"It's been 17 years. It's a teenager," said Tony Award-nominated composer Jeanine Tesori of her "baby" (as she referred to it April 20) — her first musical endeavor, Violet — which began its life in 1997 at Playwrights Horizons. "I feel like I've been pregnant with a teenager for a long time. I'm just relieved that we got the chance to do the work that we wanted to do, and the Roundabout [Theatre Company] and the people who invested helped us get on the way to bring it to life."
The musical was "on its way," so to speak, following its July 17 one-night-only performance, as part of Encores! Off-Center's inaugural season. The acclaimed evening, headed by Tony Award winner Sutton Foster — who reprises her performance as the insecure, yet headstrong, title character — paved Violet's path to Broadway.
"I think the reason that the Encores! concert came to Broadway was Sutton Foster," explained librettist Brian Crawley. "People just saw her in this role and thought, 'My God, she's great in this role.' This role looks like it's written for her, and it shows parts of her that other roles haven't shown us before."
Tesori — and critics alike — agreed that Foster (a two-time Tony winner for tap-happy roles in Anything Goes and Tesori's Thoroughly Modern Millie) delivered a career re-defining performance in Violet, in which she set the glitz, glamour and tap shoes aside for a simple peach-colored dress and her long, brown hair (used to cover Violet's scar — the center of the story — on the right side of her face). "To tell you the truth, I didn't think of Sutton. I had just asked Sutton to hold some time for the Off-Center season because I knew I wanted to do something with her, and it happened to be Violet. It wasn't that I thought about Sutton for this part; it just came together. It was serendipity. Honestly, I'm not that smart," admitted Tesori.
She continued, "I think that Sutton has been able to perform accompanied by a lot — dance and makeup and wigs — and I think [this] was an opportunity for her to sort of discard all of that and find out what was at the heart of a lot of the performance…"
[flipbook] At the heart of Violet, which made its official Broadway bow at the American Airlines Theatre April 20, is a girl grappling with interior and exterior beauty as she makes her way across the American South to reach a television televangelist, who (she believes) will cure her disfigured face. Along the way, she meets Flick and Monty — two soldiers, one black and one boastful — who teach her things she never knew about herself.
"Everyone has a scar, and so there's something about ourselves that we hate or despise — whether you can see it or it's within us, and we're all searching for answers in this life that has no answers. It's a true parable," said Foster, who revisits the southern hopeful with newfound nuance.
"To be honest, my mom passed away in September," she confided. "I think experiencing loss has changed me as a performer and also my relationship to Violet because, obviously, she deals with a lot of loss, and I think that has deepened me as an actor and as a performer and redefined myself as a human being — it can't help but not — and I think that has definitely colored Violet for me."
Her brother, Bridges of Madison County star Hunter Foster — looking proud at the show's after party, held on the 8th floor of the Marriott Marquis in Times Square — was able to pinpoint all the shades of his sister's Violet.
"I think that it was a great casting choice to use someone like Sutton, who has this ability to shine when she smiles and has a light around her… We, as an audience, are seeing her inner beauty; we're not seeing the scar. And, to me, I think it was a great casting choice to use someone like her," he explained, as his sister posed for pictures on the Easter Sunday opening night. "I know it was a real dream of Sutton's to be able to bring this show [to Broadway] and be a part of it. It was a show that she always loved, and to actually see her dream come true of performing this role and doing it on Broadway is a thrill tonight."
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The evening was especially thrilling for 14-year-old actress Emerson Steele, who plays Foster's teenage counterpart and wrote in her Playbill bio that she is "elated and grateful" to share the stage alongside her "idol." "It was so exciting," she told Playbill.com following her performance. "I was really, really nervous a few hours before we started, but as soon as I stepped on stage, it was just the most exciting thing. To get to do this at 14 years old is just so incredible."
Joshua Henry, who commands the stage with his smooth and sultry voice in "Let It Sing" — and received show-stopping applause following his number on opening night — was also feeling lucky. He was revisiting the role of Flick 11 years later; the actor played the part in college in a production directed by Michael McElroy, who starred as Flick in the original Off-Broadway production at Playwrights Horizons.
Coming back to the role, he said, "I've just lived. I was 18. I've experienced a lot of highs and a lot of lows, and I realize a lot more what 'Let It Sing' is about. It's understanding who you are and understanding that the past doesn't have to define you. And, as far as Flick goes… I know a lot more about his demons — just living a decade of life, there's so much that happens. I was so starry-eyed doing it the first time at 18, just trying to sing the right notes… Ah, 'Let It Sing' — it's everything I believe. Forgiving yourself to move forward in life. Everyone's got scars."
|Photo by Monica Simoes|
The scar, however, was not visible on Foster's face. Director Leigh Silverman specifically set out to make the scar a metaphor in which everyone could relate to. "It's real, but it's not real," she explained. "We all have trauma from our childhood that we're trying to work through and accept and understand, and I feel like the story works literally, but it also works as metaphor. In the most exciting tradition of theatricality, I felt like it was better to not show that scar and to instead challenge the audience to use their imagination and use their creativity to understand the story that we're presenting. I'm just so grateful every night when I look at that audience and they're leaning in to follow that story. That is what we hope for."
"First of all, people's imaginations are more powerful that anything we could depict, so from day one, we were like, 'We will not show the scar' to make it a universal story," said Foster.
"It's a very simple story," added Colin Donnell, the musical's Monty. "It's something that people are able to relate to very easily. It's about a girl, who really, really wants something, and she wants what a lot of people want in this culture — to be beautiful — and I think people are really latching onto that, and they're walking away being moved by something that's very simple."
Simplicity takes center stage in Violet, where director Silverman sets a few chairs against a tarnished, light-blue background. A band is placed on a raised platform, and the characters' vulnerability takes the forefront.
"Violet's got this visible scar — people look at her and they automatically [think], 'Oh!' Flick is an African-American in the '60s. He doesn't get a lot of respect," Henry compares. "In the army, maybe he's got a certain rank, but outside of that — especially in the South — he can't eat at the same tables as other people… They both see in each other the amount of fight that they've had to have to get to this point in their lives, and I think they admire that in [each other]. Flick definitely admires that in Violet, and eventually they realize, 'Well, we both got these scars. We can be that healing for each other, possibly.'" Although a savior can't erase our scars — literally and metaphorically, both on stage and off — Violet proves that love (from each other and from one's self) can heal all wounds.
"This is our moment to find out that we can love ourselves no matter what," said Silverman, "and it is a show about walking through Hell and getting to the other side. [When] we find ourselves on the other side, that's amazing."
Other first-nighters included Joel Grey, Norbert Leo Butz, Michelle Federer, Laura Osnes, Adam Gwon, Susan Blackwell, Patti Murin, Adam Chanler-Berat, Lilli Cooper, Courtney Reed, Adam Jacobs, Cass Morgan, Andrew Rannells, Adriane Lenox, Elaine Joyce, Neil Simon, Amy Sherman-Palladino, Daniel Palladino, Joshua Harmon, Carolyn McCormick, Byron Jennings, Terrence McNally, David West Read and Michael Park.
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)