NEW YORK — It's a challenge, pinpointing exactly where Sutton Foster begins and Charity Hope Valentine ends.
Vital differences exist, of course, between the two-time Tony-winning actress and the lovelorn, self-deluding dancer-for-hire of this 1966 musical comedy with songs by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields and a book by Neil Simon. But, as Foster confides, she didn’t have to suppress too many of her own impulses to adopt the disposition of a woman who applies a rosy finish to life’s harsh surfaces.
"I felt from day one I had a sense of who she was," Foster says of the role, which she had long talked about attempting. "Charity is like — she can't deal with the circumstances of her life. Therefore she's an idealist, not a realist. And I am, as well. She refuses, or is unable, to see herself, and the reality of her life. And I understand that. I have a bit more sense of my world. But there is something about that — I get it. I get it. I get that escapism in her."
A conversation with Foster, who at 41 has escaped into the top echelon of Broadway singing and dancing stars, provides a curious contrast to the impression of total self-assurance one forms from watching her performances, mostly on stage, but with increasing frequency on television, in series such as the ABC Family cult favorite “Bunheads,” which lasted only one season, and TV Land’s “Younger,” now in its third.
In the Broadway limelight, portraying Millie Dillmount in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” or Reno Sweeney in “Anything Goes” — the roles that earned her best actress-in-a-musical Tonys in 2002 and 2011 — she exudes a kind of preternatural confidence, a sense that executing dance combinations while hitting high notes is encoded in her show tune gene.
That old-school technical know-how helps to explain why she's done particularly well in parts that recall the Broadway of yore: "Millie," set in the 1920s; Cole Porter's "Anything Goes," which premiered in 1934; and the 2006 spoof of 1920s musical comedies, "The Drowsy Chaperone."
Yet the armor of cunning perfectionism she’s often worn appears merely to be a single costume in a more expansive wardrobe, one that she’s been eager to rummage through. It’s only lately, in parts such as the title role in “Violet” and as Charity in this decidedly darker-than-usual “Sweet Charity,” produced by the innovative New Group, that Foster has been able to put away the shiny, steel-coated facade and try on softer, more psychologically nuanced material.
"She stands on the stage and she peels off her skin and you see her heart," says "Sweet Charity" director Leigh Silverman, who first directed Foster in summer 2013 in an Encores! Off-Center series concert version of Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley's "Violet," the story of a physically and emotionally scarred woman who goes on a wrenching pilgrimage for healing. "There's true courage in the way she plays this part, to be so willing to go there in all of its extremities, to find the dignity in a character who does nothing but discredit herself."
It was Foster who, having forged such a strong bond with Silverman via “Violet” — and after the show moved to a full Broadway production, secured another Tony nomination for her portrayal — fought for Washington-bred Silverman to shepherd “Sweet Charity.”
“I felt really safe under her guidance,” Foster says. “She pulled out things in me that I didn’t even know I had. She helped me reveal a different part of myself.”
The subtext of these remarks underscores something else about Foster: her status in the business. She can not only get a musical project going, but she can also use her clout to help assemble the creative team. Not that she’s comfortable with this idea. Indeed, the realization that she has some control unnerves her. Other actors crave the increased freedom that can be a byproduct of awards and celebrity. Foster, not so much. A hoofer since age 17, when she went to an open audition in Detroit for a road company of “The Will Rogers Follies” and won a chorus spot, she professes herself a lot more comfortable with meshing with the gang than telling them what to do.
She, of course, knows from pressure, but at this stage in her life, living in Manhattan with her husband, screenwriter Ted Griffin, and their two rescue dogs — she was previously married to actor Christian Borle — she seems happy to take some pressure off. Doing “Sweet Charity” off-Broadway for a nonprofit company (and ultimately in a theater on the far west end of 42nd Street with only about 200 seats), was her idea. What appealed to her about this arrangement was precisely what gave some pause to her advisers: a chance to do a show on a small scale, with no huge expectations.
“The one thing that’s frustrating about this is that everyone is, ‘Well, is it going to go to Broadway?’ ” she says. “I said, ‘Can’t we do it without any agenda?’ I was like, ‘Can we just do it for what it is, do it for 12 weeks and hope it’s amazing? Is that possible anymore?’ ”
That plea for a downshift in gears — in a part she confesses is, with the exception her breakout turn in Millie, the most grueling of her career — comes from a performer who's been powering through for more than 20 years. The only daughter of a General Motors worker and a Michigan homemaker, she grew up in a household of unusually talented theater kids: Her brother, a few years older, is Hunter Foster, a Broadway actor and writer whose musical with composer Matt Conner, "The Hollow," premiered in 2011 at Signature Theatre in Arlington.
Encouraged by her mother, who Foster says was thwarted in her own ambition to be a fashion model, she pursued singing and dancing with a vengeance, going on tour with “Will Rogers” before finishing high school. (She’d receive a correspondence degree later.) “Yeah, at 17. As a showgirl. And I was a young 17. It was intense. And I grew up really fast. I would sit around with my ‘Sweet Valley High’ books and my teen magazines, and the showgirls would be smacking those out of my hands,” she says, laughing. “They roughed me up pretty good.”
She’s forthcoming now, in the aftermath of her mother’s death, about the complexity of that relationship, and how what she experienced as her mother’s withholding of praise and mixed feelings about her success affected her.
“A lot of my career was based on trying to make her proud of me,” Foster says, sitting in a quiet corner of a cafe in the lobby of the midtown theater — also called Signature — in which “Sweet Charity” is running. “We had this tricky relationship, and she didn’t travel; she was agoraphobic. So it was constantly trying to get her to see me.” (Meanwhile, she says, she has become close to her father over the years.)
“And I think for that reason, every time someone said, ‘Oh you can’t do that’ or ‘That’s impossible’ I was like, ‘Oh, yeah?’ And now that she’s passed away, I can say, that if she had been all lovey-dovey, and supportive, I wonder if I would be such a fighter. She made me very tough, very resilient.”
It seems as if two dominant strands in Foster’s view of herself, that of a survivor, and that of an idealist, are linking up more consciously these days in the musical theater roles she’s taking on. She’s looking for roles that stretch her, and in Silverman’s conception of “Sweet Charity,” the title character is a mass of contradictions, a desperately needy pleaser who in projecting better qualities onto inadequate men not only puts her chances for happiness in jeopardy, but also her self-esteem.
The reviews for this grittier version of the musical — which jettisons the show’s fable-like final words, “And so she lived hopefully ever after” — have been mixed. But Foster’s notices have been characteristically admiring. The woman playing this Charity may get her wish: The project could simply be a 12-week rocket. Even as Foster’s theatrical ever-after is likely to go on and on.
Sweet Charity, book by Neil Simon, music and lyrics by Cy Coleman. Directed by Leigh Silverman. Tickets: $95-$175. Through Jan 8 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., New York. Visit thenewgroup.org.