It’s been a whirlwind 14 years for Sutton Foster since she burst into the Broadway spotlight with “Thoroughly Modern Millie,’’ after a sequence of events that could have been lifted from the script to “42nd Street.’’
During an out-of-town tryout of “Millie,’’ Foster was serving as the understudy to the show’s star. But director Michael Mayer and the producers saw something in the young unknown, and they decided to elevate her into the lead role. “My career changed in a day,’’ remarked Foster, who is scheduled to perform in concert May 26-27 with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall, conducted by Keith Lockhart.
When “Millie’’ arrived in New York in 2002, Foster proceeded to deliver a knockout performance that won her a Tony Award. From then on, she seemed to land a Tony nomination almost every time she stepped onstage, earning nods for her work in “Little Women,’’ “Shrek the Musical,’’ and “The Drowsy Chaperone’’ before winning her second Tony in 2011, for her portrayal of the insouciant blond nightclub singer Reno Sweeney in “Anything Goes.’’
Then she followed that up with a Tony-nominated performance in a role that could not have been more different from Reno: the title character in “Violet,’’ a disfigured young woman who travels across the South in the hope a faith healer can mend her facial scar. Branching out beyond Broadway into television, Foster starred in ABC Family’s “Bunheads,’’ which won critical acclaim but was canceled after just one season. She rebounded, however, with TV Land’s “Younger,’’ which has fared well in the ratings and was renewed for a third season.
During an interview with the Globe, Foster, 41, talked about adjusting from the theater to television, her unusual choice for an audition number when she was trying to get hired early in her career, and what she now looks for in a role, whether onstage or onscreen.
Q. What sides of yourself do you try to showcase in concert appearances that might not be as visible onstage or on TV? Your storytelling side? Your humor?
A. One of the things I love about doing concerts and symphony shows is that it allows me to show audiences who I am as a performer as opposed to behind a character or in the confines of a show. It’s great to be able to stand in front of an audience as I am. It’s like “Hi!” I don’t have a blond wig and I’m not tap dancing.
Q. When you appeared at the Art House in Provincetown a few years ago, you talked about how you used to sing the title song from “Oklahoma!’’ in auditions, even though it’s an ensemble number. Might you sing that?
A. I probably will not be doing “Oklahoma!’’ But that could be really fun with a full orchestra. I don’t know if it was ballsy or just naïve, but when I was starting out and auditioning, I thought “Oh, people always do the same types of songs. I really want to be remembered.’’ So somehow I got it in my head that I’m going to belt out “Oklahoma!’’ It became like this go-to song.
Q. Your career breakthrough in “Thoroughly Modern “Millie’’ was the stuff of theater lore: An unknown emerges from the ensemble and ends up winning a Tony Award. Do you ever find yourself looking back on that and wondering how your career might have played out if you hadn’t gotten that opportunity?
A. Wow. My career changed in a day. It really did. I got a phone call from Michael Mayer, and he said: “The role is yours if you want it.’’ I was like “Wha t?’’ Everything just changed in an instant. I have no idea where I would be today had that not happened. I doubt my career would be anywhere where it is today. But who knows? It’s like that movie “Sliding Doors.’’ There’s jobs that I have not gotten — big jobs — and I wonder what would my career be if I had gotten them. You can play that game forever. I’ve always tried to be ready in the moment. Every choice I’ve made in my career, I’ve always gone with my heart, my gut, even if my agent or people around me say “You’re going to do that?’’ I’ve always done that, because I realize that no matter what the outcome is, it doesn’t matter because it comes from me.
Q. What was your thinking in deciding to play someone like Violet? Did “Violet’’ feel like a turning point for you, in terms of subject matter?
A. After Reno Sweeney — which was huge to step into; I was incredibly scared and intimidated by that — I kind of realized that I shouldn’t keep going in that trajectory, because I couldn’t top Reno. I was beginning the transition into television and trying new things. Being an actor is all about reinvention, and the left turns are more interesting than to keep going straight. When “Violet’’ happened, it was like: “This is exactly what I want to do. It’s raw, it’s vulnerable, it’s intimate.’’ It came at the perfect time in my career. I’m much more interested in the roles that terrify me, and that’s how I felt about “Violet.’’ It was exciting to be able to show audiences that hey, this is a side of me you haven’t seen. I hope that’s what I can continue to do moving forward.
Q. In both of your TV shows, “Bunheads’’ and now “Younger,’’ you’ve played women who are reinventing themselves. What is it about that idea that appeals to you?
A. I was definitely drawn to these characters for a reason. You’re catching these women at a very particular time in their lives. In many ways it mirrors my own. In my 30s I had a marriage that ended. I was reinventing myself, finding myself again. And now I’m remarried and I feel like I’m starting a whole new chapter. So to play these characters who are taking things into their own hands and making the lives that they want, reinventing their lives as opposed to just going along with what they had: That’s sort of my mantra in my life. That’s one of the things I love about being an actor, that you’re always starting over. It’s like the first day of school.
Q. How did you adjust to the different rhythms of TV and stage rehearsal and performance? Was it hard getting used to the time between takes on a TV show, rather than doing a start-to-finish live performance?
A. It was definitely a learning curve. “Bunheads’’ was 18 episodes, and it felt like I was a freshman in college. I didn’t understand certain things. As soon as you hit the stage, you’re on for two hours. In TV, you’re on for five minutes, and you’re off for a half-hour. Now I’ve adjusted to the rhythms.
Q. Do you miss the stage?
A. The theater will be my home, always. Concerts help whet my appetite for being onstage in front of live audiences. That helps fill that need for now. I hope that never goes away.
A BROADWAY EVENING WITH SUTTON FOSTER
In performance with the Boston Pops, conducted by Keith Lockhart, May 26-27. At Symphony Hall, Boston. Tickets: $24-$99, 888-266-1200, www.bostonpops.org
Interview has been edited and condensed. Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.