Broadway star Sutton Foster sings with exactly the kind of bright-eyed conviction, poise, and exuberance you would expect from a two-time Tony Award winner (for "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Anything Goes") and originator of roles like Fiona in "Shrek The Musical." But Foster's also the kind of performer who relishes breaking out from behind the characters she portrays, as she will do on February 10 and 11 when she joins the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and Principal Pops Conductor Jeff Tyzik for a pair of concerts in Kodak Hall.
In a recent phone interview, CITY spoke to Foster about her "go-to" song, the Broadway character she is most like, and why concert performances are more about self-expression. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.
CITY: When did you know that you wanted to pursue a career in theater?
Sutton Foster: I grew up in a small town in Georgia, then moved to Michigan. And my dad worked for General Motors; my mom was a mom. I didn't know anybody that made a career of entertainment. It was all very foreign to me. I started dancing when I was young and started doing theater, just for fun. It was interesting; when I was in high school and sort of thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, I had no other interests or other options, really.
It had to have happened in high school, you know. But obviously, I never thought -- I was like, "People get paid to do this?" I always thought of it as something that people did for fun, like it was an extracurricular activity. I never thought, "Oh wow, you can actually make a living," just because it seemed sort of foreign to me. But I don't know what else I would have done had I not pursued being a performer.
Is there a character you portray with whom you identify most?
I feel like I try to find ways to identify with all of the characters I play, but the one that sort of popped into my mind, I played a character called Violet in a Broadway show called "Violet." I feel like she and I shared quite a bit, and I very much identified with her.
Was there a defining characteristic that felt particularly natural or organic?
I think we just shared sort of a darkness. I had been playing a lot of happy-go-lucky, feel-good characters, and Violet had a darkness to her, and it was awesome for me to explore as an actress. I just understood her. She was someone who was sort of wounded as a child, and searching to be healed, and I related to that.
Is there a song that you sing for yourself, as a way to center yourself?
Honestly, I will say that being a singer and also being surrounded by music so much in my life, I tend to spend a lot of my downtime in quiet. I never really play music around the house. I rarely sing, unless I'm working on something.
If I had to go to something that really centered me or just sort of summed me up, that felt like a true expression of self, I would probably say "Sunshine on My Shoulders," which is John Denver. It was one of my favorite songs growing up as a kid, and one of my mom's favorite songs, and now we sing it with the symphonies. I don't necessarily listen to myself singing it, but I feel like when I sing live or when I'm performing it, that's an incredibly sort of centering moment for me -- spiritually and musically, everything kind of comes together.
What do you love most about live performance?
I feel like anything could happen. There's something very magical about sharing a space and a time, in a live moment -- especially these days, where we can press pause, or we're constantly on our phones. But for like two hours, everyone in that theater is off their phone, hopefully; they're completely present, hopefully; and we're all sort of in it together, you know? ... I love performing live because there's nothing like it. There's nothing like having that relationship with an audience, the give and take. Everyone plays a part in it.
And during concerts, singing with a symphony, I enjoy it because it isn't about playing a character. I'm just me. I get to sort of show audiences who I am as an artist, as opposed to who I am behind a character or a role. Some of the songs are from shows and stuff, but I get to sort of reinterpret things through the lens of myself, which is cool. So it gives an audience an opportunity to get to know me more as a person, and it's definitely a more intimate experience.