At 28, Sutton Foster “Went Through A Goldfish Phase”

The two-time Tony winner reflects on her entry into the Broadway big leagues.

by Eliza Thompson
Originally Published: 
Sutton Foster, age 28, was dating Christian Borle and setting up a Broadway career.
Sylvain Gaboury, Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

Nine months before Sutton Foster turned 28, she won her first Tony Award. She was starring on Broadway as the titular character in the Jazz Age show Thoroughly Modern Millie, which took home six Tony Awards in 2002, and racking up accolades for her comic chops and on-stage earnestness — and earning fans in tandem. The Georgia native had already been a successful theater actor for years, but Millie made her a star. Offstage, however, Foster didn’t feel quite so sure of herself.

“It was the start of searching to find other things that brought me happiness outside of the show,” she tells Bustle. “I felt like my reality, my identity, was wrapped up in being a performer.” At the time, she lived with her then-boyfriend, fellow actor Christian Borle, in a New York apartment just blocks from Millie’s Marquis Theatre, meaning she could walk to work in about 10 minutes. A year into the show’s run, Borle could walk with her, having replaced Gavin Creel as Millie’s love interest. “I was sort of 100% Millie,” says Foster, who’s now 46.

In the decades since, she’s worked to remedy that single-minded focus on the stage. She leaned into crafting, as described in her 2021 memoir, Hooked: How Crafting Saved My Life, and led a much-loved seven-season television comedy, Younger, whose finale aired last summer.

“I wasn't ready to be a mom or to have a family, but I wanted to start taking care of something.”

And now, back to Broadway. This spring, Foster stars opposite Hugh Jackman in a wildly lavish revival of The Music Man, which opened last week after a year-plus delay caused by pandemic lockdowns. “I'm having the time of my life, truly,” she says of the show, which culminates in a thrilling tap dance-off between her and Jackman. “After what we have been through, as human beings, and what we're still living with, it's a really powerful [story] and it's incredibly joyful.”

In addition to dazzling as the rule-enforcing librarian, named Marian, Foster has also found herself playing a new role backstage: as knowledge dispenser to her many young co-stars. “We have 20 Broadway debuts,” she says of The Music Man. “They'll ask [for] advice about representation, or what to wear for opening.” She describes her role as “motherly” rather than mentor-like — this is her first time on Broadway since becoming a mom in 2017. “That mom gene has flipped on pretty hardcore!”

Below, the two-time Tony winner recalls unusual goldfish, 11-course meals, and settling into success in her late 20s.

Foster as The Music Man’s “Marian the librarian.”Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic/Getty Images
Foster as Thoroughly Modern Millie’s titular character.Dennis Clark/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
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What did life look like for you in 2003, when you were 28?

I remember struggling a lot with my anxiety, struggling with being at a big Broadway show and finding balance and perspective. I wasn't ready to be a mom or to have a family, but I wanted to start taking care of something. So I went through a plant phase and started keeping African violets. I had, like, 20 African violets, and would make more by [propagating them]. And then I went through a goldfish phase. I had all these crazy types of goldfish. I was desperately trying to find something. Eventually I got a hamster, and I think Christian was about to kill me when I brought home the hamster. Her name was Judy Jingles.

How did winning the Tony recalibrate your career?

It was like a dream. I was born in Georgia, but spent my high school years in Michigan. And this is pre-internet, so the Tony Awards were [the only time] when musical theater came into our living room. I remember practicing my Tony Awards speech with my hairbrush in front of the mirror at 15 years old, but when it all happened, it was very surreal. It wasn’t an instant recalibration of [my] career — other than every time your name is mentioned, it has “Tony Award winner” attached to it.

How did having Christian join the show change your experience with it?

We were working together, living together, raising goldfish together. It was actually a really positive, great time. It was like the first time I was really making a home. Up until then I [had been] more transient, touring or living out of suitcases.

What was your idea of a splurge back then?

Buying an exotic goldfish, of course! [Laughs.] It was the first time I was making money, but I was raised so frugally, so I wasn't a splurgy type of gal. One of our favorite things to do was to go out [for] a really nice meal. On a Sunday night after a show, we'd go somewhere fancy. Do you remember Per Se? You get, like, an 11-course meal. We would somehow score a table at Per Se and sit there like two giddy teenagers, eating until we exploded.

Whose career did you see as something you wanted for yourself?

I’ve always admired Patti LuPone. I grew up watching her when I was a kid. I remember seeing her perform at the Carnegie Hall Sondheim celebration. I was probably 15 or 16 years old, and she sang “Being Alive” from Company. My parents had bought me the CD and DVD of that concert, and I listened to it over and over. There was something about Patti’s command of the stage that was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.

When I was doing Millie, I started taking voice lessons with a teacher named Joan Lader, who I still study with. One day after my lesson, in walks Patti LuPone for hers. I thought I was going to lose my mind, that Patti and I took voice lessons from the same teacher. That's when I realized, ‘Oh my God, that person who I stared at on the TV and idolized — now we're sort of in the same orbit.”

Has there been a point when you felt like you’ve truly made it?

This is such a New Yorker comment, but I really felt I’d made it when I finally had an apartment that had a washer and dryer in [unit]. I swear to God, I was like, “I've made it! I'm successful! I no longer have to drop my laundry off at a laundromat!”

What would your 28-year-old self think of Sutton Foster today?

I think she'd be proud of her, that somehow she found her way. I wish I could tell my 28-year-old self, “You will find yourself. You won't need 15 goldfish. You're going to be OK.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Music Man is currently playing at the Winter Garden Theatre (1634 Broadway) in New York City.

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