NEW YORK — Sutton Foster, the musical theater dynamo with the long legs and cheery smile, has won Tony Awards playing indomitable leading ladies in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (2002) and “Anything Goes” (2011). She originated roles in such big-ticket musicals as “Shrek” and “Young Frankenstein.” For the past 10 years, who has been center stage on Broadway more than Sutton Foster?
“I don’t know,” Foster says with a meek whimper, “but I’m really tired.”
She’s kidding, but only partly. The hardworking Foster has pulled back from Broadway and moved to L.A., where she’s starring in the ABC Family series “Bunheads.” The show, created by Amy Sherman-Palladino of “Gilmore Girls” acclaim, features Foster as a Vegas showgirl thrust into small-town life with her sudden mother-in-law (played by “Gilmore” vet Kelly Bishop).
Foster’s character, weary of chorine gigs, marries on impulse, but the complication’s a doozy: her nice-guy husband dies almost immediately. Together, the new widow and the mother-in-law figure out how to cope. Running the dance studio helps.
The series has been renewed with more episodes due this winter, and with luck it will dominate Foster’s life for the next several years. That makes her act Saturday at George Mason University’s Concert Hall (with pianist and musical director Michael Rafter) likely one of the last chances to catch her onstage any time soon.
And you do want to catch Foster live. The performance Saturday, Foster says, will build on her appearance last year at the Kennedy Center, an ebullient event. The program will focus on American standards, with showtunes and a few twists.
“There’s nobody like her,” says Joel Grey, who starred for a year with Foster in “Anything Goes.” Grey calls her a “true” actress who worked hard on the character and style of Porter’s energetic 1934 musical. He adds, “Killer singer. Killer.”
Reno Sweeney, the nightclub singer at the center of “Anything Goes,” has been played by Ethel Merman and Patti LuPone, but Foster made her own triumph as the New York Times observed that “her triple mastery of words, music and moves is unmatched by any performer on Broadway at the moment.” “Anything Goes” director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall specifically calls Foster a “phenomenal dancer,” and says, “It was exciting to think we could have a Reno Sweeney who could be at the center of the choreography.”
Such are the qualities that have helped make Foster a Broadway staple in an era when steady gigs can be hard to come by even for stars. Ironically, this “Cast-that-girl!” magnetism also led to what she frankly calls burnout.
“High-class problems here,” Foster acknowledges quickly. “I mean, Waaaah, me and my Broadway shows. It’s hard to complain about it.”
Which doesn’t mean the fatigue isn’t real, even if the tall, slender Foster, who was five feet nine inches tall at 14, looks ingenue-fresh in a ponytail and sleeveless summer dress; she’s an elegant figure in the tony Central Park South restaurant she chooses for brunch. Still, singin’ and dancin’ and makin’ ’em laugh – after a decade — can take a toll on a gal.
“There is nothing quite as exhausting as eight times a week for long periods,” says Grey, who would know. (His first Tony came in 1967 for “Cabaret.”) “There are no second shots at it. No retakes. So it takes a certain kind of focus that is in itself quite intense.”
Marshall says of Foster’s 10-year run, “I can’t think of anybody who has done that many lead roles in musicals in that span of time.”
Foster mentions the anxiety of waking up and feeling sore or sick, but knowing she’s being counted on for the evening show (or two on Wednesdays and Saturdays). “It’s very stressful, because you want to be at your best,” she says. “But we’re not machines.”
Factor in that Foster’s first national tour came when she was a 17-year-old high school senior in “The Will Rogers Follies,” with road and Broadway gigs of “Grease,” “Annie,” and “Les Miz” to follow. It has already been a long, robust showbiz career.
“All I’ve known is eight shows a week,” she says. “I’ve never known the concept of a weekend, or the concept of a hiatus.”
If this has been Foster’s world, it’s both because she went for it and because she was such a natural that she now laughs about the “horrible” (her word) auditions that never seemed to keep her from getting jobs.
Like her first time in New York at 17, singing for performer-choreographer- director Tommy Tune and composer Cy Coleman, not knowing who these heavyweights were. Or two years later, auditioning for Jeff Calhoun, who had first spotted her in Detroit for “Will Rogers” — only now she was 20 pounds heavier from eating the employee food at the Macaroni Grill in Memphis, where she and her parents had moved.
Did Calhoun remember her?
“Oh, yeah,” Foster says. “I was the klutz from Detroit.”
There are more — she auditioned for “Annie” director and lyricist Martin Charnin wearing clogs and singing the title song from “Oklahoma!” But now perhaps the point is that down to her bones, she knows the life she is portraying in the kooky but poignant “Bunheads.” The series begins with Foster’s showgirl character not getting a sniff for a “Chicago” audition (too old!). But as a teacher, she relates to the small-town teenage dancers in a way that Bishop’s older character sometimes can’t.
Dancing isn’t the main event in “Bunheads” — “It’s three different generations of women finding their way,” Foster summarizes — and it’s nowhere near as showbiz-smitten as NBC’s ultra-soapy “Smash.” But Foster, who grew up in dance studios from the age of 4, likes the way the show lets its young actors do their own dancing, and the way performances in the homey little studio are often filmed in unedited full-body shots.
Take a scene from the fourth episode: as the teens prepare for the local audition held by Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, Foster dreams of her own audition for “Chicago,” singing Kander and Ebb’s “Me and My Baby.” (No pre-recording for the vocal, she points out.) She smoothly nails a high kick, subtly shimmies left to right, working the shoulders one moment, the hips the next. It’s a tidy piece of choreography, unedited and filmed in one shot, showcasing a dancer’s capability.
“I’m very proud of that,” Foster says of the show’s sensitivity to performance, crediting Sherman-Palladino’s sharp interest in theater. “She really is honoring the craft of it.”
The series has Foster buffing her own craft again, too. Other than dance, most of Foster’s polish has been acquired during working life. She only had a year at Carnegie Mellon and didn’t study voice until she got her breakthrough lead role in “Millie” so she would know how to sustain herself for eight shows a week. She has picked up what she has needed as needed.
“For ‘Young Frankenstein, they said can you yodel?” Foster says. “So I learned how to yodel.”
With “Bunheads,” dance lessons kicked off each working day in her dressing room, which has been specially equipped with a barre.
“I thought, they’re gonna throw stuff at me and I’m not going to know how to do it,” Foster explains. “I’ll be rusty and we won’t have time to spend.” She has also been taking jazz dance lately with people half her age cracking, “Who’s the grandma in the back trying to jazz it out?”
It’s hard to imagine this kind of innately talented, intuitively appealing showbiz kid quitting the stage for long, even if Foster says the West Coast and its very different entertainment industry rhythms suit her. The influences she cites are intriguing: she admires Laura Linney and Mary-Louise Parker for their ability to keep careers moving on stage and screens. But as a kid she was drawn to funny singerCarol Burnett, and musical comedy was the animating goal. So the classic lively, tuneful, wiseacre “Anything Goes” was an appropriate pinnacle.
Foster says, “Doing a number where 30 people are onstage, tap-dancing and singing their faces off — I’m like, YES!!! That might be someone else’s nightmare, but it’s my heaven.”
This year, though, has dubbed transition as its dominant theme — job, home, life. Foster, who is divorced from “Smash” star Christian Borle, recently split with actor Bobby Cannavale.
She muses, “37, single, and . . . I think for a long time I was waiting, but waiting for what? Waiting to get married, waiting to . . . I don’t know. So, you put out into the world what makes you happy, and hopefully everything will follow. I have to say I’m probably the happiest I’ve been ever.”
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