In ‘Bunheads,’ Sutton Foster enters a new stage
Sutton Foster — toast of Broadway, musical theater dynamo and an actress who has been hailed as a “triple threat” wonder by critics — is missing from the Great White Way.
A year after scoring her second lead actress Tony Award for the revival of “Anything Goes” and dazzling the Tony television audience with her tap-dancing performance of that show’s title song, Foster has switched coasts and turned away from the greasepaint and nightly standing ovations. She’s traded Broadway for “Bunheads.”
With only a few small TV roles on her résumé, Foster is front and center as the star of the week-old ABC Family series, playing an aging Las Vegas showgirl who unexpectedly is put in charge of a class of ballet students. Her smiling face — but not her name — is on billboards and huge posters for the show’s nationwide promo campaign.
Starring in a new series on a cable network instead of a glitzy Broadway production has been what Foster calls a “strange and surreal” leap, throwing her from the comfort of the theater world into the riskier and fiercely competitive Hollywood arena, which traditionally has not been especially welcoming to Broadway’s female dynamos. Kristin Chenoweth, Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald, who scored her fifth Tony a week ago, are among the top stars who have had mixed results on TV, doing well-received work but generally without the adoration and marquee status they enjoy for their stage roles.
Despite the pressures, Foster, 37, is exuberant about what could be called her second act.
“This is kind of awesome,” Foster said recently during a break on the “Bunheads” Hollywood soundstage. “I started working professionally in the theater at 17, and it’s all I’ve known. I was ready for a brand-new challenge and a new chapter in my life.”
She’s had to make a few adjustments, including moving from New York to Los Angeles and working days as long as 12 hours (“I worked four hours a day when I was on a show, maybe seven hours if there were two shows that day”).
And her first talk show appearance with Craig Ferguson on his “Late Late Show” was a bit of a rude awakening: Though Ferguson was charming and polite, he clearly had no idea who she was or that he was talking to one of the biggest stars on Broadway.
“In some circles, I’ve made it, but Craig was like ‘What did you win your Tony for?’” she said with a laugh. ""But that’s OK. When I decided to be an actor, I never thought about celebrity or fame.”
After star turns in “Young Frankenstein,""Shrek: The Musical,""The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Little Women” and “Thorougly Modern Millie,” for which she won her first Tony, Foster is embracing being offstage. Despite her “Anything Goes” triumph, the show took its toll.
“I did 300 performances,” she said. “Doing the same thing every night. I had to overcome a lot personally and professionally. I needed something new. I was thinking maybe I should take a year off and move to San Diego and work in a taco shack.”
Jumping instead to “Bunheads” appears to have been the right move: She’s clearly taken with her character, Michelle Simms, who is at a shaky crossroads in life after all her aspirations have fallen flat. It’s a dramatic change of pace for Foster, used to brassy, larger-than-life roles.
“I feel so protective of her,” the actress said, adding with a laugh: “She’s a hot mess.”
“Bunheads” debuted June 11 to an audience that Nielsen pegged at about 1.6 million. The series was greeted with mostly glowing reviews, with special praise going to Foster and executive producer Amy Sherman-Palladino, the main creative force behind “Gilmore Girls.” The reception marked a welcome reversal for Sherman-Palladino just a few years after her last series, Fox’s “The Return of Jezebel James,” was trashed by critics and yanked after three episodes.
Sherman-Palladino said she was developing “Bunheads” when she saw Foster in “Anything Goes.” She said she felt instantly that the actress would be perfect for the role, even with her lack of TV experience.
“This is a girl who can do anything,” Sherman-Palladino aid. “She can do all sorts of crazy comedy and big brassy numbers, but there is still a humanity there that cuts through all that bigness that just doesn’t show up very often among actresses. She’s such a chameleon.”
Sherman-Palladino’s’ involvement was the key attraction to Foster, who said she was a “psycho fan” of the writer because of “Gilmore Girls.”
“I know her work so well,” Foster said. “She could have written a show about anything and I would have wanted to do it.”
And even though she’s settled into her new world, Broadway fans need not despair: Foster hasn’t given up on the stage.
“I feel so separated from the theater because I’m in the vortex of this world,” she said. “I don’t have anything against the stage; I can’t wait to get back. But this is it for now.”
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