It sounds like the plot of a Broadway musical: Sutton Foster was the understudy in the La Jolla production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” when the lead dropped out — and the producers offered her the title role, for which she would go on win the Tony Award. “I’m very grateful I got my beginnings in theater,” says Foster, who’s now starring in TV Land’s “Younger.” “I developed a strong work ethic that serves me well.”
Do you remember this review in Variety?
I don’t read reviews anymore, but I remember this one. This review helped the producers decide to bring me to Broadway. This is the one that helped them say, this is the girl we want to headline the show in New York.
How did you get cast as the understudy?
I had auditioned to play Millie, and when I didn’t get the part, I called my agent and asked if they would cast me as the understudy. Around the same time, I had an offer to play Eponine in “Les Miserables” on Broadway. But I had played that character on tour, so I decided to be the understudy in “Millie.” Everyone thought I was crazy. I just really wanted to do something new and move forward. I didn’t have ulterior motives. What happened was a complete surprise.
How did you react when you got the lead?
My career changed in one phone call. It was like a dream. I was bawling because I was terrified. I told them, you’re making a mistake! I was so overwhelmed. I had a lot of energy and volume, but no real training. I think that naivete served me well
What was it like becoming the star overnight?
It was my first time being a leading lady. The cast rallied behind me, which I was very grateful for, because they also had gone through something traumatic; they had lost their leading lady, and they had a brand new one thrust at them. People can say I got lucky, but I was also prepared and ready. I stepped up to the plate.
Did you always know “Millie” was going to go national?
I was incredibly green. There was never a doubt in my mind that it wasn’t going to go to Broadway. But between La Jolla and New York City, 9/11 happened, so it was a different world. Amazingly, the show was able to continue. In a way it opened at a great time, because the show was healing. Because the show was about New York, it was a love letter to the city. Audiences needed to escape and needed joy, and this little show came in.
How did it feel to open on Broadway?
It was surreal. It was an exhausting preview period. When we got to the finish line, it was a celebration. My parents were not there, though. And right before I got to sing my big 11 o’clock number, I remember thinking I want my mommy. I was just so scared!
What would you tell your 25-year-old self?
I’d say shut up and listen. I’d say you don’t have to make it so hard; it’s already hard enough. You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. You don’t know everything, and that’s OK. Even now, I’m 40 years old. I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. I can just enjoy the ride.