This undated photo released by ABC Family shows Tony Award-winning actress Sutton Foster, who stars as a former ballerina turned Vegas showgirl who is looking to make a fresh start in the ABC Family’s original drama “Bunheads.” The series premieres Monday, June 11 at 9 p.m. EDT on ABC Family. (AP Photo/ABC Family, Adam Taylor)
LOS ANGELES (AP) — On a Hollywood soundstage, a pair of talent agents are turning on the charm for Sutton Foster, the Tony Award-winning toast of Broadway.
The eager suits can save the smooth patter. Foster has already made her move, a sharp turn from musical theater into TV with ABC Family’s “Bunheads.”
“It’s like the role of a lifetime. It just happens to be on a television show,” said Foster, whose beguilingly wide grin is a perfect fit for the small screen.
“Bunheads” — slang for ballerinas, with their oh-so-perfectly coiled hair — has a gawky name but a great pedigree. It combines the witty pen of “Gilmore Girls” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino with Foster’s star power, adding “Gilmore” and fellow Broadway alumna Kelly Bishop as a bonus.
Foster plays Michelle Simms, a ballet dancer who lost her emotional balance and fell into the daily grind of an underpaid, underloved Las Vegas showgirl. In the debut episode (9 p.m. EDT Monday), Michelle’s life takes another, equally unexpected turn into small-town life that includes Bishop’s worldly dance school owner.
The mythic California seaside village of Paradise is where Michelle lands. Foster has taken on a more daunting city, sprawling Los Angeles, after making her name as a musical theater wonder during 17 years in New York. Her bookend Tonys came for 2002’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and last year’s “Anything Goes.”
Turns out that Foster, 37, a Georgia native, was eager to hoof it after long feeling “married” to New York.
“I was ready, personally and creatively, to broaden my horizons and look beyond theater. I was just ready for a change of pace,” she said.
“Doing Reno Sweeney and ‘Anything Goes,’ that whole experience became like a pinnacle for me. I overcame so much and it was so challenging and yet so rewarding. After that, I wanted to take a little bit of a turn and try something new.”
Along came Sherman-Palladino, who, after a post-“Gilmore” stumble (“The Return of Jezebel James”), had whipped up a little something that reflected the writer’s own background (she’s the daughter of a dancer, and dance was her first career) and it proved a perfect fit for Foster.
Sherman-Palladino realized that after seeing the actress as Reno in “Anything Goes.” Foster’s stage vehicles, which Sherman-Palladino describes as “big, brassy, old-fashioned shows,” didn’t mesh with the writer-producer’s style. But Foster did.
“There was something about her that was so captivating and so weirdly soft and emotional even in this brassy part,” Sherman-Palladino said. She called ABC Family executive Kate Juergens to tell her, “I think she could be the girl I’m writing this part for.”
Foster returns the love, and then some. When she first met Sherman-Palladino in New York, “I was a supergeeko fan on her.”
The actress said she treasures her DVDs of “Gilmore Girls,” the coming-of-age series about a mom and daughter (Lauren Graham, Alexis Bledel) in fictional Stars Hollow, and admits, back in the day, to adding a photo of teenager Rory’s boyfriend, Jess, to her journal.
“I’m the self-proclaimed quirky, independent, strong woman, like Lorelai and Rory,” Foster said. But she also cops to a “skewed world view.”
“I’m very idealistic. I always say, ‘Puppy dogs and rainbows,'” Foster said. “I want to live in Stars Hollow. I want to live in Paradise, Calif.”
Bishop, herself a Tony Award winner for “Chorus Line,” said she’s delighted Foster is tackling TV.
“I told her, ‘You own Broadway, so own the rest of the country,'” Bishop said. “She’s such a talent and a joy to work with. She carries that theater discipline with her: lots of stamina and concentration.”
Grown-ups aren’t the sole focus of “Bunheads.” The studio run by Bishop’s character, Fanny, attracts teenagers with their own big dreams and big issues, including Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins), Sasha (Julia Goldani Telles), Ginny (Bailey Buntain) and Melanie (Emma Dumont).
“Bunheads” evolved from a Sherman-Palladino work-in-progress play about young ballet students and their mothers. When Disney approached her about a youth-oriented series akin to “Glee,” the writer-producer said she admires the Fox show but had a different take in mind.
“My thing was, ‘Yes, teenage girls in it. Yes, a lot of their coming-of-age.’ But the core of this show is this woman, this dancer who has hit the wall and the end of her career snuck up on her. She never dealt with the reality of her life … and now it’s hitting her in the face,” she said.
Foster’s own life is energetic and well-ordered (“I’m always in motion and thinking eight steps ahead”) and working out quite nicely, thank you. Even her decision to move for “Bunheads” came with a bonus: She gets to hang out on weekends with her best friend, who had already made the move to L.A. from New York, and her pal’s infant twins.
Her Eastern circle had urged her to stay put, Foster said, but “my life here is pretty great. Of course, I’m mostly known as a Broadway performer but hopefully I’ll be known as someone who does many things and not be labeled one thing or another.”
New York, however, shouldn’t despair. Even if “Bunheads” becomes a TV staple, Foster reasons she can squeeze a play in during production breaks.
“Nothing’s forever,” said Foster, an ex-New Yorker maybe just for now.