NEW YORK, June 3 (UPI) -- The Broadway legend of going on stage a nobody and coming back a star became a reality once more when Sutton Foster won the Tony Award for best actress in a Broadway musical Sunday night for her performance in the title role of "Thoroughly Modern Millie."
Foster was literally plucked from the chorus of the show when it was in rehearsal for its pre-Broadway tryout at the La Jolla Playhouse in California to understudy Erin Dilly, a replacement for the actress originally cast as Millie. When Dilly didn't work out in the role, Foster was asked to take over. It was the "star is born" scene out of another Broadway musical, "42nd Street," all over again.
In "42nd Street" the producer tells chorine Peggy Sawyer, whom he has just put into the lead role of his musical, "You're going out there a youngster, but you've got to come back a star." At 37, Foster isn't exactly a youngster, but her biggest Broadway assignment before "Millie" opened at the Marquis Theater April 18 had been as a weekend replacement as Eponine in "Les Miserables," a role she later played on the road for a year.
No wonder she said she was "living a dream come true" when she accepted a Tony for her performance as Millie Dillmount and thanked the producers for "taking a chance on me" at the awards ceremony at Radio City Music Hall. She had won a Tony the first time she was eligible for it and had beaten out such talents as Vanessa Williams of "Into the Woods," Louise Pitre of "Mama Mia," and Nancy Opel and Jennifer Laura Thompson, both of "Urinetown The Musical."
She also helped "Thoroughly Modern Millie" dominate the 2002 Antoinette Perry Awards by garnering six awards, including best musical of the season. The show had been nominated for 11 Tonys. Its nearest competitor, "Urintetown," got three Tonys.
The tall, leggy brunette, who looks all of 25, recalls that she began preparing for a show business career at the tender age of 4, when he mother enrolled her in dancing classes. She made her stage debut as Orphan Annie in "Annie," in a community theater production in Augusta, Ga., where her father was working for General Motors, and while in high school in Troy, Mich., she joined a touring production of "The Will Rogers Follies."
For a while, she thought of being a teacher and was enrolled briefly at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, but a trip to New York to visit her actor brother Hunter Foster, currently trying his hand at playwriting, changed her mind. He encouraged her to attend an audition for replacements for the national tour of the 1994 Broadway revival of "Grease" and she got the job, opening in San Francisco.
This resulted in her Broadway debut in the role of Sandy in "Grease," which she played for three weeks before leaving to perform a role in the 20th anniversary revival of "Annie," the show in which she got her start. Her next show was a secondary role in "The Scarlett Pimpernell." But it was her performance in "Les Miz" that led to her being cast in "Millie."
A casting director she had met during the her run in "Les Miz" admired her work and recommended her to director Michael Mayer, who was then casting "Millie" for its La Jolla tryout. Mayer gave her a tiny role, a step above hoofer, and asked her to understudy Dilly, who had just been cast in the title role to replace Kristin Chenoweth when she left to do a television series.
It was courageous of Mayer to go with Foster, a virtual unknown, rather than a star name when he decided to bring "Millie" to Broadway in a $10 million production. Foster got some good notices, but a number of reviewers were critical including the man on the aisle for the New York Times. But "Millie" persisted and getting 11 Tony Award nominations did a lot to boost "Millie's" ticket sales.
"I wasn't prepared for the criticism and the press, the ups and downs of that," Foster said in an interview with United Press International. "You can't imagine how hard it is. In the rehearsals and previews, it's all about the work and trying to do a good job and trying to find your pace. When you're a kid thinking about a theater career, you just see the glamorous side, the accolades."
Julie Andrews originally played the role of Millie in the 1967 movie that inspired the musical, but reviewers have not compared Foster to Andrews but to Mary Tyler Moore, who played the second female lead in the film. Her presence on stage has a Moore-ish innocence and charming awkwardness that is not a part of Andrews's more polished stage persona.
"I think the one thing of me that they really wanted to capitalize on is my dorkiness," Foster observed.