Sutton Foster was ready for whatever the day could throw at her.
Rehearsals for this weekend’s Hollywood Bowl performances of “Into the Woods” had propelled her life into hyper-speed, and the morning had already been busy by breakfast time, when the Broadway leading lady and star of the TV Land comedy “Younger” slipped into a restaurant booth.
Her writer-director husband, Ted Griffin, was out of the house early for a day of post-production on a TV pilot. Their 2-year-old daughter, Emily, had been readied to go to a library story hour with the nanny. And on the way from the family’s Los Angeles home (Manhattan’s their base), Foster had dropped the household’s two canines at doggy daycare.
“It’s just a circus,” she said, laughing. “A lot of moving pieces, but it’s a very full, wonderful house.”
Whether onstage or on-screen — or sitting in a random deli booth — she exudes optimism mixed with confidence, fearlessness balanced by determination.
“Younger” fans admire those qualities in Liza, a divorced mother who, to reenter the book-publishing workforce at age 40, pretends to be in her mid-20s. A similar resolve grounds Foster’s character in the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical “Into the Woods.” The Baker and Baker’s Wife live in a “once upon a time” kingdom amid such fairy-tale characters as Cinderella and Rapunzel. Their prickly neighbor, a witch, has cast a spell causing infertility. To undo it, the witch assigns a list of seemingly absurd tasks — a situation similar to what many couples face with hormone shots and attempts at in vitro fertilization.
Foster has lived that story.
“We had tons of infertility struggles,” said the actress, 44, who has been married to Griffin, 48, for close to five years.
“It changes a marriage, it changes a relationship, when you have these wishes and dreams and they aren’t fulfilled,” she quietly said, “and you don’t know what to do, and you blame one another.
“So much of it falls on the woman’s shoulders, and it’s so hard. We did three rounds of IVF. I’m putting hormones in my body. I’m growing eggs. It’s crazy.” After the second round, “I knew that it wasn’t working, and I was so frustrated. I said, ‘We have to start pursuing adoption, so that we put out all the troops at the same time. Because I can’t just keep doing this; it’s too much.’”
That changed everything.
“It became a different journey for us,” Foster said, “and very positive, and it was very clear that Emily was supposed to be our daughter.”
“With Emily, I say, ‘I didn’t grow her in my belly, but I grew her in my heart.’ We found each other.”
As Foster explains why she’s so caught up in portraying the Baker’s Wife, you sense it’s because she’s found a like mind. “She’s not a doormat. She’s daring and hopeful and optimistic. She fights for her marriage, for this child.”
The role was on her bucket list. “I grew up listening to the cast recording,” she said.
Foster holds lead actress Tony Awards for the musicals “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (2002) and “Anything Goes” (2011) and has been nominated four additional times for shows including “The Drowsy Chaperone” and “Shrek.”
But “Younger,” now in its sixth season, and Emily have kept Foster from Broadway since “Violet” in 2014. Concert appearances and short runs of a couple of shows away from Broadway have kept her connected to live performance while she awaits the beginning of rehearsals a year from now for a Broadway revival of “The Music Man” opposite Hugh Jackman.
It changes a marriage ... when you have these wishes and dreams and they aren’t fulfilled. ... You blame one another.
Meanwhile, “Into the Woods” has returned her to one of her favorite spots: the rehearsal room, a place that is “fun and terrifying and exhilarating and creative and collaborative and messy.”
Rehearsals began July 8 and have been proceeding six days a week with a cast that includes Skylar Astin (as the Baker), Gaten Matarazzo and Cheyenne Jackson. Such a brief rehearsal period for so vast a show “is insane,” Foster said, and all for just three performances, Friday through Sunday. “But the Bowl is such a magical place, and I thought this might be the only chance I get to play it.
“Because this process is so fast, I’m having to embrace imperfection,” she said. Then again, that’s become familiar territory, she acknowledged with a smile. “Being a mom is about embracing imperfection” as her once-unerring punctuality and other characteristics are overtaken by the happy demands of raising a child.
She will bring Emily to see a daytime dress rehearsal. “I’ve been able to introduce the television world to her, but I haven’t been able to introduce the theater world, so I’m really excited.”
The rare alchemy of Foster’s talent is difficult to put into words, but some of those who’ve seen it up-close gave it a try.
Robert Longbottom, who is directing the Hollywood Bowl staging, observed: “She can handle serious drama and comedy, sometimes at the same time, and sing so intelligently and with such a great voice, and then she dances as well. It’s kind of astonishing to be in the room with her and watch how quickly she processes information.”
Composer Jeanine Tesori worked with Foster as the actress originated the leading roles in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Shrek,” then revived the title character in “Violet.” She calls Foster’s voice, a soprano that can easily dip to mezzo, one “for the ages” — timeless. “And she has a way of phrasing a lyric that — I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about it.”
Beyond talent, Foster’s preparation and rehearsal-room attitude also set her apart. “Sutton’s a real goofball,” Tesori said. “She can sing like a dream and do a tour jeté and all that, but she’s a real goonie. At the end of the day, Sutton has a great time, and she makes sure everybody else does as well.”
Peter Hermann, who portrays Charles, a love interest of Foster’s “Younger” character, admires that quality too. “She is ridiculously well prepared,” he shared by email. “She gives herself the gift of that freedom: I did the work, now I can play. I think that’s one of the reasons she’s such a delight to watch, because we’re watching someone deeply at play.”
Although New York considers the Georgia-born, Michigan-raised Foster its own, Southern California can make strong claims as well.
While “Thoroughly Modern Millie” was being tried out at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2000, Foster was promoted from understudy to star shortly before the launch of preview performances — a “42nd Street”-like showbiz tale capped by her first Tony win when the show proceeded to Broadway.
In 2005, she inadvertently caused a sensation in Los Angeles when she broke her right wrist in rehearsal for the pre-Broadway tryout of “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Refusing to be sidelined from a role that in one dance number alone called for spins, lifts, dives, splits, high kicks and cartwheels, she practiced one-armed cartwheels until she’d perfected them. The achievement doubly wowed audiences.
“Younger,” though, films in New York. A romantic comedy, the show has put her character, Liza, in a long-running either/or between two men: Josh, a mid-20s tattoo artist, and Charles, the head of the publishing company where she works and closer to Liza’s true age.
“I feel Liza loves both of them, and even I flip back and forth. I was so pro-Charles for so long, and now that Liza and Charles are together, I’m like, maybe Josh.” But they’re “both viable, wonderful choices,” and Foster is grateful that the writers are masters of evenhandedness as they keep drawing out the suspense.
She added, however: “I think the best relationships are between the women. The show started out about a woman lying about her age to get a job and has transitioned into what women have to do to thrive and succeed and survive in the workplace.”
Thinking ahead to “The Music Man” next year, Foster plans to burrow into 1910s small-town librarian Marian Paroo to root out all her complexities and contradictions. Fluttery romantic interest? No, thank you. “She’s one of the great ingénues, but she’s fiery, she’s different, she’s got a past.” Those are the qualities that interest Foster. “I can bring something different.”
Acting, for Foster, is about pushing forward. “I’m always looking for a challenge, to work with people who inspire me. And fun, a thousand times.
“That’s what I want my daughter to see. It’s so fun to be able to share stuff with her, and I want her to see her mom having fun.”
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Info: (323) 850-2000, hollywoodbowl.com