Sutton Foster: Finding Her Inner Inga
I've spoken with Broadway star Sutton Foster a few times. She's incredibly generous with her time and so easygoing. She was all that and more when I made my way to her dressing room backstage at Broadway's "Young Frankenstein" in 2007.
When she was 17, Sutton Foster left Troy High School in Michigan before graduation to join the national tour of "The Will Rogers Follies" as a Ziegfeld girl.
She was the youngest member of that cast, working alongside women who were well into their twenties. "It was really hard for me to fit in," Foster says. "I was literally still reading teen magazines."
She certainly fits in now.
Having won the Tony for creating the title character in "Thoroughly Modern Millie," and earning Tony nominations for "Little Women" and "The Drowsy Chaperone," Foster is a member of the star-studded ensemble of "Young Frankenstein," Mel Brooks' Broadway adaptation of the 1974 film he wrote with Gene Wilder.
"Young Frankenstein" opens Thursday. It's about a famous New York brain scientist, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, who has long denied his family's gruesome monster-making history. When he inherits the family castle in Transylvania, he warms to the idea of reanimating dead human tissue and is soon back in the family business.
Foster plays the blonde bombshell Inga, the local girl - with a master's degree from Heidelberg Junior College - hired to assist Dr. Frankenstein, played by Roger Bart. Also in the cast are Megan Mullally as Frederick's fiancée Elizabeth, Christopher Fitzgerald as Igor and Tony-winners Andrea Martin ("My Favorite Year") as Frau Blucher and Shuler Hensley ("Oklahoma") as The Monster.
Foster says she toes a fine line playing Inga, a character created by Teri Garr in the film.
"What we've done - and what I'm proud of," she says, "is that we honor their work, but we're full of surprises."
Foster says that knowing what's coming doesn't diminish the comedy. With opening night just days away, she still can't get enough of the scene where the blind hermit (created in the film by Gene Hackman and played on Broadway by Fred Applegate) welcomes The Monster (Peter Boyle in the film, Hensley on Broadway) to his neat but humble shack.
"That hermit scene is one of the funniest things I've ever seen," she says. "We watch it every night from the wings. I don't know if there's any other scene that the cast watches more. Every night the same thing. There are certain lines, every night, I laugh at in that scene in particular."
While Applegate and Hensley are having their moment, Foster has the luxury of being able to laugh. That's something she can't do during another showstopping bit of comedy, when Martin, as Frau Blucher, sings "He Vas My Boyfriend," doing her best Marlene Dietrich impersonation. Foster is on stage.
"We just try to stay very serious," she says, "but there are definitely times when it's next to impossible, because she's truly inspired and she has so many wonderful moments of spontaneity and she's so alive and present on the stage. You never quite know what's going to happen.
"The more serious we play our characters, the funnier it is," Foster says. "The minute we know we're funny, we're in trouble. We have to play it very straight."
That's not to say that Inga is straight woman for the wackiness on stage. Foster makes a remarkable and calisthenic entrance with the song "Roll in the Hay," sung and yodeled in a hay wagon during what must be the sexiest, bumpiest job interview ever conducted.
She says staging that scene was pure collaboration - working with director Susan Stroman, Bart and Fitzgerald. One of her contributions was the idea of singing the song while hanging upside-down off the back of the wagon.
Stroman liked the idea. Now, having to do it eight shows a week, Foster likes it less.
"I'm like 'What was I thinking?' " she says with a laugh.
She calls Bart "an incredible partner" with whom she feels completely safe on stage.
"I admired him before we started, but he's brought so much to the process. Susan and Mel trust him completely," she says.
She's also a big fan of Stroman, who knew what she was getting when she hired Foster.
"She said 'I know you can cartwheel and I know you can do splits,' " two talents Foster put to full use in "The Drowsy Chaperone." Stroman worked both into Foster's choreography.
Foster sees similarities between Stroman and Casey Nicholaw, her "Drowsy" director who also came to directing from a career as a choreographer.
"They both can see a number in their head and they're both equally ridiculously prepared, which I admire," she says. You come in the room and they're full of ideas.
While "Young Frankenstein" could be the Broadway equivalent of working for the New York Yankees - Foster knows that the business has a downside, too.
"Little Women" - the 2005 musical for which she got a Tony nomination - was not the success she had hoped it would be.
"You pour your heart and soul and time and energy into a project, but every time we walk out on stage our egos are up for grabs," she says. "It's part of our job."
Success, she says, brings heightened expectations.
"You worry that - even doing something like Inga, that's so different than anything I've done before - you think 'Oh, will people see me as a sex object' or 'Will they think I should only play the tomboys.' "
She says all of her Broadway work has been challenging, none more so than "Millie." Foster replaced the leading lady in the out-of-town tryout and came to Broadway a complete unknown.
"I had no idea that the weight of the show was on my shoulders until after we opened," she says. "And then I was like 'Oh my God! I had no idea that I was supposed to be freaked out.' And then I freaked out."
Already a Broadway star, Foster did the unexpected when she joined an ensemble piece, "The Drowsy Chaperone," where the expectations were still high, but not monumental. She played Broadway starlet Janet Van de Graff, who professes not to want to be a star anymore, all the while craving the spotlight. It earned her a third Tony nomination.
"What I wish for is a career with lots of ups and downs, lots of different types of parts, big and small," she says
Will she always do musicals?
"I feel like that's my gift," she says. "I do feel like that's what I'm meant to do."
She realizes that Brooks and Stroman have a lot riding on "Young Frankenstein," which follows the 12-time Tony-winner "The Producers."
"I wish that this could be received on its own merit, but that's impossible," she says.
"All of us bring a history. I bring a history. Roger brings a history. Susan brings a history of what she's done. And people will compare this to what we've done. And to the people who have played these parts before us. We just try to do our best."
That doesn't mean she's always entirely comfortable.
"I had a moment at the reading, and even at the first rehearsals, where they put us in rows and they put the principals in the front row. And I'm in the front row, at the big kids' table and I was just like 'I don't know how I got here. I hope no one notices that I'm here.'
"What was great was, after a couple of days of rehearsals, we all sat down for a table read ... and we took a break and I kind of went over to Andrea and Megan and I was like 'I'm freaking out.'
"And Andrea was like 'I'm sweating like a 5-year-old' and I said 'You're nervous, too?'
"Everyone was freaked out. And I thought, 'OK. I'm in good company.' "
She's fitting right in.