SUTTON FOSTER INTERVIEW May 10, 2002, in her dressing room at the Marquis Theater.

  
Youíre already part of a showbiz legend, but Iím interested in filling who the real person is along with the wonderful story youíve been in this year. You grew up in Augusta GAÖ?
I was born and raised in Georgia. My father worked for General Motors so we traveled a lot. We probably never spent more than 3-4 years in a town. I was born in Statesboro, lived in Athens and Augusta til I was about 13.

Then you ended up going to high school in Troy, Michigan. Do you have other siblings besides Hunter?
Just us.

Wonderful names. What are your parents names?
Bob and Helen. I think because their names are so common and run of the mill that they wanted to name their kids something different. My mom always said she hated her name so she wanted to name her children something really exciting. Iím not sure where Hunter came from, but my name was a character in a movie, she canít remember which one. 

Age diff. between you and your brother?
Six years. Five and a half.

You had yr stage debut at age 10 in Annie? PlayingÖ
Annie. That was the first time Iíd ever really sung in public. Before that it was just yodeling in the house or singing in the bathtub and driving everybody crazy. I started dacne first when I was about 4 and doing recitals and things. Then they were having auditions at the community theater in Augusta for Annie, and they needed dancers for the orphans, they had me sing, and next thing I knew I was playing the lead and singing, and I was bit.

So you started training by taking dance lessons at 4. Did you take voice lessons?
Not really. It was more for fun. Hunter and I both really enjoyed it. When we were growing up it was part of our lives. I never really studied, other than dance lessons, until college.

Whereíd you go to college?
Carnegie Mellon. But only for a year. I left. I wasnít ready to learn anything. 

Sounds like you hit the road early.
I was touring in Will Rogers Follies at 17. Did that, and after Will Rogers I wanted to be a normal kid, I was gonna go to college and try to become a real actor. But I was real young.

I was thinking itís hard once youíve got a real job getting paid itís hard to go back to school.
Yeah, it was weird, people telling me things I already knew. I didnít know what I wanted to do. I moved in with my parents, who were living in Memphis at that time. I left college and waited tables and worked at a childrenís theater and was looking at schools to go into education. I wanted to be a teacher. I was there for 8 or 9 months. Really made quite a life there, made a lot of friends I still have, really fell in love with teaching and working with kids. Then I flew up to NY to visit Hunter, and I auditioned for replacements the national tour of Grease, I went to an open call, and in four days I was in San Francisco. So the universe wanted me back in the business, even though I was trying desperately to get out of it, or running away from it. We all go thru that time in our life -- you have two paths, one looks hard and uncertain, and the other might be more secure, and everything took me to the wild path.

Although you must have wanted it because you went to that open call.
There was a part of me that wanted to be back into it. I was on tour with Grease for a year and a half. They had me come into the NY company for three weeks, as a replacement playing Sandy. Hunter was in the show.

Who was in it at that point?
Sheena Easton and I forget who the guy was. Hunter and his wife Jen were in it. The three of us were doing a show together. It was cool, cuz like my curtain call for Grease, weíd all come down, and the person on my right was my brother, for my first curtain call on Bway. And the fact that weíre both in shows on Bway this season, itís like weíre doing it together.

Do you remember yr first Bway dressing room?
It would be that one. Not very exciting. It was nice. I had my own dressing room. I was a replacement. My first original show was Annie, the 20th anniversary, that was at the Martin Beck, I was with Kelly Swaim, all the ensemble girls were on the same floor, we had these tiny little rooms, stacked next to each other.

Like the Hotel Priscilla.
Had a fabulous dresser, on the fourth floor. Nothing like this. This room is bigger than my apartment.

Really? Itís quite amazing. You have fish.
These are Sam and Henry.

Youíve got a mirror on one wall, a futon sofa, an overstuffed chair, a gigantic walkin closet. So your first show in NY was Grease, then Annie, then Scarlet Pimpernel?
Now that was a big olí chorus dressing room, 15 or 12 of us in one room. Sometimes I get really lonely being by myself, and Iím so busy in the show cuz Iím onstage so much. So before the show some nights Iíll go up and visit the girls just so I can be around other girls. When I did Pimpernel, Iím still best friends with the people I sat right next to. You get so close.

Were you in that for the whole run?
I was in it for six months. Then I did a show out at the Old Globe, What the World Needs Now, or Doesnít Need Now. That was a great experience. I was playing one fo the lead roles. It was going to come to NYÖ.

To the RoundaboutÖ
And they pulled it at the last minute. That was a good experience, cuz it taught me a lot -- sometimes things donít work out. It was the first new show Iíd been involved with from the get-go, and youíre signing the lease on your new apartment, and your dreamís about to come true, then when it doesnít happen, you go, oh no.

What songs did you sing?
Some GREAT Burt Bachrach songs: I Just Donít Know What to Do with Myself, Anyone Who Had a Heart, I Say a Little Prayer, Alfie, Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head, Knowing When to Leave.

How many people were in that?
Four leads and an ensemble of 10 or 12. 

Was it a story or a revue?
It was a story, a Mamma Mia type thing, but not as successful.

Or weíd be seeing it now, and you wouldnít be doing this. After that didnít happenÖ
I came back and got Les Mis. I did Les Mis for 18 months. 

You started asÖ
I was hired as ensemble for Bway, and did that for about 7 months, then was on the road for a little over a year playing Eponine.

You were understudying when you were in the ensemble here?
Uh huh, and I did play the role for like a weekend for some press stuff, but primarily was on the road with it.

I saw you did a bunch of workshops.
The real treat of an actorÖIíd done so many revivals that I wanted to work on new projects. Thereís something about being part of a process, working with a creative staff, working on something new is what we all strive to do. I got to work on some wonderful things. Then of course to be part of Millie in the La Jolla incarnation was fantastic.

How did that happen? Tell me.
Iíd been a part of one of the readings probably about 3 years ago, while I was doing Les Mis. A reading here in NYC, just as part of the ensemble, it was a weeklong reading. 

Where?
At Chelsea Studios, just a space. I fell in love with it. What a wonderful idea. Itís my cup of tea. I love old-fashioned musical comedy. Itís the reason I wanted to be in musical theater. I thought Iíd love to be part of this show.

Was Jim Carnahan casting it at that point?
Yes. He had cast me in the Burt Bacharach show. When that didnít succeed, I came to audition for the role of Millie for this reading. I had a terrrrible audtiion, I was lousy, and Jim Carnahan said you might want to offer her ensemble because I think she might have something to offer, they said OK. Iím so thrilled. I was part of the ensemble for the reading. It was great, I got to meet everybody.

Was Kristin Chenoweth in the reading?
It was Kate Jennings Grant in the reading of that one. Then they were having auditions for the workshop that Kristin Chenoweth ended up doing. I was auditioning for Millie, and I got down to the very very end, I was on the road with Les Mis, I was flying in for auditions, oh my gosh, but I didnít get it. But I told them I just want to be part of the show. Iíd be willing to take a leave of absence or leave Les Mis to be a part of Millie. But it didnít work out. Then they were having auditions for La Jolla, and they brought me back in again to audition for Millie, and I got right down to the end, and Iím not a great auditioner, I could never really show them what I could do.

What happens for you?
I get so nervous, so itís Ö also I think especially when you want something so bad, you try too hard. I was trying so hard that I was never at ease. So I didnít get it. My agent called. I said, you know what, Iíd be willing to do ensemble, please call and see if theyíd let me in. He called Jim Carnahan, they said oh my gosh, yeah, weíd love it. So I decided to do that. About a month before I left for La Jolla, Les Mis called to see if I wanted to play Eponiine on Broadway. I was like -- security, a role Iíd already done but on Bway, being in NYC, another opportunity might arise OR ensemble in a new show that could possibly go to Bway, but no guarantees, and I decided to do Millie. It was a hard decision. My agent said, I think youíre making a mistake. I donít know. I said, I just think my gut says I really believe in the show, thereís something about it, I want to give it a shot. And the fact that Iím sitting here todayÖitís all surreal.

You were playing Ethel Peas, and then ensemble, but it was a much smaller cast.
Yeah, I was part of the opening number, the speakeasy, the steno pool, Muzzieís party, Forget About the Boy, all the ensemble stuff. Thrilled.

And understudying Millie.
Yeah. Then about a week before we started previews, there was one of those strange circumstances. The girl who was playing Millie had gotten sick, they asked me to step in for her during rehearsals, I ended up having to learn the show in like 3 days, we did a full run-thru, and I thinkÖshe ended up having to leave the show, and they wanted me to take over the role. It was very veryÖ

Where were you when Michael Mayer called?
I was in my apartment in La Jolla. It was on that Friday after Iíd already been rehearsing for her for 3 days and I was already preparing myself to go back to the ensemble. Cuz once you have a taste of something, itís hard to go back, but I was like, I have my job to do, I wanted to be prepared if she got sick. I never in a million years would imagine Iíd get the call I got. It wasnít part of my agenda. I was thinking, Maybe Iíll get to go on once, wouldnít that be cool. He called and told me, Erin had to leave the show and they wanted me to play the role of Millie and the role is yours if you want it. I went, like, [in shock] and then I started crying and literally couldnít stop crying for a couple of hours cuz I was so scared [she laughs nervously] and confused and I didnít know how to feel. We were starting previews in a week, we had 5 weeks of rehearsal. I was like, youíre making a mistake, what are you doing. But then thereís a part of me thinking, I wanted this role so bad. But what a weird way for this to happen, how am I supposed to deal with it, I was so worried about Erin, I wanted to make sure she was OK, and I wanted to make sure the show was all right and that I didnít let anybody down and that I was up to the challenge and all these people believing in me. It was wild. La Jolla was a blur after that day. I was thrust into this position. It was WILD. Wild. Then at the end of the run they asked me to do the role here. I didnít quite realize everything. I prepared myself to a point, but you donít quite know everything that goes into this experience, being a lead on Bway. As a kid you just see the glamorous side, the accolades. You donít know how hard it is.

What did you find?
Well, itís like in rehearsals and previews, it was all about the work and trying to do a good job and your health and stamina and trying to find your pace. The one thing I didnít really prepare myself for was the criticism and the press, the ups and downs of that. I didnít prepare myself for that.

Tell me about that.
YouÖitís hard when something thatís so close to you and so important to you, something you believe in so much can be criticized. Good or bad. Iím not talking anything specific, Iím saying the good things and the bad things. Then you go, Oh, how do you deal with it? As a performer and as a human, for something youíve worked on so hard, for your performance to be criticized, not to take it personally, try to find that balance, to still feel good about what youíre doing and to really find the truth within yourself, and who are you supposed to listen to, and how much does it really matter. I didnít think about that. I prepared myself for opening. I didnít prepare myself for any of this.

So itís wild! The awards, and the luncheons -- Iím like omigod.

Even if youíd gone to 4 years of Carnegie Mellon, they wouldnít have taught you about that.
No! No one talks about it. Itís all positive, positive, positive, positive, posititive, and then itís like -- Awwwwww. How do youÖ? You donít know what to expect. This month is crazy, leading up to the Tonys.

So tell me -- there are days that turn out to be big days, certainly in the media mentality, and it sounds like from your experience too. All the preparations up to opening night, and the next day is when the reviews came out, and thatís another experience. How did you experience that day?
I didnít know how I was going to react to the reviews. I didnít know how I was going to treat them, if I was going to read them or not. The opening night was one of the best nights of my life. I was relieved and thrilled and magical. The party was crazy and meeting all these people, it was unbelievable. I have pictures of me, I look like my eyeballs are going to pop out. And my boyfriend and I walked home, and before we went to bed he pulled up one of the reviews online, and it wasnít a positive one, and we both went to bed a little deflated. It had tainted the evening. In a way we were, like, I wish we hadnít read anything, cuz you walk home like, weíre untouchable, weíre on top of the world. Then all of a sudden thereís a sledgehammer on your head and youíre like, Oh, nooooo. The next day you read one, then you want to read a good one, and the first three I read were awful, and I thought, oh no! Then I was, I need validation that Iím not this horrible actress. Then all the pressure of the show came rushing into me, and I thought, Oh no, Iím playing the lead and Iíve let everyone down. By the end of the day we realized we had far more good than bad, it ended up being a really good day, but the only things you listen to are the loops of the bad things going thru your head.

Then about five days ago I decided Iím not reading anything else. It was taking away my power. I felt like the show and I donít deserve to doubt myself. With criticism itís hard. Itís human nature to criticize, and people are curious, and of course you go to bed dreaming of the glowing review that will, I donít know what. But reviews are a very small part of what we do up there on the stage.

It sounds like it was a real initiation for you.
Iím so glad I did it. Now I donít want to read anything, esp with the Tony stuff. Iíll wait and read our interview sometime later. I donít know, itís a weird thing. I think every actor has to go through it. Itís a tricky business, and in a way Iím glad that Iím going thru it now in such a big way and realizing things that I didnít realize. Iím growing so much as a human and learning so much.

You ask some good questions -- actors ask, how do I know what to make of this, how do I hold my own opinion. Sounds like you learned something.
Yeah. Now Iím at a place where I just want to do a good job and feel good about what I do. This is the opportunity of a lifetime. Iím on Bway. Our cast album is coming out June 11. Iíve never been on a cast album -- well, Scarlet Pimpernel you can maybe hear me belting in the background. This is an unbelievable experience and I donít want anything to taint it. 

How was the day of the Tony nominations?
Well, I went to bed that night. My boyfriend and I talked, and I was prepared not to get a nomination. The reviews helped me with that. You go to bed, everythingís gonna be great, then youíre like Oh No! So Iím like all right, I have perspective, Iím in reality, I was like, Iím prepared to not get a nomination, Iím prepared for everything. We werenít gonna wake up at 8:30, but then neither of us could sleep.

Whatís yr boyfriendís name
Christian. I remember in the middle of the night, I hear him setting the alarm. He gets up at 8:20. Heís more excited than I am. The coolest thing is that heís like a Millie geek, he loves the show so much. Heís so proud of me.

Is he an actor?
Heís an actor.

Whatís his last name?
Christian Borle. Heís just been Ö I donít know how anybody could put up with me, everything thatís going on with me. I couldnít have done it without him. [They just celebrated their first anniversary.] 

So he got up at 8:20, turned on the TV, heís over there flipping the channels, Iím still in bed, I crawl to the end of the bed, and we see Jennifer Jason Leigh and Steven Weber on NY1, and the first name they said was mine, because they started with best actress in a musical, and I was the first on the list. I was like, OK, great, got that out of the way. I was relieved and excited.

I think the coolest thing about the day was all the phone calls I got. People from all over the country. Emails galore, my cel phone, my home phone, just tons.

Who was most surprising to hear from?
Oh my gosh. Iím trying to think. I got emails from old friends from high schoolsí parents emailing me, parents of college friends sending me an email saying, Can you send our firm a head shot? Iím like, youíre such a nerd -- I had pork chops at my house, I canít send you a head shot. Itís so weird. Itís incredible. 

And like Christian and I looked at each other and jumped up and down. I got more phone calls the day the Tony nominations came out than I did opening night. The Tonys is that thing, when I was in high school I didnít pay attention to openings of shows, I paid attention to Tony Awards and cast albums.

You watched the Tony Awards on TV?
Starting when I was 14. Thatís what taught me about theater, what to go see, or what I would go buy. I would buy the cast albums.

What was yr first cast album?
Probably Les Mis. I was addicted to Les Mis. The fact that I did itÖ.you put some shows up on a pedestal.

So when you were 14 you watched the Tony Awards the first time. What won?
I donít remember. I remember the Phantom year. I remember Michael Crawfordís speech, what he said, he said my life is so crazy right now I feel like Iím gonna get run over by a truck. I remember Daisy Eaganís speech. I remember Secret Garden, Miss Saigon, Once on this Island, no, was that that year? One great great year with all these wonderful things. I had the Miss Saigon album, Once on This Island, Secret Garden, Into the Woods, Phantom, Les Mis, any show that came thru Detroit, I went and saw. I remember the Will Rogers Follies year, when it won, cuz it was up against Saigon and it won. I remember Lea Salonga and I think Jonathan Pryce won. I remember they did "Favorite Son" on stage, this whole thing, slapping chest, I was like 16, watching it, I said "I could do that" to my mom, the next summer I auditioned for Will Rogers and I was doing it. So the Tonys was my gateway to the Bway community, and thatís really whatÖpeople hear youíre nominated for a Tony, itís like, youíve made it. Iím so, like, Millie Millie Millie, tunnel vision. In a couple of years Iíll look back. Itís a weird balance to try to stay focused and humble and do your show and stay healthy, and then wanting to enjoy everything. Donít get your hopes up, keep reality in perspective and all those things. Itís a strange seesaw and roller coaster of emotions.

I hear you say Stay healthy, so it sounds like thatís a concern for you.
Yeah, vocally and stamina.

You have a big voice. Do you have to do special things to take care of it?
Oh yea, lots of things. Iím really possessed by my voice lately cuz the showís so demanding. I have an incredible voice teacher, Joan Later, who I work with, all sorts of things I do. Very strict warmup I do every day, Iím on vocal rest a lot. Roll on balls. I do crazy things.

You roll on balls? Up and down your back?
On my stomach.

To open up your diaphragm?
Yeah, Iíll be on the floor. I steam, Iím addicted to little Starburst sucky things, Iím always having candy backstage, I drink tea and water.

Youíre drinking tea now?
Yeah, ginger tea. Good for your tummy. I have a terrible nervous stomach. Thatís something nice and juicy to write about. Iíve had an upset stomach for about five months.

How is it now?
Itís the same. Itíll get better after June 3. 

To go back, to training, you said you went to Carnegie Mellon for a year, did actor training?
Musical theater training. This prior year, Iíve been taking voice for the past couple of years, now studying very Ö every week.

Before that youíd just been doing shows.
Yeah, a lot of my training was on the job training. The past year has been to prepare for this, cuz I knew how demanding. I was in acting class, private acting lessons, trying to take dance lessons when I could and vocal performance lessons too.

Iím curious to go back to that period between La Jolla and Bway. Michael said 70% of the show changed, and they did this unusual thing of asking you not to take any jobs in NYC. How was all that?
It was good. Iíd been working so steadily for so long that Iíd missed outÖI was only in school for a year, and I was working working. So I had about 10 months when I wasnít working, I was doing little workshops here and there. It was nice, I was taking class, preparing for the show, preparing for opening night, preparing to take responsibility.

Someday youíll teach your own workshop on dealing with the reviews.
Yeah, Dark Friday, all right, here we go.

Good workshop.
Yeah, how do you prepare your ego. Ego 101.

For 10 months, did they pay you a stipend or something?
I donít know if you wanna say anything about that, but they took care of me very well. With each postponement, my unemployment would run out. It was great, I met my boyfriend and we had time to create a relationship in NYC. We had fun, we were able to go on vacation, I was able to have a social life, I was able to go out on a Saturday night for the first time in my life. Weíre entertainers, so weíre other peopleís entertainment on a Saturday night. I have no social life now. Hopefully itíll come back.

After June 3.
Yeah, itís kind of the golden date for all these Tony nominated shows. I was talking to somebody else at the Drama League luncheon. Neither of us had any clue that this time would be so crazy.

All this is extra, all these interviews and lunches.
And itís all fun. But at the same time, itís aÖthe thing that gets me is I get overwhelmed, I have to take it day to day, minute to minute, hour to hour. If I look at that calendar on the wall, I see all the things written, thereís no way Iím going to be able to handle it all: weíre doing the Rosie show again, thereís the Drama Desk Awards, thereís the Manhattan Theater Club gala, thereís the Tony brunch, Outer Critics, some other things, some more interviews, so every day I get another little piece of paper. When the press guy comes in, Iím like, what is it? 

Postponing your real life until all these things get out of the way.
Yeah, but itís worth it. It really is. If I keep remembering that. I canít believe what I do. When I go out on stage every night, thatís ultimately whatís really important. Iím living a fairy tale. Iím living a dream. Period.

Michael said that a lot of the changes in the show between La Jolla and here was building the character around you. Seeing it a second time I was thinking about modern, developing an image of the modern woman, not your usual ingenue, Iím curious to know how that character was built and shaped around you, how that was molded for Bway -- esp the contrast between Millie and Dorothy as two different kinds of young women.
I think the one thing of Sutton, of me, that they really wanted to capitalize on is my dorkiness, my goofiness. They wanted to let that come thru Millie. Sheís a dork, this girl from Kansas, sheís a dork. Her ideals are strong but theyíre a little messed up: this is the way Iím gonna live my life, Iím gonna marry rich and live happily ever after. She falls on her face a million times.

How do people know that youíre a dork?
Itís pretty obvious, I always feel like. I donít try to be anything but me. Itís so fun to play a character that isnít typical ingenue, whatever that means. Doesnít have to be pretty, doesnít have to fit into a little box. Sheís erratic and can be simple and sweet and sincere, and can be extremely demanding and falling on the ground.

Michael would say, Do that dorky thing you do?
Or say like in the middle of the rehearsal I would do something new and heíd encourage that side of Millie to continue to grow. Itís fun to have a leading lady whoís not your run of the mill character. Sheís got a million differentÖ definitely contrasted to Dorothy. She comes from Kansas, milking cows, running to escape a destined life she wants to break free from. 

What about the modern thing?
Millie strives to be that ideal of what she sees as up to date, follow the course of what will lead her to happiness. Modern equals happiness, but then thru the play realizes that love equals happiness. I donít know if itís modern, modern business, modern technology, maybe modern isnít always a good word. The one thing we really worked on was that tenacity of a girl from nowhere wanting to make a name for herself. One thing part of the show is we all have that moment where we were first in the city if we werenít raised here, coming from nowhereÖthat first image of being in the city, how you felt, the decisions youíve made. Those two paths I was talking about, the uncertain scary path or the secure boring path, which one do you take. All of us ultimately who are here in the city took the scary path, you know, or we wouldnít be here. Itís like, weíve all had that experience. Weíve all gone thru the unknown. I will not settle for Öme Sutton, I will not settle, period. I will strive only to do the best that I can. I donít want to be Ö as far as relationships go, I donít want to settle. I have tenacity and fire like Millie does. Not as much. I wish I could be like her.

I guess you fake it enough.
Iím a good faker.

People talk about the similarity to Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett, did you always get that growing up?
Mary Tyler Moore, a lot. The eyes, the teeth. And the hair. I did a show where I had her curled under hair, I was 15, people would say Mary Tyler Moore. Carol Burnett, Iím so flattered. I think sheís amazing. Her show was my favorite. I want them to make a DVD of her finest moments, Iíd buy it in a heartbeat.

Were there moments you were channeling her?
I wish I could channel her! Iíd love to meet her. I dunno, I think theyíre just influences. You watch enough of something, it gets in your bones. You follow yr instincts.

Are both your parents alive?
Yes. Theyíre coming to the show this weekend.

Whoís the most amazing person youíve met thru this?
Whoopi Goldberg.

Interview copyright 2002 by Don Shewey. All rights reserved.