Sutton Foster trades Broadway for “Bunheads”

Sutton Foster stars in ABC Family's "Bunheads"

Despite her staggering amount of success on Broadway — including two Tony awards and a decade-long run of starring roles in big shows — more people will likely watch Sutton Foster on one episode of her new TV show than have ever seen her on the Great White Way.

The star of such stage hits as Thoroughly Modern Millie and Anything Goes knows she’s stepping into a whole new world with Bunheads, an ABC Family drama — premiering at 9pm June 11 — about an aimless Las Vegas showgirl who impulsively marries a love-struck fan and moves with him to his small coastal hometown, where she ends up instructing ballerinas (a.k.a. “bunheads”) at her new mother-in-law’s dance school. But she says the transition thus far has been “pretty natural.”

This is due in large part to Foster being on the same wavelength as creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, who was also responsible for Foster’s all-time favorite TV show, Gilmore Girls. Sherman-Palladino caught one of Foster’s performances in Anything Goes and thought she would be a good fit for the new series she was developing.

Foster spoke with me about making the transition, and why she relates to her character so well.

Channel Guide Magazine: How has switching to TV been for you? Since you’re used to projecting your voice to a whole theater, I’m picturing the director having to say a lot of, “Tone it down, Sutton.”
Sutton Foster: (Laughs) It’s actually been going really well. Most of my career thus far has been onstage. The transfer has been feeling pretty natural. Amy Sherman Palladino, her writing style, it suits me and my style, just who I am as a person whether I’m a stage performer or not. I’m so ridiculously happy and just thrilled to be out here [in Los Angeles], and every day I just can’t believe it’s happening.

CGM: And this is a role she sought you out for, correct?
SF: Gilmore Girls is my favorite show of all time. She’s like my favorite writer. She saw Anything Goes on Broadway and she was in the process of writing the pilot of Bunheads. We took a meeting and just really hit it off, and then two weeks later I got a call asking me about this show and they sent me the script. I came out to L.A. and met her and the network, and it was a phone call that just changed my life in one day. It was like, “Oh, my God, my favorite writer, and it’s about dance!” It just seemed meant to be.

CGM: What is it about Amy’s writing style that draws you to it so much?
SF: The quick wit. I love the pace of her writing and the dialogue and often things go by so fast, and they’re so witty and so funny. I just read Episode 4, and I’m reading it and I’m laughing and I can’t wait to say those words or shoot a certain scene. We have a very similar sense of humor. It’s a voice unlike anything else on television. I just think she’s incredibly singular, and it all comes from a very genuine, heartfelt place. I just love it. I went out to dinner with Amy and her husband Daniel over the weekend, and I’m sitting there thinking, “How the hell did this happen? How the hell am I in Los Angeles having dinner with these two people I admire so much, and now we’re working together?”

CGM: You’ve done guest spots on TV before, but was it ever something you thought would be a career path? 
SF: I don’t think I was in a point in my life where I had made it a priority. I really was focused on theater, but in the last year especially I’ve begun to broaden my ideas about what I wanted to do creatively. I’m a huge fan of episodic television, but I always wanted to wait until something really spoke to me and felt right. I didn’t want to just come out to L.A. and just pursue TV. As an actor, I’m attracted to projects and it didn’t matter what capacity this show was in — if it was a play or a musical or a television show, I wanted to play this character. I wanted to be a part of it and work with these amazing people and be able to work with Amy. It just seemed like perfect timing.

CGM: As for your character, Michelle, could you relate to her troubles as a struggling artist? 
SF: Oh, absolutely. It’s cool to play a character who’s totally lost. She has no roots, she’s a free spirit, a floater, and she had big dreams as a kid but then kind of lost her way. I can absolutely relate to the path of an artist and a dancer. She’s just really trying to find a sense of something and a place where she matters and can make an impact in some way. So we’ll see. I can’t wait to see what happens.

CGM: Did you ever reach a point in your career when you thought about giving up, whether you had made the right decision to keep pursuing it?
SF: Absolutely. Early on when I was in my early 20s, I was looking at trying to think of other things that I wanted to do. I was completely lost, and didn’t know if I wanted to go back to school for something else or just totally reroute. But you deal with tons of doubts as an artist and being an actor or performer, because there’s no consistency. I was just having dinner with a friend last night, and they’re like, “Well, what do you want to do next?” I’m like, “I have no idea.” You just try to keep plugging along and hope that work keeps coming and if it doesn’t, you look at your life and you try to find other things that excite you and make money. It’s a very interesting career path. There’s no set way. Every year is different. Every month is different. Even starring in a new television show, it airs in June and you hope people watch it and it could last for seven years or it could last 10 episodes. It’s an interesting life, actually. You just kind of have to go, “I give it all up,” and try to do the best work I can and be a good person, have a good attitude.

CGM: You’re four episodes into production, so do you feel that you’ve settled into a routine yet with the cast, the crew and your character?
SF: We’re getting there, you know. It’s an awesome set, everybody’s so great. It’s really cool because we’re all figuring it out together. It’s all really going well. I’m loving getting to know my character, Michelle, and figuring her out more and more. It’s exciting, everybody’s like, “What are the differences between theater and TV?” Every day is a new challenge here. Every day is a new scene. Every day is a new story. Every day this character is moving forward, forward, forward, and with theater, when you’re doing a long run of a show, you’re telling the same story every day. It’s kind of interesting to hop on this train, where I’m discovering this character and audiences will discover this character all at the same time. It’s kind of neat. I’m on this long journey hopefully with this character, and I can’t wait to see where she goes.

Photo: © ABC Family Credit: Adam Taylor