Thursday, September 5, 2013

Acting is fundamental to Sutton Foster's concept of her career

The watchword for any stagestruck youngster hoping for a Broadway career is to craft a sturdy three-legged stool —  dancing, acting, singing — get up on it,  and hope for a favorable wind to take off.

So conventional is that advice that Sutton Foster, who's mastered all three essential skills, says the most frequent question she gets when she works with students is: Which is the most important?

Foster spoke with me by phone in anticipation of her solo concert (presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana) at Carmel's Palladium Oct. 5, and she has a forthright answer:  Acting.
Sutton Foster will bring her solo show to Carmel.

"Dance is a bunch of movement, singing is a bunch of noise," she said, smoothly turning autobiographical: "That was my problem at first. I had a lot of energy and a lot of volume and lot of chutzpah. But without anything behind the sound, it's meaningless," she explained. "I had to learn to go for the interpretation."

She found the key big time 11 years ago on Broadway as the star of "Thoroughly Modern Millie," which earned her a Tony Award. Her repeat recognition in the American Theatre Wing honors (named for director Antoinette Perry) came with a revival of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" in 2011. The high profile she now enjoys was further developed as she originated roles in "Little Women," "The Drowsy Chaperone," "Young Frankenstein" and "Shrek the Musical."

"I started off as a dancer, and then I started singing," Foster said, alluding to her early involvement in community and high-school theater in her native Georgia. "I'd like to be known as a great actor." In fact, she has told previous interviewers that she is looking to do more dramatic roles, without song and dance and razzmatazz.

And the prospects?  She charmingly mixed metaphors in dancing around a "no comment" response: "We have a bunch of irons in the fire, a bunch of things percolating that I can't talk about now."

In the meantime, she's been spending a lot of time touring with her solo concert show, developed with her music director, Michael Rafter, who will accompany her here.

Since she takes characterization so seriously, I wondered if there's a problem moving from one to another in the course of a 70-minute show largely focused on Broadway roles. "I definitely was in all of my characters, so there's always a piece of myself when I do them," she replied. "What a solo show affords me is to show the audience me. It's more of an intimate, raw evening. I'm not wearing a wig and lashes; it's just me."

The show changes continually to keep it fresh. Next Tuesday, she'll open a three-week engagement at the Cafe Carlyle in New York City, and she expects adjustments will be made as the show runs its course before her Palladium gig.

"At the Palladium we'll be doing some songs for the very first time that we're just working on," she said. "A lot of it is about discovery," as she and Rafter prepare a new CD, successor to two previous recordings. "I have to figure out: What is it? What do I want to say? There is a clear arc to the show: Right now it's about creating and discovering new stuff."

Teaching music-theater classes, chiefly at Ball State University, where she delivered the Commencement Address last year, is part of the process. "It's been awesome working with the students," Foster said. "In my working with them, I've become a better performer. I find I'm telling them things my teachers have always told me," and that helps to incorporate that long-ago wisdom into her professional work.

Because she finished growing up in Troy, Mich., Foster feels a deep appreciation for the heartland. That is partly why she enjoys her instructional time in Muncie, she said. Performing outside New York is different, too; she's leery of describing New York audiences as more sophisticated, fearing that might seem to cast people elsewhere as rubes.

"But the Southern sensibility and the Midwestern sensibility: that's like my heart," Foster said. "The openness of the people, their generosity and sense of family — that's a near and dear thing to me."