She won a Tony Award for belting it big in Broadway's Thoroughly Modern Millie, but Sutton Foster's latest turn is in a more intimate concert setting.
Sutton Foster
Sutton Foster

She opened at the Café Carlyle, the Manhattan nightspot at the Carlyle Hotel, on June 15, and continues singing delicately — with some Big Numbers, too — through June 26. We spoke to Foster the day after she opened Sutton Foster at the Café Carlyle.

Your Café Carlyle debut is musical-directed by pianist Michael Rafter, whose arrangments are so brilliant. He also MD'd your album, "Wish." How did you meet, and what is it about Michael that makes him such a fit for you?
Sutton Foster: Michael and I met doing Thoroughly Modern Millie — nine years ago! He was the musical director and conductor on that show. And we just had a very special bond throughout that entire experience. In 2004 I was asked to do a concert (my first) as part of the American Songbook Series at Lincoln Center. I immediately asked Michael if he would develop it with me, and we've been working together ever since. After that initial concert we just kept working together — meeting in studios and bringing in ideas and songs and truly collaborating as a team on finding the music for the album.

The Noel Coward song "Come the Wild Wild Weather," on your album, is a real discovery. Who primarily chooses repertoire for your concert? Both of you? Did you arm wrestle?
SF: Michael actually brought in "Come the Wild Wild Weather" and I immediately loved it. The lyrics are just so beautiful. I would say that it has truly been a 50/50 experience. And, also, we have our director Mark Waldrop, who has also contributed it's more like a three-way split. But we basically bring in tons of ideas and we listen together, and if a song speaks to us, we start working on it. Sometimes one of us might be a little more excited about a song than the other. I first brought in "Sunshine On My Shoulders" 'cause I knew I wanted to sing a John Denver song — and Michael winced at the idea. But then he developed this beautiful arrangement and now it's one of his favorites...mine, too. We just work really organically, and I trust him and his ear completely.

Does a cabaret/concert make you more nervous than carrying a big show? Do you still get butterflies in your stomach?
SF: Before every concert I think, "Why did I decide to do this?" Because I get soooo nervous. I have to stare at myself in the mirror and repeat, "YOU CAN DO THIS." It's definitely more exposed. And especially at the Carlyle — it's so intimate, you feel like you're in your living room. People are right there. You can't hide. But every time I get out on the stage I feel better. And having Michael there…well, that helps too.

What cities are you taking your concert to later this year?
SF: I'm going to the Berkshires in August, Chicago in September... I literally have to look at my calendar for the rest of the dates... but I know I'm going to Clearwater, FL, at some point... and Tennessee... and then DC in January... [Visit for a more complete tour list.] Is there another album brewing?
SF: There is! But we don't want to rush it. It took us four years to find the material for "Wish" and I'm not saying it will take four years for another album, but it has to feel right. So far we have about five new songs that we would love to record. I'm actually really excited about what this next album could be.

From Millie to Little Women to Drowsy Chaperone to Young Frankenstein to Shrek — to say nothing of your "Law & Order," "Flights of the Conchords" and "Johnny and the Sprites" TV appearances — you never seem to repeat yourself. And this summer is something new again: a new play called Trust at Second Stage. Can you tell us a little about the character you play?
SF: I am very much looking forward to doing this play. It's a great new play by Paul Weitz. And a really unexpected character. I don't want to reveal too much. But it's definitely a side of myself that no one has ever seen...not even me.

Fans might think of you as a musical theatre actress, but I would guess you would like to be considered an actress who can move between projects, whether musical or "straight."
SF: Labels of any sort are frustrating, but I guess I just want to be seen as an actress who can "hopefully" do many things. Musical theatre is acting with singing it...but it's all acting.

If someone said, we want you for seven seasons on a new TV series, and it severely curtailed your chance to create new plays and musicals, would you go for it?
SF: It would depend on what the TV series was. If it was an awesome character in a show I really felt passionate about, then definitely. I just want to do projects that I like and feel strongly about. And so far that has been stage work. But if something came along my path and it was TV or film and it excited me — then sign me up.

Did your folks take you to national touring shows when you were growing up in Georgia and Michigan? What shows did you see that made an impact on you as a kid?
SF: Oh, yes. Well, I saw basically every show that came into town in Detroit. I remember the first show I saw, Me and My Girl — still one of my favorites — I was probably 14 or 15. There was an understudy on for the lead role, and there were rumblings through the audience that it was his first time on. When the curtain call came, the entire cast was applauding him, and he was fantastic. Then the curtain fell and you could hear the cast erupting in cheers and applause for him behind the curtain. I remember thinking, "I wanna do that." How cool it was to hear the human side and the celebration of the theatre. I will never forget that moment. And I remember seeing Les Miz in Detroit as well, with with my high school drama class. I was very fond of the album and knew it by heart, and when "Bring Him Home" started, I thought, "I'm not gonna cry," and then of course I was bawling. 'Cause, well, it was beautiful.

When we spoke in the past, you said you wanted to take a year off. What happened to that dream?
SF: HA! I know. Well, I did buy a lake house this year, which has been a huge change in my life. And I have technically taken time off from the eight-show-a-week grind...although I have been keeping myself busier than ever. But now my life consists of a bunch of different projects — the concerts, this play, teaching at NYU and Ball State University, furnishing my lake house, gardening, learning how to grill! It has definitely been one of the best years yet.


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