Critics and audiences have often compared her super-extended legs and eager-to-please smile to Mary Tyler Moore’s. Sutton Foster’s career, on the other hand, can best be likened to another legendary actress: From 1955 to 1959, Gwen Verdon appeared in three original Broadway musicals: “Damn Yankees,” “New Girl in Town” and “Redhead.”
Cut to five decades later, and the 30-year-old Foster has scored her own original trifecta of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Little Women” and current “The Drowsy Chaperone” in just four years. (Verdon scored an unprecedented grand slam of three Tonys in the top actress slot for her efforts while Foster won one for “Millie” and noms for the other two.)
When asked to describe her job, she says, “I wear false eyelashes and too much blush and a push-up bra and pantyhose for a living. I get paid to do what I love.”
Careers like Foster’s — especially in the musical theater, where the Tonys are lucky to come up with four nomination-worthy tuners a season — just aren’t supposed to happen anymore.
“Someone came to the stage door recently,” Foster recalls. “They had the ‘Millie’ and the ‘Little Women’ and the ‘Drowsy’ cast recordings to sign. Oh my God! I grew up listening to original cast recordings. It is just unbelievable. And I just hope, knocking on everything, to continue working and originating roles.”
Note the derivative of the word “original.” When asked what great dramatic parts — Blanche or Maggie, maybe? — she’d like to play, Foster admits she’d be “scared” not to sing and dance onstage, and just as readily adds: “I’d like to do something original.”
Back in 2001, “Millie” director Michael Mayer plucked Foster from the chorus to carry the $10 million show. If that story is older than the Warner Bros. scribe who first penned it, this actress’s debut professional gig tells one that’s even hoarier.
In 1992, the producers of “The Will Rogers Follies” came to Detroit looking to cast chorus girls for the national tour. “You had to be 5-foot-7 and up and dance and sing,” Foster recalls. And in the best “A Chorus Line” tradition, the 17-year-old high school student said, “I can do that.” And so she did. “They gave me the day off to go back to the prom, and luckily we were on tour in Detroit for my graduation.”
In other words, they make ’em exactly like they used to.
Career mantra: “When I was starting out, my mantra was not to say no. Take every opportunity, as long as it isn’t porn. It is different now. I have to be a little more selective about what I choose to do.”
Role model: “Patti LuPone. I love her career, I love what she’s chosen to do.”
What’s next: “I’ll be with ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ for a year. I’d love to stick my toe in film and TV.”
— Robert Hofler
When Jones and Brian F. O’Byrne played the dueling nun and priest in “Doubt,” it was like watching Bette Davis and George Sanders go at it in “All About Eve.”
In the current Broadway season, Jones does herself one better when she creates similar legit shockwaves by holding the stage alone for 40 minutes straight, playing the tortured ex-wife of Ralph Fiennes in Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer.”
In the past half-dozen years on Broadway, there is hardly one season that doesn’t showcase a Jones starrer: In addition to “Doubt” and the current “Healer,” there have been “Imaginary Friends,” “Major Barbara” and “A Moon for the Misbegotten.”
While the actress’s extraordinary talent can be credited for that track record, Jones offers another key element. “What it’s called is prosperity,” she says, her signature no-nonsense style in full display. “Think back to the 1970s and a city that was in default. I have my Broadway career thanks to the boom of the 1990s. We’re all just waiting for the economy to collapse.”
Like any well-trained theater animal, Jones performs in the moment. And a real flair for amnesia keeps her on the move: “After I play a part, I forget it immediately.”
Most theatergoers first learned of Jones a decade ago with her uncompromising turn as the gawky, if not downright dim, Catherine Sloper in “The Heiress.” But such Tony-winning performances don’t materialize out of the shadows of a ghost light.
“From 23 to 33, I was with the American Repertory Theater, which was like a game preserve for actors,” the 49-year-old Jones recalls. “I was protected, I didn’t have to worry about the next job. I really cut my teeth there. I am the worst auditioner in the world. I don’t know if I would have had the fortitude without that training. There are no companies like that anymore.”
Career mantra: “Good work with good people.”
Role model: “Colleen Dewhurst. In ‘A Moon for the Misbegotten’ (1973-74), she got to me when I was young, and showed me what a big, strong woman can be and do onstage.”
What’s next: “The national tour of ‘Doubt.’ ”
— Robert Hofler
Jones likes to think of herself as more of a cultural worker than a writer-thespian. She’s had pieces commissioned by Equality Now and the National Immigration Forum, among others, and she was even the first artist to sue the FCC for censorship. (The case against her, involving an obscenity charge for a poem she read on the radio, was dropped.)
She’s best known, though, as the chameleonic performer whose self-penned solo shows (including “Bridge & Tunnel,” which this year earned her a special Tony Award) feature Jones portraying multiple characters from various ethnic backgrounds.
Her powers of transformation brought her to the attention of Meryl Streep, who helped produce the original Off Broadway staging of “Bridge,” and attracted buzz to the socially conscious performer.
The Queens native, who attended the United Nations Intl. School growing up and got her start at poetry slams like the one depicted in “Bridge & Tunnel,” emphasizes that she’s not a documentarian a la Anna Deavere Smith. All the people Jones portrays are fictional, although she does crib from reality to create her characters’ physical lives.
“Acting for me is just watching and listening,” she says. “I put my brain on record and then meld the characteristics of different people into someone who feels real.”
Career mantra: “I don’t have one.”
Role model: “There are so many people I have major professional crushes on. Lily Tomlin, Meryl Streep, Richard Pryor, Anna Deavere Smith.”
What’s next: A new piece that is a commission from Lincoln Center Theater.
— Gordon Cox