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The Producers

It's your last chance to see the show that won the most Tonys in Broadway history -- now through April 22 only!

Hunter Foster

When Hunter Foster accepted a part in the off-Broadway musical Urinetown, he had no idea what the reaction would be, let alone how it would launch his career as a leading man on Broadway. Foster originated the starring role of Bobby Strong in the sleeper sensation, which not only made it to the Great White Way but also gave his sister Sutton's tuner--Thoroughly Modern Millie--a run for its money in the Best Musical race of the 2002 Tony Awards. Then, the botanically challenged actor took on a killer plant as Seymour in the latest revival of the 1982 doo-wop cult classic, Little Shop of Horrors. Suddenly, Foster was nominated for the Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk and Tony Awards. Now, the Georgia native with genuine southern charm is in the spotlight again as the new Leo Bloom in The Producers, which remains one of the hottest tickets in town. Foster recently chatted with over a pre-theater all-day-breakfast plate at Angus McIndoe's about his latest role, the nuances of playing a nerd, the Tony Awards, his sporadic second career as a musical book writer, and why being out of town during Full Monty auditions was the best thing that could have happened to his career.

You went from playing hero Bobby Strong in Urinetown to nerdy Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. Now you're nerdy Leo Bloom in The Producers. Which is closest to the real Hunter?
I have to say, probably Leo. I don't know why. It seems to be the easiest to play for me. Leo's not a nerd, though. Seymour's a nerd, but Leo's not a nerd.

OK, how would you characterize Leo?
He's definitely someone who's super-intelligent---like me--and he's more of, he's kind of a--OK, maybe he is a little bit of a nerd laughs. But Seymour was the kind of nerd people gave wedgies to and smacked around. I think Leo was probably in the advanced classes in school, and he was probably valedictorian. He was one of those really preppy, super-smart guys. But I don't think he was a geek that got picked on or thrown into a locker or anything like that.

Maybe uncertain is a better word than nerdy?
Yeah, very frightened of life, and the opposite of Seymour who was actually not afraid of anything; he basically orders a plant to kill people. There's not a lot of fear in Seymour.

So do you have any Leo-like quirks? A security blanket, for example?
I did have one growing up. I had a blanket, and my sister [Sutton Foster] had a pillowcase she carried around, even at 14 or 15. It was in shreds by the time she was 14 years old. And she liked to put it in the refrigerator. Very weird. But now, for me, yeah--I do have something I take from show to show to show.

What's that?
My velvet Elvis painting. I have a velvet Elvis that I have to have in my dressing room. So that's as close as I come to having some sort of security blanket.

Leo also has that elaborate fantasy sequence during "I Wanna Be A Producer." Do you have a fantasy sequence of your own?
I have this sports fantasy that goes through my mind all the time--that I'm going to give up acting and become a sports star--pitch the seventh game of the World Series or win the Super Bowl or the U.S. Open in golf. It's like feigning sports announcer, 'And Hunter comes out of nowhere!' But most athletes' careers are done at the end of their 30s, and the older I get, the more I think, 'Oh, no! My athletic career is ending!'

Starring in a high-profile show like The Producers must feel like a fantasy sequence at times. What have the crowds been like?
I remember when I came to the city to see Les Mis, and I had such high expectations for that show. I think The Producers is probably on the same line of that big Broadway show that everyone has wanted to see for such a long time, and even though Matthew [Broderick] and Nathan [Lane] aren't in it anymore, people still want to see the show. They're coming from out of town, coming from other countries, and they've all heard of The Producers; it's one of the top shows they want to see. So you can tell there's a lot of excitement when people come to see the show. On the other hand, they expect a lot--so it's hard at the same time.

Not to mention the fact that you're stepping into a part played by both Matthew Broderick and Roger Bart [who originated the role of Carmen Ghia] before you. Is it more challenging, as a replacement, to put your own stamp on the role?
On the one hand, you've got a roadmap. I always hate when people go see shows and say, 'Oh, this person was much better than the original person.' I hate that. Because the person who was there originally had to go through the five weeks of rehearsal--had to try different things and fail. They were creating a role, and so it's easier to come in and replace only because it's kind of been done for you. Now on the other hand, you also want to make it your own. You don't want to do what the person did before you. So that's the challenge.

How did you want to make the role of Leo Bloom different, and how much were you able to actually do that?
Well, I was very surprised. They gave me a lot of leeway--a lot more than I thought I was going to get. I mean, there are certain things in the show that are just the way they are, which is fine, I understand that, and you have to do what's been done. But they gave me a lot of freedom to find my own things, and I think I've found some things that are mine that no other Leo has ever done, which makes me happy.

Like what?
I have a line in the show, an ad-lib which they kept.

Which line is that?
It's in the blue blanket scene. I say to Max, 'You've still got a mean face.' I threw it out in rehearsal and they kept it, so I've got my own line in The Producers now.

Do you have a favorite moment in the show?
I love the blue blanket scene, just because it's from the movie and Gene Wilder was so perfect in that movie. And I love "Springtime for Hitler." I think it's staged so well. There are so many great moments in the show. And everything keeps getting funnier as the show goes along.

It must be hard to keep a straight face.
It is hard, and you can see the smirks on people's faces sometimes. It's hard not to get cracked up when Gary Beach is out there, and Brad Oscar is doing this incredible shtick. In fact, Brad and I cracked up the other night after only two weeks of doing the show together. It was in the second act, and I had some newspapers, and the newspapers fell apart and went all over the floor. Then I opened up the safe, and money came out of the safe, and so I had money on the floor, and I was trying to pick it all up and we just looked at each other and started laughing.

Are there any other parts in The Producers that you think would be fun to play besides your own?
I want to play Carmen Ghia. I think that's a great part! In fact, when I saw it the first time, that was the role I most wanted to play. So if they ever let me--you know, Roger [Bart] did both; I could do both.

What does your wife [actress Jennifer Cody] think of your performance?
I don't think she'd ever seen me dance like this before. I mean, I was in Cats with her, so she saw me dance in that, but she liked seeing me in this as kind of a song-and-dance man. She said she was impressed with my dancing. She's a dancer, and I'm not; so that was the biggest compliment that could be paid.

Along that vein of unearthing new talents, did you become any more of a plant person after a year with Little Shop?
No, I hate plants. I'm terrible with plants. I cannot keep a plant to save my life. All the plants in my house are dead. I'm good with yard work, but I kill plants--kill them--even plants that are idiot-proof. In fact, I got a plant for my birthday last year, and it basically said, 'You cannot kill this plant.' Dead. I'm serious.

As you know, Joey Fatone is the replacement Seymour. What do you think of a boy-band member stepping into your shoes?
Well, I've talked to him; he's a very nice guy, and I hear he's doing a good job. And you know, if it brings in audiences that normally wouldn't come to the theater, then that's a good thing. It's like what Puff Daddy did for A Raisin in the Sun. Hopefully, some 'NSync fans who would never even dream of going to the theater will go to see him and say, 'Theater's really cool; I'm going to go see something else.'

You were nominated for your first Tony this year for your performance in Little Shop. What was that like?
It was really cool. It was exciting to go to the awards, to hear my name called with the other nominees. Nicole Kidman said my name, and I was really excited about that! And it was great this year because I had no nerves whatsoever. You know, when you're up against Hugh Jackman, there's nothing to be nervous about. I knew I had no chance of winning, which was fine, but what made it even better was that I lost to somebody who really deserved it and was such a class act. I remember being at a Tony function with him, and he came up to me wanting to have his picture with me! And he was genuinely excited to be there. I mean, he wasn't some movie star waltzing in and just grabbing his Tony and leaving.

That night, on the red carpet, you told that you were rooting for Avenue Q because it was the underdog. Much like Urinetown, it was the little show that could. How did you feel when it actually won Best Musical?
I was shocked! I mean, I never in a million years thought that they had a chance. As much as I loved the show, I was thinking it was going to be Wicked. I was excited, but the next day I got sad, thinking, 'Wow, why couldn't that have happened to Urinetown?' Not that Millie wasn't a great show, but people didn't give Urinetown a chance because we were the small show, and they [Tony voters] probably figured the small show never wins. In a lot of ways, I think that if Urinetown hadn't come along, Avenue Q might not have won. I think people were looking back, thinking, 'Urinetown never really had a chance to beat Millie, and maybe I will give Avenue Q a shot.' I'm not saying that Millie didn't deserve it over Urinetown, but I think people were afraid to vote for Urinetown for whatever reason--maybe because it wasn't a touring show. I think what I'm saying is, they may have abandoned politics this time. Instead of voting the show that's the easier one to tour, they really did vote their heart. It's really a breakthrough for the little musical.

You worked with Idina Menzel in Summer of '42, a musical for which you wrote the book. Were you excited for her when she won Best Actress?
I was so excited for her. It was the same situation because she was up against Donna [Murphy] and Kristin [Chenoweth] and Tonya Pinkins--such a tough category. When they called her name I said, 'Oh my God!' and just jumped to my feet.

Speaking of Summer of '42, have you been writing at all?
Yeah, I just finished a new musical based on Bonnie and Clyde, which I've been working on for the past couple of years. Rick Crom is the composer/lyricist. It's still just starting out, ground level. We need to do some workshops to work out the kinks.

Why Bonnie and Clyde?
I've always been drawn to the romanticism of outlaws on the run. There's something sexy about it, whether it's Thelma and Louise, Bonnie and Clyde or the pair in Natural Born Killers. It's a dark fantasy that I think a lot of people have or we wouldn't be retelling this story over and over again. But, I wanted it to be funny and satirical. Kind of a Mel Brooksian/Urinetown sort of thing.

Do you have any idea what's next for you?
You know, I've never planned my life. I've always kind of let one show take me to the next show to the next show. I think if I started to plan, things would probably go awry. I'd make the wrong decision. It's tough because making career decisions, whatever opportunity you take may take you away from something else. The other day, I ran into a stage manager from The Full Monty who asked why I was never in that show. I said that I was out of town when they were auditioning for The Full Monty, but I would have loved to have been in it. It's one of my favorite shows. But then I thought, if I'd gotten a part in The Full Monty, I probably wouldn't have auditioned for Urinetown. You know what I mean? One decision can affect your whole career. So I've never tried to plan anything out; I just kind of let things happen. It's worked out pretty well so far.

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