SUTTON FOSTER: Plucked From the Chorus: It's Corny but True

EVERYBODY loves a good story, and this season on Broadway, Sutton Foster has the best. It's a familiar one — in fact, it's the plot of "42nd Street": an unknown is plucked from the chorus, takes over the lead and becomes a star. In real life, though, hardly anyone experiences what Ms. Foster has been through with "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

When the stage version of the 1967 movie musical went into rehearsals for its pre-Broadway tryout at the La Jolla Playhouse in California a year and a half ago, Ms. Foster was in the ensemble. She had a tiny part and was the understudy for Erin Dilly, who had been cast as Millie when Kristin Chenoweth, the director Michael Mayer's original choice, got a television series.

After the first run-through, it became clear, Mr. Mayer said, that Ms. Dilly was not ideally suited for the role, and the producers asked Ms. Foster to take over. She played Millie for the entire California
engagement, which received notices encouraging enough for the producers to bring the show to Broadway. And against the recommendations of many advisers, they decided to give the starring role of a $9.5 million production to a 27-year-old actress whose peak moment on Broadway had been singing the role of Eponine in "Les Misérables" for one weekend.

No story is complete without adversity, of course. When "Thoroughly Modern Millie" opened on April 18 at the Marquis Theater, it got many reviews praising it as an old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing entertainment. In New York magazine, John Simon wrote a paragraph raving about Ms. Foster. But reviewers from several influential publications were distinctly negative, including Ben Brantley in The New York Times. Mr. Brantley found the show — and Ms. Foster's performance — long on energy, short on style.

Whatever clouds the mixed reception cast over the show's prospects cleared up considerably when the Tony nominations were announced. "Thoroughly Modern Millie" received 11, more than any other show this season, and Ms. Foster could win the best actress award the first time she is eligible.

"I didn't quite realize everything that goes into being a lead on Broadway," Ms. Foster said recently, sipping ginger tea in her dressing room, which she noted is larger than her apartment. Tall and slender,
with a coltish physicality, she has the gee-whiz friendliness of someone who can scarcely believe her good luck. "You don't know how hard it is. In rehearsals and previews, it was all about the work and trying to do a good job and trying to find your pace. I didn't prepare for the criticism and the press, the ups and downs of that. As a kid, you just see the glamorous side, the accolades."

Ms. Foster caught the performing bug early. She started dance classes at age 4 and made her stage debut at 10 as the title moppet in "Annie" at a community theater in Augusta, Ga. Her father worked
for General Motors, and the family moved frequently. While attending high school in Troy, Mich., she was cast in a touring production of "The Will Rogers Follies." She enrolled at Carnegie Mellon University but dropped out after a year. She moved in with her parents and contemplated becoming a teacher. But then she visited her older brother, the actor Hunter Foster (he currently plays the hero in
"Urinetown"), in New York, and went to an open audition for replacements for the national tour of the 1994 revival of "Grease." Four days later she was in San Francisco doing the show.

She made her Broadway debut playing Sandy in "Grease" for three weeks and went on to perform in the 20th-anniversary revival of "Annie" and in "The Scarlet Pimpernel." She was in "Les Misérables" on
Broadway for seven months and played Eponine on the road for more than a year. When a casting director she had met was hired to cast "Millie," he presented Ms. Foster to Mr. Mayer as a potential lead.

"She had all the right qualities," Mr. Mayer said recently. "The innocence, big-hearted openness, spectacular singing and dancing and acting chops. But she'd never done this kind of lead before. She
seemed a little green." He cast her as an understudy for the La Jolla production, and when Ms. Dilly did not work out, Mr. Mayer said, "Sutton stepped in and just blew us away."

"She knew the moves, she knew the lines, she could really dance," he said. "She embodied this girl from Kansas who moves to the big city with a real appetite to recreate herself. And that's all acting. Sutton doesn't have the kind of ego, the steely determination. Millie is more ferocious."

When the producers decided to take the show to Broadway, there was strong pressure to hire a celebrity. But the creative team persuaded the producers to go with an unknown and prevailed upon
Ms. Foster not to take any other jobs in New York so they could introduce her with "Millie."

In the year between La Jolla and Broadway, the show was revised by the composer, Jeanine Tesori, and Dick Scanlan, who collaborated on the book with Richard Morris (who died in 1996). Mr. Mayer estimated that 70 percent was rewritten, much of it tailored to Ms. Foster's portrayal.

With her toothy smile, dark hair and a presence that can be comically gawky, Ms. Foster has conjured comparisons to Mary Tyler Moore, who played the second female lead (to Julie Andrews's Millie) in
the movie. Mr. Mayer has made use of this physical resemblance.

"I think the one thing of me that they really wanted to capitalize on is my dorkiness," Ms. Foster said. "Millie falls on her face a million times. It's fun to play a character who's not a typical ingenue."

Ms. Foster prepared by working with an acting teacher, a vocal coach and the show's musical director. The class no one offered was How to Deal With Reviews.

For Ms. Foster, it was an initiation that she will never forget. "The opening night was one of the best nights of my life," she said. "My boyfriend — Christian Borle, he's an actor too — and I walked home,
and before we went to bed, he pulled up one of the reviews online, and it wasn't a positive one. You're feeling on top of the world, and suddenly there's a sledgehammer on your head. The next day, I
wanted to read a good review, and the first three I read were awful. The pressure of the show came rushing into me, and I thought: `Oh, no! I'm playing the lead and I've let everyone down!' By the end of
the day we had far more good than bad reviews, so it ended up being a really good day. But the loops of the bad things still stick in your head."

Soon, she decided she had to stop reading reviews. "It was taking away my power," she said. "It doesn't help the show for me to doubt myself. Reviews are a very small part of what we do up there. When I go out on the stage every night, that's ultimately what's most important."

Ms. Foster was determined to have more perspective about the Tonys. "I was prepared not to get a nomination," she said. "We weren't going to wake up at 8:30 and watch the announcement on TV, but then neither of us could sleep. My boyfriend got up at 8:20 and turned on the TV. They started with the best actress in a musical category, and the first name they said was mine. I was, like — whew, got that out of the way."

New York Times, May 19, 2002

To read the unedited interview transcript, click here.