broadway musical for which he wrote the score. Connick and O'Hara are the featured vocalists on the second disc as well.

Marni Nixon, the singing voice behind such film stars as Audrey Hepburn and Natalie Wood, has joined the cast of the Hollywood Bowl's summer presentation of The Sound of Music. Nixon will play Mother Abbess in the July 28-30 concerts at the famed California venue. Nixon joins the previously announced Melissa Errico, who will star as Maria von Trapp. Gordon Hunt will direct the Bowl's mounting of Music, which is scheduled for July 28 and 29 at 8:30 PM and July 30 at 7:30 PM. Kay Cole will choreograph the production, and John Mauceri will conduct the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. The Hollywood Bowl is located at 2301 Highland Avenue in Hollywood, CA. Visit www.hollywoodbowl.org for more information.

The Broadway By the Year series — produced and hosted by Scott Siegel — will continue next month with the Broadway Musicals of 1978. On June 19 at Town Hall, a host of theatre and cabaret stars will lend their voices to songs from shows that debuted on Broadway in 1978. Concertgoers can expect to hear tunes from Working, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and On the Twentieth Century and watch dance numbers from Bob Fosse's Dancin'. Those scheduled to perform include Chuck Cooper, Felicia Finley, Julie Garnyé, Cheyenne Jackson, Nancy Lemenager, Nancy Opel, Noah Racey, Christine Pedi, Lennie Watts and Bryan Batt. Batt will also direct the 8 PM evening. Town Hall is located in Manhattan at 123 West 23rd Street. Tickets, priced $40 and $45, are available by calling (212) 307-4100 or (212) 840-2824.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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