When actress Sutton Foster talks about her character Michelle from the TV show Bunheads, she describes a performer who’s in transition, who has missed her moment and is stuck between two generations of dancers — the young students whom she helps guide and her dance maven mother-in-law, owner of a studio in the fictional coastal town of Paradise, Calif.
“It’s this pull,” Foster said of situations that everyone faces in real life. “We all have these constant pulls about what will be the next right step.”
Unlike Michelle, whose dance career was at a dead end in Bunheads’ first season, Foster is at the height of her acting, singing and dancing career. At age 38, she has performed in 10 Broadway shows (originating five roles), won two Tony Awards, starred in her own TV show and tours the country as a solo artist.
At the moment, she’s waiting for word on whether Bunheads will be picked up for a second season before she decides what her next musical theater venture will be. Taping for the first season of Bunheads wrapped in January.
Foster, who moved to Los Angeles in October, knows she eventually wants to move back to New York and work on the stage again.
So what does she have in the works?
“Nothing definitive. Lots of irons in the fire. A lot of it depends on whether Bunheads comes back,” she said. “I’m a little bit in limbo, but that’s OK.’’
Foster will perform Saturday at PlayhouseSquare’s illuminate!, a benefit celebrating the 90th anniversary of the completion of the historic theaters. She’ll be performing 15 songs, including jazz standards and tunes from the Great American Songbook, in a 45-minute show. For reservations to the $300 event, which are due today, call 216-640-8411 or see www.playhousesquare.org/illuminate.
On Thursday, Foster called from San Francisco, where she had just opened the new nightclub Feinstein’s at the Hotel Nikko for its inaugural performance the night before. She and her music director, Michael Rafter, had a five-night gig in the new cabaret room, created by singer Michael Feinstein and modeled after his former Feinstein’s at the Regency in Manhattan.
Foster said someone at Feinstein’s Wednesday night told her, “Broadway misses you!”
“I’m not that far away,” insisted the performer. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Foster is focusing on fine-tuning her cabaret show, whose concert dates in the next several months lead up to a three-week return engagement at the Café Carlyle in New York in September.
In Cleveland, she’ll appear with a trio including Rafter on piano as well as bass and guitar players.
“I think it’ll be really nice and classy, simple. Sort of a throwback to a different time,” Foster said. “One of my favorite things in the world to do is sing with my music director and work on songs.”
Foster, whose breakthrough Broadway role came as the title character in Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2002, also originated the roles of Jo in Little Women, Janet Van De Graaff in The Drowsy Chaperone, Inga in Young Frankenstein and Fiona in Shrek The Musical. She most recently appeared on Broadway as Reno Sweeney in the revival of Anything Goes in 2011-2012.
Growing up in Statesboro, Ga., and Troy, Mich., she began dancing at age 4 but said she wasn’t a bunhead (ballerina). She studied everything, including tap, jazz and ballet, and danced all the way through high school.
“It was just part of who I was and what I did,” she said.
As she got older, singing started to take precedence over dancing. Now, Foster said she considers herself an actor who sings and dances.
At age 15, she was a contestant on the television show Star Search. She left Troy High School before graduating to join the national tour of The Will Rogers Follies, directed by Tommy Tune.
The performer said she’s enjoying seeing America’s infatuation with dance, as evidenced by TV competitions such as Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance as well as shows like Bunheads. She’s also happy seeing the performing arts portrayed in the mainstream, including on Glee and Smash.
“It’s exciting to see more theater showcased on TV,” Foster said.
The actress, a self-confessed TV lover, revealed that she’s “slightly obsessed’’ with reality TV, counting The Bachelor and The Bachelorette among her guilty pleasures: “It’s like candy.”
Foster said landing the part of Michelle in Bunheads was a perfect fit. She and her agent had been “kind of dreaming — we were bucket listing” a year before and Foster had said she’d love to do TV if she could work for one of her favorite writers: Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of Gilmore Girls.
“One of my favorite shows of all time is Gilmore Girls,” Foster said.
A year later, Foster was offered the part of Michelle in Sherman-Palladino’s Bunheads, starring opposite Kelly Bishop, who played matriarch Emily in Gilmore Girls. Bishop also created the role of sexy Sheila in Broadway’s A Chorus Line in 1976.
“It just became the right project [at] the right time,” Foster said.
The actress said she loves how her impulsive character is “a total mess of contradictions,” perhaps inadvertently referencing a lyric from the Shrek song This Is Our Story that describes her Princess Fiona character.
“I love her [Michelle] and I find her fascinating because she’s so smart and so witty and sarcastic and self-deprecating, and yet she has so much humor and then love for these girls because I think she sees herself in them,” Foster said.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or email@example.com.