TAMPA — Sutton Foster takes a stroll backstage. Usually it's during sound check, an hour or so before her concerts, such as the performance she'll give Sunday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.
By definition, An Evening With Sutton Foster is going to represent the song list of Thoroughly Modern Millie and Anything Goes, for which she won Tony Awards. She will dip into popular and jazzy standards of the last century, plus a few tunes the Sandman forgot.
She might sneak a glance at the earliest arrivals. Are they older or younger? Sedate or peppy? Each venue is a little different, and sometimes the performances are too.
A few minutes after the stroll, she will retreat to her dressing room, vocalize and talk to her pianist. Whatever comes out of that conversation will determine the final version of the show.
In the quiet backstage moments, she will take a breath and try to get herself straight.
"I'll say my age in my mind," she said. "I'll say, 'Sutton, you're 40 years old. You've been working your whole life to be here. You can allow it to be good.' "
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Getting there was neither easy nor impossibly arduous. Talent bloomed early. Foster was a Star Search contestant at 15. Encouraged by her Troy High School drama teacher in Michigan, she spent her senior year dancing with the Will Rogers Follies. After a head-clearing year at Carnegie Mellon University, she headed to New York.
Around 27, she rose from the chorus in 2002 to the lead role in Thoroughly Modern Millie, after Kristin Chenoweth, the original Millie, left to pursue television.
"I had big shoes to fill for Millie," Foster said of the role also played by Julie Andrews in a 1967 movie. "It's definitely intimidating, but I was very green and I think that helped me."
So green, Foster decided, it was time to try something new: voice lessons.
"I didn't know how to sing eight days a week," she said. A well-known "voice therapist" taught Foster to protect herself. Her acting, singing and dancing drew raves from critics, who compared her with Carol Burnett, Mary Tyler Moore and Shirley MacLaine.
Foster has since returned to the Broadway stage a half-dozen times, including in 2012 for Anything Goes. She's also worked in television, appearing on Bunheads and Flight of the Conchords. She now stars in the TV Land series Younger.
Expect her concert Sunday to reflect her Broadway shows but also more of Foster herself, who is going for intimate and personal on this tour.
"It's a feeling like we're all hanging out in my living room," she said. "As in, I'm going to give you a side of myself that you haven't seen yet. So it's a little more exposed, a little more vulnerable, as opposed to the razzle-dazzle."
Confidence to go there came from nine years in therapy and just living longer, she said. It's a lesson she tries to impart to theater students in master classes she has given at Ball State University.
"As I've gotten older I've definitely gotten more comfortable in my own skin," Foster said. "It's like, I'm enough. I don't have to add all the whipped cream and the sprinkles and the cherries and all the bells and whistles. Because then it's like, it's too sweet. It's too much. How do you allow who you are as a human being to be interesting enough to be singular, to be beautiful?"
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.