A little more than halfway through “Violet,” the musical revival that recently opened on Broadway, the show’s central characters gather in a Memphis dance hall. The band, playing directly behind the actors, starts thumping, and people start boogieing.
The tempo builds, and a bluesy singer suggestively belts out:
Hey, I’m dyin’
I’m dyin’ to do somethin’ wrong
There’s no denyin’
Denyin’ strings it along
As the crowd around her swings, the show’s title character, played by Sutton Foster, almost imperceptibly begins to tap her feet. But as soon as Violet starts to move just that tiny bit, the music stops and Violet is faced with a choice far more dramatic than deciding whether to dance: Will this woman, disfigured by a childhood accident, spend the night with a soldier she’s just met, or will she continue down a lonely road toward possible spinsterhood?
Anyone who has seen Foster onstage over the last several years — as Reno Sweeney in Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” as Millie Dillmount in the musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and as Janet van de Graaff in the send-up “The Drowsy Chaperone” — knows that the actress is prone to joyous celebrations of song and choreography. Seeing Foster fail to dance onstage is a little bit like seeing Matthew McConaughey keep his shirt fully buttoned — it’s not what’s supposed to happen. In fact, Foster’s character is the only one in “Violet” who doesn’t dance, ever.
In that and other ways, “Violet” represents a critical and deliberate shift in Foster’s rapidly rising career, a tack away from musical merriment to more complicated and dramatic roles, parts governed less by dance steps and more by acting. In many of her most notable performances, the 39-year-old Foster played the most alluring woman (if not person) on the stage. In “Violet,” her character is convinced she’s ugly both inside and out.
“I think people see me as a song-and-dance comedian. That’s what I do. Almost every show I’ve done has a tap dance number,” Foster said two days before “Violet” opened to largely radiant reviews, nearly all of which singled out her lead performance for particular praise. “This is the complete opposite. I want to be seen as someone who can do many things.”
A new bloom
“Violet” started as a short story, and its first theatrical adaptation was equally brief, running less than a month off-Broadway in 1997.
Doris Betts, a North Carolina novelist, published the show’s source material, “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” in 1973.
The short story followed a young woman named Violet traveling by bus from a rural outpost to a Tulsa faith healer. She has convinced herself that the televangelist’s divine powers somehow can mend her facial scar, the result of a blade flying off her father’s ax. Along the way, Violet meets two soldiers, one African American and one white. “The Ugliest Pilgrim” was adapted into a live-action short film, also called “Violet,” that won an Oscar in 1982, the year “Chariots of Fire” took the best picture trophy.
Composer Jeanine Tesori (“Caroline, Or Change”) and librettist Brian Crawley (“A Little Princess”) first developed “Violet” in 1994 at the National Musical Theater Conference. Its New York premiere came three years later, and even though it received a handful of awards and award nominations, it closed quickly.
Tesori, who collaborated with Foster on “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Shrek the Musical,” and Crawley decided that, rather than ditch “Violet,” they would give it an overhaul.
Songs were reworked, added or abandoned, a two-act production was condensed into a show without an intermission, and the story’s thematic essence — how we define beauty, what we need for acceptance, where we find compassion and forgiveness — was magnified.
“They are the things,” Foster said over lunch in an Upper West Side restaurant, “that we deal with on a daily basis.”
Last year, “Violet” was part of the opening season for Encores! Off-Center, a series of minimally staged musicals, for which Tesori served as the series’ artistic director. . Foster played the lead role, and when the one-night production was received favorably “Violet” had new life.
Set in 1964, the musical makes several departures from Betts’ story, including excising some of the short story’s racist language and making the story of the black soldier, Flick (Joshua Henry, from “The Scottsboro Boys”), more closely parallel Violet’s.
Unlike the tradition in shows such as “Cyrano de Bergerac,” director Leigh Silverman, whose credits favor drama over musicals, doesn’t use a prosthetic device to represent the scar across Violet’s left cheek. But as soon as a bus driver in the show’s opening scene takes one look at her face and recoils, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to accept that the wound was gruesome.
Indeed, Foster wears no makeup at all, and the wonderful wardrobe changes of past productions have been replaced by one shapeless dress. “It’s exposing and it’s vulnerable and it’s anti-glamorous,” Foster said of her unadorned appearance. “But it’s appropriate. I can’t imagine doing it any other way.”
Foster is living proof that beyond having innate talent it’s often just as important to be in the right place at the right time.
In 2000 at the La Jolla Playhouse, Foster was in the ensemble, an understudy to Erin Dilly, who was playing Millie in the revival that had its early tryout in Southern California. When director Michael Mayer decided to recast the lead role, he chose the Georgia-born Foster, who had appeared on “Star Search” at age 15 and whose Broadway experience at the time was limited to a brief run as Eponine in “Les Misérables.”
When the show traveled East two years later, Mayer kept Foster in the part, and the performance brought her the Tony Award for best actress in a musical. She subsequently starred in “Little Women,” “Young Frankenstein,” “The Drowsy Chaperone” and “Anything Goes,” for which Foster won another Tony for best actress in a musical. She was just nominated in the same category for “Violet.”
Silverman, “Violet’s” director, said she wanted to cast Foster because for all of her showy roles she believed she could play someone who was both innocent and injured, without coming across as immature and hopeless. For the show to work, Violet has to recognize not only the beauty inside herself, but also the beauty in a world that has treated her for most of her life as a leper.
“It felt very important that Violet’s optimism and determination were never misunderstood for naïveté and stupidity,” Silverman said. “It was instantly clear to me that she was not only enormously capable of playing this part, but it was essential to her — that there was no one else on the planet that could do it.”
After the Encores! staging but before being cast in the revival, Foster’s mother died. Her mother’s health issues had kept her and her husband from seeing Foster perform for many years.
“For a long time, my career and what I wanted to be as an actor was fueled by her — to please her and make her proud of me,” said Foster, whose mother wanted to be (but did not become) a model. Foster’s older brother, Hunter, just starred in Broadway’s adaptation of “The Bridges of Madison County.”
While Foster said she was “forever grateful” for her mother’s support, her death — and the passing of a favorite uncle, along with her beloved dog, Linus — made her reexamine her priorities.
“It changed everything,” said Foster, who is now engaged to marry screenwriter and filmmaker Ted Griffin (“Ocean’s Eleven,” “The Wolf of Wall Street”). “I’ve never had so much loss in such a short period of time. A year ago I didn’t know what real grief was. It changed me as a performer, and it changed my relationship to this material.”
In one particular scene in the musical, which is scheduled to run through August, when Foster starts work on the TV Land series “Younger,” that sorrow — and the joy of having loved a deceased parent — is clearly evident. The sequence comes near the end of the show, when in a fantasy sequence the adult Violet (she is played as a child by Emerson Steele) sings with her father, who has died several years earlier in the story.
“It’s interesting to be able to conjure a parent as an actor. It’s like my career and my life have met on this show,” Foster said. “Every single night it’s like my mom is everywhere. It’s intense and it’s scary, and in many ways it feels like she’s talking to me every night.”
Foster took a moment to collect herself.
“I was afraid to touch it — I didn’t want to touch the sadness, because it hurts. But it made me better in the role,” she said, pausing again. “It would be really weird to be doing a show like ‘Anything Goes’ right now.”