The This is Lincoln Center podcast offers listeners intimate, enlightening moments with some of the great artistic talents of our time. Hosted by Live From Lincoln Center producer Kristy Geslain, This is Lincoln Center features the musicians, dancers, actors, creators, and thinkers who make the magic happen on Lincoln Center's famous stages.

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Episode Transcript

Kristy Geslain: To meet Sutton Foster—whom you may know for her Tony Award–winning work in Thoroughly Modern Millie or Anything Goes, or as the star of the television comedy-drama Younger—is to be charmed by her. Before her appearance in the series Live From Lincoln Center Stars in Concert, which airs on PBS four consecutive Fridays starting April 20, Sutton stopped by to talk about how she and music director Michael Rafter put the show together, balancing her TV work with parenthood, and her very serious crochet habit.

This is Lincoln Center with Sutton Foster.

KG: So I'm here with Sutton Foster, welcome to This is Lincoln Center!

SF: Thank you!

KG: So we are here primarily to talk about your Live From Lincoln Center special that's coming up on PBS and I really want to talk about that, but what I really, really want to talk about is motherhood and crochet.

SF: Oh, my gosh!

KG: So I've been following your Instagram with interest, and I'm jealous of your crochet abilities.

SF: Thank you!

KG: The Zookeeper blanket?

SF: Oh, isn't that cute? I know.


KG: Amazing! Everyone who's listening, go to Sutton's Instagram feed right now and check out this blanket that she made with all of these animals. I mean, it's just so amazing! Where does the interest come from?

SF: I'm really trying to pinpoint it, I think I am… I started crocheting a long time ago, like on tour, when I was touring a lot in my 20s and stuff, because you know you have a lot of idle time, and I'm not good with just sitting still. And I crocheted a lot. Usually I would crochet during super anxious parts of my life, like when I was going through, I went through a divorce, and I was doing Young Frankenstein at the time on Broadway... this is a terrible story! But I made all these crochet squares, and I was just like, I couldn't stop, because I didn't know what to do with like my grief or my sadness, and I had, by the end of the show I had like stacks... I had like hundreds of these crochet squares, and then I put them all in like a garbage bag and like shoved them in my closet. And then I went through another break-up, and I pulled out the garbage bag and I sewed them all together. It's a little psychotic, but a good way to sort of handle stress and anxiety. So I had kind of put, I hadn't crocheted in a while. I love to draw, too, I really love to do something creative every day, whether it's drawing or crochet or cooking, or… something like where at the end of the day I can go "Look! I made this!"

KG: Hashtag CraftyMommy!

SF: Hashtag CraftyMommy! So when Emily was born, she was born on March 5 and we started production on April 3. And I had such guilt, and anxiety, and happiness, and fatigue heading back into work, that I was like "I don't know what to do, I don't know what to do," so I was like, I know! I'll start crocheting again! And I'll feel like while I'm at work for fifteen hours a day and away from my daughter I can at least make her something. So, that's why it started.

Now it's something I do… I still have, obviously since I've been consistently crocheting for the last year, obviously I'm still dealing with a lot of anxiety! But I'm trying to pour it into craft projects. I made her on my Instagram, I can't believe I'm talking about this, I made her a numbers blanket, there's one that has like, I was like "She needs to know how to count, at least to nine" so I made her a numbers blanket, and then I started making the zookeeper's blanket, and it was like the perfect thing to bring on set because sometimes I have like 15-hour days and I work... you know, you work for 20 minutes, you sit for 20 minutes. You work for 20 minutes, you sit for 20 minutes. And I would make all these little things, and then at the end of the day I'd go, "I made a crab! I made a penguin! I made an owl!" you know, and then everyone on the set was becoming super invested in it. 

KG: Yeah, I'm sure!

SF: So it's really like a great thing, especially now with the phone, you know, I've become so, like… that damn phone.

KG: Yeah.

SF: It becomes like this, "I gotta look at my phone!" You know, or you're doing something, you're killing time on this device, so every time I went to pick up my phone, I would pick up my crochet. And then I was like, "Oh! I'm making things! How cool!"

KG: So tell me about Emily. What's she into? What's she like?

SF: Well, she just turned one, so she's on the verge of walking. She's a very independent little girl. And really happy and always smiling. Super curious and loves music. She's just kinda into everything. We can't... she has no interest in being still right now. So I just sorta sit and just make sure nothing is gonna kill her. So you're just constantly, "Is there any death? Is death available here?" And she's just a riot. She's really, really... like she did something... everything's new, right? So yesterday we were doing her morning bottle, and I scratched my armpit, I don't know. And then, she reached over and scratched my armpit. I was like, "She's a genius!"

KG: Smartest baby in the world! I have those moments daily. Ruby's learning how to use a spoon right now, and every time she gets the spoon matched up with her mouth correctly, I'm just like, incredible moment. Greatest thing I've ever seen a child do.

SF: We haven't even started with a spoon. We're still mastering finger foods. If you try to feed her now, no. She has to do it on her own, and it's best if you just give her an hour. Just like leave the food with her, and she's like happily. We gave her a cake, we did the birthday cake. Someone recommended the icebox cake from Magnolia, so it's like whipped cream and cookies, it was delicious. So I put that on her little tray, and she was very skeptical about it. My brother and his wife were there and we were like, "Just ignore her." And then you look over, and she's got, taste one, taste two, and then full face into the cake. She's like, "This is delicious, I'm going in." So pretty much, like 45 minutes, she just slowly ate the cake. And my brother was like, "I don't want to be the bearer of bad news, but is this gonna make her sick?" Yeah, well, it's her first birthday.

KG: Isn't the first birthday crazy, that day, thinking back, it's been a whole year? That this child has been here, and it feels like went by in seconds and it feels like forever.

SF: They say the hours are long, the days are fast, and the years fly. And it feels that way, because there are certain days where I'm like, I'm staring at the clock going, "Oh my gosh!" and then I'm like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa!" And I decided to do a Post-it for every week, so I would like attach a Post-it to her, and take a pic, Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, all the way to 52 weeks. And I have this, you know, it's like a science experiment. So that's wild, to be able to see it all happen.

KG: Yeah. Has she watched any screens, any TV yet? Has she seen anything of you?

SF: I'm trying to keep her away from stuff. The only thing I showed her, because she was losing her mind in the car one day, was... I did Sesame Street. So I sing a song with Elmo, which was one of the best days of my life. And so I showed her that. And she was just like delighted. And then got really mad when it was over. But that's the only thing I've showed her, screenwise. So I'm working on a new studio album... a lot of the songs that we do at Live From Lincoln Center we're recording on the new album. It's gonna come out in June, first week of June. And on the album, my friend Megan, who's on the show with me... my best friend Megan has a little boy who is seven weeks older than... born January 15. So we decided to do a lullaby for our kids. We recorded this new duet, a lullaby, and I played that for Emily. So I've played a lot of the tracks from the album for her, and she kinda stares at the speaker and then looks at me, and then stares at the speaker, and looks at me. When I played her the lullaby, she crawled into my lap, which she doesn't normally do, put her forehead against my forehead, and we listened to the song and I was like, "What's happening?" and she just put her head... and we just didn't move, she listened to the whole thing. And then she start grabbing my lips, grabbing my face. But it was this wonderful moment and I thought, "I did this for you, this is your song." It's like she knew or something. It was so sweet.

KG: Oh, I love it. All right, well, let's switch gears to Live From Lincoln Center. Tell us about the show, what can we expect?

SF: I think the show is a culmination of sort of years of sort of gathering material. My longtime music director Michael Rafter who, we met doing Thoroughly Modern Millie, which I did on Broadway 15 years ago, and we've been working together ever since, making music, just kind of getting together. We did a studio album back in 2008 and have done concerts all over the country and the world. Actually, our very first concert was here, in this room, at the Kaplan Penthouse, back in 2004. 

This evening really is a way for me to express myself without the confines of playing a character. I get to be myself and share with an audience a little bit more about who I am as an artist and what kind of music speaks to me, and also sort of where I am in my life in 2018.

The show has evolved so much through the years and it was exciting to be able to sort of capture it at this moment when we recorded it. Suddenly all the songs and all of the things that I'm singing are now sort of through the lens of being a mom, so songs that I've been singing for years suddenly are different.

There's a song like "Sunshine on my Shoulders"... I've been singing it like every concert that I ever do, we always sing it. It sort of is like a, it's a philosophy song, I feel like it's sort of like my philosophy, how you sort of, how do you look at world with optimism and hope? But it also took on a new meaning, because my mom passed away, and my mom loved John Denver, and now when I sing it I dedicate it to her, and there's all of a sudden, the lyrics ring differently, you know? "If I had a song that I could sing for you, I'd sing a song to make you feel…"  So it's like this little wish for her. If she could hear me, you know?  And now to sing it as a mom... my mom passed away four years ago, so she never got to know me as a mom.

The very first song that we do for the concert is sort of a mash-up of "Everybody Says Don't" and "Say Yes." That was created specifically for Emily because I wanted to, I didn't want, I wanted to sing something for her, that again, is like a philosophy: "Say yes to things, go into the world, and people are going to say don't do it, but dig deep, and persevere." And I want to teach her how to be strong and brave. It's something how I try to live my life and so I was trying to think of a way to like, share that with her, and also with young people. What's a song that make you feel like, "Oh yeah, I can do anything!"

I have always been a "say yes-er." I've always been a leaper. My mom said I used to jump in the pool and I'd be like "Weee!" and I'd jump in the pool, but I didn't know how to swim, so I'd be like drowning… but I always sort of leap and then panic, as opposed to panic and never leap, which I think has served me well.

But even a song like "Nearness of You" changes… It's a love song, but it's, like, everything just sort of rings differently when you're a parent. All the little… she's just peppered through the whole show. Every single song has like, you can't… my life's changed, you know? I've gone through so much in my life, so many ups and downs and all overs, and it's cool to sort of capture just like this little screenshot of where I am in my life and my career. It's cool, it's like a little time capsule.

KG: You have some very special guests appearing on the show with you. Who are they?

SF: Oh, yes. So I have some very special guests who join me on the program. One of which is my best friend in the entire world, Megan McGinnis. We did Little Women together on Broadway, we played sisters. We did a duet of a song called "Flight" that we performed, we recorded on my first solo album. And I knew I wanted to sing that with her on this because we've never, we've sung it quite a bit, but we've never done it on "the TV."

And then I have another special guest, my friend Darcy Roberts. Darcy and I both started out together here in New York, pounding the pavement. She's a brilliant singer/dancer, triple threat. She played Millie on the national tour of Thoroughly Modern Millie and now lives in California with her four children, and I just think she's incredible.

And then of course, Jonathan Groff. He's just such a wonderful, special human being. And I knew I wanted to do sort of a song and dance with him, totally inspired by a variety show Steve Martin and Gregory Hines, their "Fit as A Fiddle," and it's just completely inspired by them. And it's just sort of a delightful old-school song and dance. And Jonathan is just the best. We barely got through rehearsals though, because we were just giggling and laughing. And I thought Michael Rafter was going to kill us... but we made it through.

KG: Watching you and Michael Rafter onstage, it's really clear that you guys have been working together for a long time and that you have a really special bond. Tell me about him and your process of working together.

SF: You know how collaboration is such a tricky thing. Chemistry, collaboration. And you hope to be able to find that person in your life that you collaborate with, that makes you better. And that you hopefully make them better. And when you come together it's like... That's who Michael Rafter is to me. I felt that way working with him on Thoroughly Modern Millie, we had such a wonderful rapport. But then once we started doing concerts and kind of approaching music in a different way, like...

How we work I guess is that we come up with... we just listen. We listen to music. And a lot of it is... what we do is new interpretations. So I'll take a song, I'll listen to Pandora, like Hoagie Carmichael or Mel Torme or try to listen to some classics, because on Pandora they play different artists so you just kind of get “Oh”, then a lyric will make you go "Oh!" So like "Down with Love." I heard that right after a break up, so I was like, "This is the best song ever!" Whatever. So I was like "Yes!" 

So I bring it in, we get the sheet music, and we just start looking at it and it all came together like super fast. "What if we try this, or this, or this?" And next thing you know we've got sort of a rough arrangement. We listen to it, we come back the next day, we refine it, and then it's totally evolved. And now "Down with Love" is like... I've sung it with a 75-piece orchestra, this arrangement that was created in like a studio space in an apartment building. It's so wild to me sometimes.

Sometimes the arrangements come really fast and then some take longer, but usually the ones that work are the ones that come super fast. But what I will say is that the stack of Yeses is like that and the stack of Nos is like... we've gone through so much music. But the one thing, as much as I say yes, I'm also like "No, no, no," if it doesn't feel right. And we're both very open to that. We really want it to feel super organic and right for both of us. And it all kind of works.

KG: So what's next for Sutton Foster?

SF: It took us... Michael Rafter... we recorded the special in December and then in February we recorded our next studio album. Now, our first studio album was ten years ago, so it took us ten years to do a second one. And we didn't want to rush it, we wanted to make sure we felt like we had a real album. And I think that's what's exciting, to be able to say even with the show and with the album it's like I feel super proud of all the material. We've been working on it for so long and none of it felt rushed or put together at the last minute or anything. Everything felt like, a lot of the things had marinated very well, hopefully.

I don't know what next, you know? We'll see. I've been sort of working towards this without even knowing it, and now we'll see. Hopefully it means making more music and creating more music, especially with Michael. We'll probably meet in the next couple of weeks and just sit in our room and go, "Okay, now what?" We have some ideas, maybe some collaborations with some other people and... one of my greatest joys is making music with him. So I hope for the rest of my life I get to do that.

KG: Sutton Foster, thank you so much, I can't wait to watch the show.

SF: Me too! Thank you.

KG: This is Lincoln Center is hosted by me, Kristy Geslain, with production help from Gillian Campbell, Eileen Willis, Hannah Lyons, Valerie Martinez, and Ian Goldstein.

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