While other high school seniors were picking out prom dresses, Sutton Foster was touring the country in the first national tour of “The Will Rogers Follies.” She was 17, and the experience was as much an education as any MFA program. Still, the two-time Tony winner firmly believes in attending college if possible—which is, in part, why she began teaching musical theater students at Ball State University. But, as she herself personifies, there’s no one way to forge ahead in this business. Backstage caught up with the “Younger” star (en route to the zoo with her daughter), who reflects here on her seven-season stint leading that just-wrapped series, her imminent return to Broadway in “The Music Man,” and why her mantra today is “I’m 46 years old; I’ve worked my entire life to be at this moment. I can allow it to be good.”
You’re fresh off a seven-season run on “Younger.” With the role now in your rearview, what do you think playing Liza taught you as an actor?
First of all, it’s taught me how to be on-camera, which I never had any experience doing. I had only ever been in a theater for, you know, 20 years of my life. I knew everything about that world, but seven years on a television show was like college and then grad school. I never in a million years thought I could walk on a set and feel comfortable. I learned to act on-camera, I learned how to navigate a crazy schedule; even just learning lines or interpreting material quickly and making strong choices, fast. I remember when I first started being on-camera, I was always like, I’m not breathing. I didn't know how to just be a normal human being. Still, we always joke, “What do we do with our hands?” But I grew so much more confident and comfortable in that environment. It’ll be interesting going back to the theater. I think [theater and TV acting] both help one another. I love the work ethic that I learned from theater, always being prepared and showing up on time and always hanging up my costumes. It was wonderful to bring that to television. With TV, there’s no time to be afraid. Everyone’s just like, “Kiss the guy.” So, I’m excited to see how that translates when I’m back in a rehearsal room.
I was going to ask, as you’re gearing up to do “The Music Man” on Broadway, if you think your time on a long-running series will have an effect on your stage acting now.
I think it will. It’s ultimately the same: You’re creating characters, you’re communicating, you're telling stories. But I do think being on “Younger” has made me a better scene partner and a better actor. I feel like it could be the combination of a lot of things and just getting older. So much with “Younger,” I was becoming more comfortable as Liza on the show, but I was also becoming more confident and comfortable as a human being in my forties. I'll be excited to approach theater now, because I’m more seasoned, yet I still want to retain that innocent dreamer. It’ll be an interesting thing to navigate.
“I was very naive and green, and in a weird way, that served me because I wasn’t afraid. There just wasn’t a doubt and I never let a “no” or an obstacle deter me. If anything, it fueled my fire.”
Speaking of “Younger,” what advice would you give to your younger self?
You don’t have to make things harder than they already are. You don’t have to make things a 40 when they’re already a 10. One of my mantras now is: I’m 46 years old; I’ve worked my entire life to be at this moment. I can allow it to be good. My other piece of advice to young actors—or to my younger self—would be [to] listen more. It’s OK not to know everything. You’re trying so hard to be seen and heard, but so often, you realize you might not know all the answers. It’s OK not to know all the answers. It’s all part of the process.
What is one performance every actor should see and why?
Patti Lupone, Sondheim Celebration [“Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall”], 1992. She sings “Being Alive,” I was 16 years old when I saw it; it changed my life. No offense to anyone else in that show, but it was the only thing I remember, and I watched it over and over and over again. Every young performer—or old performer, or any age performer—should watch that performance.
Do you have an audition horror story you could share?
I think I’m always amazing at auditions! Um, lies. This was early on, I decided I was right for “Rent,” which is hilarious. I went to a photo booth and I got a photo strip of me trying to be grunge or something. I sent that in and recorded myself singing along to Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart.” I totally got an audition and I auditioned and I didn’t even bring a résumé. I just came in and did it. I got so many callbacks, and I was so close to playing Maureen on the tour—ultimately, I had no business playing Maureen. I tried to make myself edgy. I had zero edge.
How did you first get your Equity card?
I was cast in the first national tour of “The Will Rogers Follies” when I was 17 years old. They came to Detroit, Michigan, and they held open calls. I had just seen “The Will Rogers Follies” performance on the Tonys. I remember watching and going, “Oh, my gosh, all these girls, they’re all tall, they sing, they dance, they have big teeth. They look like me!” And then, like, two weeks later, there was an audition notice in the Detroit Free Press. I auditioned and was brought to New York for a callback, and then auditioned on the stage at the Palace Theatre for Tommy Tune and Cy Coleman. I was still in high school. I spent my senior year traveling around the country as a “Follies” showgirl.
“You don’t have to make things harder than they already are. You don’t have to make things a 40 when they’re already a 10.”
Since you left Carnegie Mellon after your freshman year, do you feel like the professional jobs you had when you were very young were in some ways your education?
They were. That was the path I took. It’s interesting, because I do believe in college, and I think it’s a really important, transitional phase for young adults. I made all of my mistakes in those early jobs, and I do think of that as my early education, preparing me to have a career in musical theater. In all of my early jobs, I was an ensemble member, an understudy. I was climbing the ladder. But it is sort of that “Sliding Doors” moment where I think, Where would I be if I had stayed in college?
You are a sterling example of the idea that there is no one way to do this.
There isn’t. I just always sorta trusted my gut. I was very naive and green, and in a weird way, that served me, because I wasn’t afraid. There just wasn’t a doubt, and I never let a “no” or an obstacle deter me. If anything, it fueled my fire. Every time I’d get a “no” or hit a roadblock, I would be like, Oh, yeah? I’d double down and try to be better and try to grow and learn, as opposed to being defeated and giving up. Especially early on, that was what led my ambition. But a lot of it was just being naive and being like, I just wanna sing and dance! I think that’s why I love working with young people, because it’s a reminder of that time. I’m like, I can still be that innocent dreamer!
Speaking of working with young people, how and why did you start teaching at Ball State?
I have a real passion for working with young people, especially high school and college-aged, those young musical theater dreamers. I did one year at Carnegie Mellon and dropped out, but I actually looked at Ball State after I had left because I was like, Maybe I’ll go back for science! I was completely lost and had no idea what I was doing. And then, back in 2006, they started to do their showcase in New York. I think I was doing “Drowsy Chaperone” at the time, and they asked if I would do a talkback. I was like, Ball State! Yes! Of course! And I spoke to their kids, and I loved the students and fell in love with the faculty. And every time they came to New York, I would speak to their students. Then, in 2010, they asked if I would come to campus—there’s nothing like Muncie, Indiana, in January! But I fell in love with their program. I try to go to campus once or twice a year. I’ve co-directed several of their productions. I also virtually teach a cabaret class for their musical theater seniors. Every time I work with the students, I’m just reminded of why I’m in this industry, why I wanted to be in musical theater. They have taught me more than I’ve taught them.
This story originally appeared in the May 13 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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