Sutton Foster isn't the only reason to see the current revival of Cole Porter's 1934 classic musical comedy Anything Goes; Colin Donnell is dependably dashing as the lovestruck stowaway Billy, Arrested Development’s Jessica Walter is as tart as ever, and the big show-stopping chorus numbers are as dazzling as they ought to be. But without Foster, who stars as the ingenious cabaret celebrity Reno Sweeney (a role first created by Ethel Merman) this ship would quickly lose its buoyancy. Anything Goes is a lighthearted romp; though P.G. Wodehouse's original version included a shipwreck, the book as it exists today is trifling boulevard diversion—but it's an irresistible diversion, and Foster is a total knockout as Sweeney; brassy in show-stopping numbers like Blow, Gabriel, Blow; tender in the opening ballad I Get a Kick Out of You; funny in Friendship. We recently spoke with the Broadway star about the show, her superstitions, and her talented boyfriend.
A lot of people, like me, got to know Anything Goes through through high school theater. What was your first exposure to it? Actually, my high school did Anything Goes the year before I got there. So I remember hearing all about that and the girl who played Reno, who actually lives in New York and is an actress in New York. I quit college—I went to Carnegie Mellon. I left after the first year and I went home to live with my parents and a local community theater was doing Anything Goes and I volunteered to help there. I was the choreographer for the show, which, I know nothing about choreography but that was my other exposure to it. And now doing this production.
Did you bring anything back from that choreography? [Laughs] No, I don't even remember! I think I was 19-years-old, so I can't even remember what I did, what I made those kids do. No, no, no, none of that choreography is on the stage!
Has that older student who played Reno come to see this and given you notes? [Laughs] No, no, not at all. When I got word that Roundabout was thinking about doing anything goes a couple years ago I remember telling my agent, "Oh my gosh! I would love to audition! That would be incredible." And my longtime dresser, Julian Havard, we were doing Shrek, actually, and he came in one day and he goes, "Sutton, I had this crazy, vivid dream. You were in a sailor suit and you were tap dancing!" I said, "Really? That's so weird because I just heard that they might be doing Anything Goes and I'm pursuing it!" And about six months later they offered me the job! So I think he can see into the future.
That's a trip. Does that kind of thing happen to you a lot or just with him? Oh gosh. Well that was the first time something like that had happened with him too. I don't know, I don't know.
Because some performers are very superstitious and they will only say "the Scottish play" in the theater. Yeah, I can definitely be a little superstitious. I definitely believe in putting stuff into the world, you know, if you put something into the world it will come back to you, good or bad. I do believe in that. So maybe that was a little bit of...we sort of put that out in the universe and it came back to us.
Do you have any rituals that you do before a show or before going on stage? I used to be really, really superstitious but then it became crippling because if I would forget to do it I would be like, "Ahh!" and go nuts. So I try not to be as superstitious as I was. I have a pretty regimented warm-up and routine that I do, which starts about an hour and 15 minutes before the show. I start putting on my makeup and then I do 15 minutes of vocal and physical warm-up and I always do the exact same vocal warm-up. I have to go around to all the dressing rooms before the show and say hello. So I put on my slippers and I have my wig and my warm-up clothes and I run to all the dressing rooms and I say, "Heyyyy!" and say hello to everybody.
And Joel Grey and Colin Donnell and I have a little moment right before the show starts on stage where the three of us get together and talk and give each other something to think about. We talk about, "Well, okay, what do we have for tonight?" Tell a story. We have a little powwow, power circle before the show starts. So we do that every night.
How do you like working with Joel? Joel is a dream. He's amazing. He's the best. He comes and visits me every night and we just have a really genuine rapport with each other, a real affection. I just love being on stage with him. It kind of blows my mind if I really start to think about it! He's just great. I have so much love and respect for him.
Do you find that the audience reaction differing from night to night? Knock on wood, I just think that the audience reaction has been pretty consistent, which is really exciting. The temperature may vary a little bit but I think that the whole show is so well-structured and [director Kathleen Marshall] has done such a beautiful job with how she has staged and with the numbers and everything. The audiences, in general, have been pretty consistent, which is amazing. Some nights will be more raucous than others. We had one show, it was a student matinee, where it was 975 students from all across New York and that was fascinating.
How many people can fit in the theater? It's a little over 1,000, so it was full of kids. That was fascinating because a lot of jokes just went over their heads. But then there are a lot of jokes that are 8th grade humor, like putting a dog in your pants or splashing whipped cream on someone's face and saying it's seagull poop; that stuff they were dying! And every time we kissed they were like, "Oooo!" Or anytime I crossed my legs—or anything remotely sexual or sensual—they were going nuts over! Wow, I've never felt more sexy or tantalizing to a bunch of 8th graders!
What's your favorite part or parts of the show? Oh God. It sort of changes but I think "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" because when I was growing up that was the iconic song for me from the show. Every night I start singing it and I think, "I can't believe I'm singing this right now!" Kathleen did such an amazing job with the number and it's just incredible to do.
When that song ends, on the night I saw it, there was just such enduring applause; what are you going for there in that moment? Because you brought the house down. I was watching you very closely, I was watching your face, and I thought the way it progressed for you is really interesting. It sort of surprises me every night and I try not to expect anything. It's a very surprising moment. God, you know, one of the main differences between who I am, Sutton, versus who Reno is... we're very different. If it were me up there, Sutton singing it, I would probably be like, "Ahh!" and probably run away. But Reno stands there and she's like, "That's right!" She owns it!
That's what I got from you. How much is the character and how much of it is you? It's a meeting of the minds. A lot of it is really something that was my biggest challenge in this role, is confidence and ownership. It's been incredible and scary to allow that and I hope that some of that bleeds off into my life. That is one of those moments of ownership and being the nightclub singer and seeing your name in lights above your club and knowing that everyone's there to see you. All of those things that are hard to grasp as a person but as a character it's, "Alright, here we go!" So a lot of it is just standing there and owning the moment.
Was that the biggest challenge? It really was, honestly. It was very difficult. It took me the entire process to really wrap my head around it. I realized the way that the show is, if I don't do it, the show doesn't work; it's part of the show, it's part of who Reno is, part of the character. It took me a long time. I just kept cranking it up and cranking it up every day would make leaps forward. A lot of it was just popping confidence pills and telling myself that it was okay and nothing bad was going to happen if I stand on stage and in my mind I'm like, "I'm awesome! I'm awesome! I'm a bad-ass! I'm awesome! I'm awesome!" It was like Therapy 101, totally. It's fascinating! It'll be a journey that I'll continue to go on. It's been really cool.
It's really convincing! It didn't seem like a character to me. Just looking at your face at the end of that song, I thought, "Wow, Sutton knows she rocks." [Laughs] Thank you! You should see my dressing room! I have all these affirmations written everywhere. I have "You Rock!" on the mirror. I have "Bad-ass." All this stuff to remind myself that I can seize the moment, I can take it and it's okay.
Did you know how to tap dance before this? I did. I started dancing when I was four and danced all the way up to high school and into college. Tap dancing was always my favorite, so being able to do a number like "Anything Goes," again, it's up there with "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" where I'm like, "Oh my gosh! I can't believe that I'm doing this!" And my parents are proud because all that money they spent on dance lessons is paying off.
You were at Carnegie Mellon and then you dropped out. I'm curious about why you chose to leave and if you have any advice for young people who want to go into this crazy business, because there is so much pressure to go into a careerist conservatory BFA program. I know. I chose to go to Carnegie Mellon and it wasn't the right school for me. I've often thought what it would be like if I had stayed and finished the program. In many ways, I feel like I would benefit more now than I was when I was 19 years old. It just wasn't the right school for me or the right time, I just wasn't ready to learn anything and now I feel like I am. Oh my gosh, my dog has a very squeaky ball.
Linus? Yeah, it's Linus! He's got a little ball that he's squeaking. My advice to young people is to take their time and find the school that's right for them. I chose to leave school and I didn't have that four year transition from living at home to the real world and in many ways I made all my mistakes and my foibles in the real world. A lot of that was really hard. I'm definitely pro-school and there are a lot of incredible programs out there. I really recommend a well-rounded education because I feel like to be a great artist you have to be a great, well-rounded person. You're going to learn more from a history class, at times, than you are from an acting class. I really encourage people to have a more liberal arts education with theater too.
You do visual art too I was seeing on your website. I do, I love to draw and I just like to stay creative in any aspect. It's important to me to just continually be creating something at some point. I love to draw and paint do all sorts of things.
Do you have any interest in doing more TV? Is there a reason why you haven't done more TV? I definitely have more interest now. Honestly, my focus has just always been on the theater but it is something that I am actively dipping my toes in and now pursuing with a more open mind. I just felt like I still had a lot to learn on the stage.
I also wanted to ask about The Motherfucker With The Hat because my editor said she saw that you were at the premiere. Yeah! It was awesome! It was incredible! Yeah, it's an amazing play. My boyfriend is Bobby Cannavale so I was there to support him. It was an amazing night, it was incredible.
He's great! I saw him for the first time in Hurlyburly, which I loved. I wish I had seen it! I didn't see Hurlyburly and I didn't see Mauritius. I was a big fan of his from The Station Agent and we worked together last summer [in Trust at Second Stage]. The play is phenomenal. I had seen it early in previews and then I saw it again last night and it just blew my mind. I just loved it so much, I'm so happy for them and I wish them a fabulous, long run.
The only review I read was very favorable, in the New York Times. Yeah it was a great review.
I hope it hangs around for a while. Me too. I think it's important.
Why do you think it's important? I think it's a voice, [playwright] Stephen Adly Guirgis, I just think it's a voice that we haven't heard on Broadway and I think it's like poetry. There's just nothing like it! It's a show that makes people cry and literally rock with laughter. I was looking around at people grabbing their stomachs and rocking with laughter. It also makes you question your morals, your everything! Chris Rock is saying things and you're like, "Okay, that's horrific and I get it at the same time." Some stuff he says the end you're just like, "I can't believe I'm kind of agreeing with you." And I don't know how the playwright convinces you of these things but it's genius, I just think it's brilliant.