Take a long look at Sutton Foster's face. Wholesome and guileless, it reflects none of the cynicism or meanness that bespeak our harsh times. This might be a 1950s face, something nostalgic. Yet Sutton Foster is the face of the Broadway musical theater in the 21st century. Beginning with her award-winning title-role performance in Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2002, Foster has starred in five New York musicals: She was the irrepressible Jo in Little Women, a high-kicking prima donna in The Drowsy Chaperone, the playful Inga (the Teri Garr role) in Young Frankenstein and Princess Fiona in Shrek the Musical. All original shows, no revivals. No one else today has a track record with that endangered species — the original Broadway musical — that can compare with hers. Not Bernadette, not Kristin, not La LuPone. "I'm only beginning to realize it now," Foster says during a phone conversation from New York, "how lucky and how blessed I was that all five of these shows made it to Broadway, that they were all somewhat successful."
Next Thursday night, February 4, Foster will perform at the Sheldon Concert Hall. Her show will be a slight variation of the acclaimed concert performance she gave last year at Lincoln Center, about which New York Times music critic Stephen Holden enthused, "The corniest storybook mythology attaches itself to Sutton Foster as magically as dew appears on a spring flower and revives for a moment your silliest childhood fantasies of eternal innocence and happily ever after."
But of course Foster's career is the stuff of corny theater mythology. She got her first professional job at age 17 (half a lifetime ago; she's 34) in a touring production of The Will Rogers Follies that brought her to the Fox (as did tours of Grease and Les Miz). On Broadway she understudied and replaced. Then In 2001 when Thoroughly Modern Millie tried out at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, Foster — who had turned down a steadier job in Les Miz on Broadway to understudy in a way-out-of-town tryout — suddenly found herself playing the title role. Of the five musicals in which she's starred, Foster says that Millie is the one that changed the most between inception and opening night. What she is too modest to say it that the reason it changed so much was because St. Louis-based Fox Theatricals, which was producing Millie, shut it down after the La Jolla run so that the entire evening could be retooled to present Foster to best advantage. "They're everything to me," she says of Mike Isaacson and Fox. "They changed my life and my career." Surely that enduring bond will add resonance to her performance next week.
After her initial Broadway success, a CD seemed inevitable. Yet, together with Michael Rafter (her musical director on Millie, who will accompany her at the Sheldon) Foster took four years to put together that CD, titled Wish — and she developed her musical tastes along the way. Prior to Wish she had been essentially a popular-theater junkie whose favorite songs didn't extend far beyond the latest original cast CD. But her search for new material — folk, jazz, country — brought a new level of nuance and maturity to her tastes. Now she sings Noel Coward, Duke Ellington, Rodgers and Hart. Nor has she forgotten her childhood loves, which is why her CD and her act proudly include the John Denver song "Sunshine on My Shoulders."
"I was actually nervous about putting the CD out," Foster admits, "because I worried that people might expect me to only sing brassy Broadway songs. But ultimately this material and these lyrics are the truest representation of what I wanted to say at the time. I finally came to the conclusion that I can't please everyone, but I could try to please myself. Now the CD is out, and people have received it very well. So that's a lesson: You can't lose if you listen to the truth in yourself."
That's the same truth she'll be sharing next Thursday night, perhaps sprinkled with a trace of happily ever after and for sure with a few rays of sunshine on her shoulders.