She's the Top

November 27, 2011

Her toenails are painted turquoise. But everything else about Sutton Foster is distinctly low-key: She’s wearing non­descript shorts and a tank top, no makeup, a brown ponytail. But within the hour, with a little help from a mass of marcelled, blonde curls; some spiffy, knock-’em-dead threads; and the songs of Cole Porter, she will transform herself into Reno Sweeney, the formidable entertainer at the center of the Broadway revival of Anything Goes.

She will sashay onstage and breezily take charge, singing and dancing up a storm in a performance that has already won her a Tony, an Astaire award, a Drama Desk award, and an Outer Critics Circle prize. But these are nowhere to be found amid the cheerful clutter of her dressing room, dominated by an immense black-and-white acrylic double portrait of her and Julien Havard, the dresser whose imminent departure left her sobbing in her Tony acceptance speech. The only trophy on view—besides a stool festooned with the multicolored ribbons recycled through years of backstage floral tributes—is her “Easy” button, a little congratulatory trinket sent by Staples after her Tony win. She pushes it, and a chirpy electronic voice says, “That was easy.” Except, of course, it wasn’t. In fact, it was so hard she almost didn’t take the part.

It’s an iconic role, created in 1934 by Ethel Merman and memorably re-created in 1987 by Patti LuPone. As if that were not intimidating enough, Foster says, clearing away the jumble on the daybed so she can settle in, “I had never really delved into a character that was so unlike me. It’s the showiest, the brassiest—it’s the most commanding role I’ve ever played. I had to cover my mirrors with words like ‘You’re awesome,’ ‘You rock,’ ‘You deserve this’—you know, total affirmations, so that I could stand onstage and be like, Yeeeeah!”

Reno, she says, is a star, and she behaves like one. Foster is a star, too. But, perhaps because of the way she came to be one, she doesn’t quite fit the mold. Others might have also had to face down “demons and insecurities” preparing to play Reno. But Foster is the kind who shows up at a Tony Awards ceremony with her high school drama teacher or her dresser. Who shares her expertise with teenagers at a theater camp and takes teaching gigs at universities. Who insists on learning the steps to “Anything Goes,” the big, showstopping tap number that closes Act One, with the ensemble—and stands in the back of the room until director Kathleen Marshall moves her down front (see “The Beat of Dancing Feet,” May 2011).

“I think that shows who she is,” says Marshall, whose choreography for the musical won the 2011 Tony. “She wanted to learn it with everybody, and be one of the gang in that way…In real life, there’s not an ounce of diva in her. Go backstage to say hi after the show, and there she is, freshly scrubbed and hair pulled back—she looks like a college girl.”

But Foster’s aw-shucks persona conceals an almost frightening talent. “There’s nobody else like her right now,” Marshall says. “In the old days, there used to be a separate dancing ensemble and a separate singing ensemble—nobody expected Agnes de Mille’s dancers to contribute vocally. But now, of course, everybody has to sing and everybody has to play small parts and understudy as well. Sutton is one of a kind in terms of her ability to be a leading lady, a wonderful actress, a wonderful vocalist—I often don’t think she gets enough credit for how astonishing her voice is—who really is a dancer-dancer. Not a singer-dancer but a dancer-dancer.”

Indeed. She began dancing at 4, in Georgia. “I had a lot of energy and was running around and flailing around the house,” Foster says. “My mom thought ballet would bring some grace to my life.” Her father’s job with General Motors entailed many moves, but wherever the family landed, Sutton was enrolled in dance classes. At 7, she added tap to her repertoire.

“I just loved it,” Foster says. “I danced all the way through high school, did dance competitions every year, recitals, everything.” But she’d also discovered she could sing, and although her career began with dancing gigs in touring shows, she soon found herself focusing on singing and acting. And then, the improbable happened.

The story’s been told before, but why not tell it again? After working on Broadway in Les Misérables, Grease, Annie, and The Scarlet Pimpernel, Foster landed a job in the ensemble of a new musical—a stage version of the 1967 Julie Andrews movie Thoroughly Modern Millie—scheduled for the La Jolla Playhouse and, eventually, Broadway. The star was supposed to be Kristin Chenoweth. When she decamped for a TV offer, Millie was turned over to Erin Dilly. But even before the show began previews, she was fired. Foster had learned the title role as the understudy, and when performances began, in October of 2000, a 26-year-old chorus kid was playing Millie. And she was still playing her when the show opened on Broadway in 2002 and won six Tony Awards, including one for Best Musical and one for Foster, Best Actress in a Musical.

Millie really put dance back in the forefront for me,” Foster says. “I was scared, because I hadn’t been dancing in a while—it was like dusting off my shoes.” Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that Foster’s loose-limbed charm as a dancer helped propel that show’s success. In fact, the more leg she shows, the better off her musicals seem to be. The staid Little Women, in which she played Jo, ran a scant five months. Her next outing, the delicious Drowsy Chaperone, featured her high kicks and splits—she played a self-admiring Follies star—and a longer run. As Inga in Young Frankenstein, she cavorted in a dirndl, hanging onto the side of a hay wagon in arabesque and flinging herself at Roger Bart’s title character. But Shrek the Musical froze her in a stiff long dress—Havard calls it “the futon”—and suffered for it. There’s no such problem in Anything Goes. In fact, Marshall worked with the costume designer, Martin Pakledinaz, to give Reno a progressively skimpier wardrobe to complement the dancing.

Anything Goes is really the most dancing I’ve ever done,” Foster says. To get back in shape for the tap number, she rented a studio with some friends, “and we would just tap for an hour.” She found that “it’s like riding a bike—it all comes back.” She recognizes that she’s “not the same tapper” she was at 17. “But it’s still in my bones,” she says.

Also in her bones are old injuries and 36 years of wear and tear. Her right ankle has been sprained three times. “I do pliés and relevés, ankle raises, all that stuff,” she says. “I do push-ups and ab work almost every day. The show’s very demanding, so I’m not consistent, but either once or twice a week I work out doing slow strength training. It’s really, really cool—you work with incredibly high weight at a very slow pace, and it’s changed my body.”

Havard, who became Foster’s dresser on Millie, has watched her work ethic with awe. “She’s inspiring,” he says. “Even when I first saw her, skinny and scared, she was still, ‘I’m in it to win it.’ She doesn’t cut corners, she doesn’t make excuses—never once, from Day One.” Until June, when he quit the theater to devote himself full-time to painting, Havard had a close-up view of every Foster show. “Whether it’s been a big hit or whether it’s been a tough road,” he says, “she’s just the most unbelievably professional wonder woman I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.”

They got together again in August, when Foster, who’s been a Sunday painter since childhood, brought her art to his gallery on Cape Cod for a joint exhibition. Musing about their relationship, Foster says he was “part therapist, part dresser, part friend, part everything. He was this constant in my life—we saw each other every single day, and we supported each other in every way.” The emotion that marked her Tony acceptance speech flickers briefly as she says, “I really miss him a lot.”

But the show must go on. Foster’s routine begins about an hour before curtain. She warms up her voice and “every limb” of her body. “I’m really, really regimented about that,” she says. She puts on her makeup, then submits to the hair and wardrobe team. Right before each performance, she gathers with co-stars Joel Grey and Colin Donnell to reinforce the easygoing rapport they share onstage. “This whole show is hinged on friendship,” she says, “so we remind each other. I look forward to it every night.” And then, just before her entrance, she has what she calls “a little bit of a moment” backstage. “I just think of stuff in my head—sometimes it will be as simple as ‘I’m Reno Sweeney.’ Because every time someone says ‘Miss Sweeney’ or ‘Reno’ onstage, I am still like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’ ”

Sylviane Gold writes
Dance Magazine’s “On Broadway” column.

From top: Foster in costume as Reno Sweeney in
Anything Goes. Photo by Matthew Karas; Anything Goes rehearsal. Photo by Matthew Murphy; Photo by Matthew Karas; Foster cutting up on the Anything Goes set with Adam Cates (left) and associate choreographer Vince Pesce. Photo by Matthew Murphy; Photo by Matthew Karas.