Show Girl

Broadway buzz-maker and ‘Bunheads’ star Sutton Foster takes control with a solo show

September 26, 2012

When it comes to her solo shows, Sutton Foster is the boss.

“It’s exciting to have creative control over something,” the Broadway singer says of her upcoming performance at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts on Saturday. “In the middle of the evening, I can be like, ‘Ehhhh, I don’t want to do that.’ ”

Foster, 37, has a giant songbook to choose from; though she earned her slavish fan base in musical theater, the set lists for her live shows encompass anything she wants.

Foster and music director Michael Rafter are “working on a lot of stuff from the ’20s and ’30s, a lot of standards,” she says, mentioning Cole Porter and Duke Ellington as current favorites.

“We’re working on an arrangement of ‘Nice ’n’ Easy,’ and the version I heard was Frank Sinatra’s. We start playing around with it and find our version of it, and it’s a totally different take on the song, and that’s ours.”

Foster’s story is out of a Broadway musical: In 2002, she went from understudy to the title role in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” winning critical acclaim and her first of two Tony awards.

After winning a 2011 Tony for her role as nightclub singer Reno Sweeney in “Anything Goes,” Foster made the move to television for ABC Family’s “Bunheads,” in which she plays a former Vegas showgirl teaching in a small-town dance studio.

“Bunheads” was created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, the force behind “Gilmore Girls.” The show, recently renewed for a second season, has Sherman-Palladino’s trademark patter and strong women, this time with ballet. (The title refers to the traditional ballerina updo.)

Foster found she had to embrace a different kind of flexibility for television — one that didn’t require her to touch her nose to her knees.

“Every day there was an adjustment,” she says. “I was giving 100 percent every single time, even when the camera wasn’t on me — to the point where the [director of photography] and the director were like, ‘You don’t have to kill yourself.’ ”

Other stage habits also died hard.

“In theater, you have eight weeks of rehearsal, and that’s when everyone backstage is doing everything, and then it’s up to us to keep it running,” she says. Once the curtain opens, the costumes, lights, sets, directing, makeup, hair, lyrics, lines, choreography and everything else that makes a musical such a spectacle are done.

With TV work, actors fall somewhere in the middle of the creative process. “A lot of your performance is in the hands of the editor,” Foster says. “You can be like, ‘I don’t feel I nailed that take.’ Then you watch it the way it’s edited together, and it’s fantastic.”

That large-scale collaboration is lacking when it comes to Foster’s live shows ­— there’s no tap-dancing chorus backing her up, no editor to cover a missed note or a flubbed lyric. On the other hand, there’s no director or choreographer telling her exactly how the show should go.

“It’s great to be able to stand onstage as yourself, with no costume or anything, and just say, ‘Hey, I’m me.’ ”

Variety Show

Unfamiliar with Sutton Foster’s work? Allow YouTube to make introductions. Three of these clips showcase Foster’s mind-blowing talent; the fourth proves she inspires others to blow minds as well.

“Anything Goes”
While her performance of the Cole Porter musical’s title song at the 2011 Tonys is something to behold, you should also watch the twice-as-long rehearsal clip. Memorize the lyrics and attempt to sing along — while spending five and a half minutes in the middle tap-dancing in heels. And don’t pass out. Tony winners don’t pass out. Watch it.

“Everything Today Is Thoroughly Modern”
The number itself is great in this clip from Foster’s 2002 appearance on “Today.” Stick around for the most adorable interview ever: Georgia-born Foster, at the time a newly minted ingenue, calls Meredith Vieira “ma’am” multiple times, explaining that her mother would kill her if she didn’t. Watch it.

“Lever Lover”
If you’re going to make it in this business, you’d better team up with Elmo. In a 2011 appearance on “Sesame Street,” Foster sings the praises of levers, particularly forks. Watch it.

“Anything Goes,” Miscast Version
In an annual gala called “Miscast,” Broadway stars perform songs that they’d otherwise never do. (It’s like singing in the shower, only there are nine people performing with you.) “Glee’s” Jonathan Groff not only learned “Anything Goes,” but also the entire eight-minute dance sequence. Watch it.

George Mason University Center for the Arts, Braddock Road and Route 123, Fairfax; Sat., 8 p.m., sold out, but tickets may be released day of show; 888-945-2468.
Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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