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Suddenly Seymour

Hunter Foster plays the musical theater's ultimate nebbish in Little Shop of Horrors.

By New York City
Hunter Foster in Little Shop of Horrors
Hunter Foster in Little Shop of Horrors
It's the day before previews begin for Little Shop of Horrors and Hunter Foster, who won acclaim as Bobby Strong, the young revolutionary in Urinetown, is suddenly Seymour Krelbourn -- the nebbishy guy who grows a Muppet-like plant, Audrey II, that has a bloodthirsty secret.

Is Seymour similar to any other role he's played? "Not really," Hunter replies, "though my wife [actress Jennifer Cody] says, 'This is the part that's closest to you.' I don't quite know how to take that! Other characters' personas, you play; with Seymour, you can allow all the insecurities you have in life to blossom on the stage. It helps the character."

Hunter first saw Little Shop while in high school. "I've always wanted to play Seymour," he tells me. "I've auditioned for it two or three times in regional theater but never got it. The last time was a couple of years ago at the Cherry County Playhouse in Michigan." Will he invite the director who didn't cast him to the opening of the Broadway production? "I wonder if he knows I'm doing it, or if he even cares. But now I'm glad that I haven't done the part before; it's great to discover it for the first time."

Well, actually it's his second time. Hunter is the only holdover from the production's Florida tryout, after which the director and the rest of the cast were dismissed. "Going down to Florida and having things not go as well as you'd like is not the easiest thing," he says diplomatically. "It's nice to do the show again under better circumstances." (Jerry Zaks is directing for Broadway.)

While waiting for the show to gear up again, Hunter returned to Urinetown for three weeks. "I loved that, but it was weird," he remarks. "You put it in your mind that it's over and you're never going to do it again. This sounds cheesy, but it was sort of like going back home." Originally, he considered Urinetown "a downtown, Off-Broadway show that would never amount to a whole hell of a lot -- maybe a cult hit but never a Broadway hit." So the musical's transfer to Broadway was a very pleasant surprise.

Almost six years older than his sister Sutton, who won fame (and a Tony) as Thoroughly Modern Millie, Hunter was born in Georgia. Because of their father's job with Chevrolet, the Fosters moved a lot before settling in Troy, Michigan. Initially, Hunter wanted to be a baseball player, "but I was never good enough. We were normal kids; I was in a band. We did talent contests and got involved slowly. We did community theater but we weren't gung-ho, gotta-do-this kind of people." As children, he and Sutton worked together in The Sound of Music and Grease. On Broadway, they appeared together twice: "For three performances in Les Miz, and for two weeks in Grease."

Brother and sister have constantly encouraged each other. Says Hunter, "I got to New York first and I never told her, 'Don't come.' I always thought that she would do well here." Once, the siblings both went up for the same show, "a workshop of Millie. It made no sense. She was up for Millie and I was up for Jimmy, her love interest. They thought it was funny, but it was weird -- and it would never happen!"

Hunter made his stage debut as Linus in a church production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. His professional debut came at 19 in a regional production of South Pacific. ("Marin Mazzie was Nellie Forbush and Christiane Noll was my dance partner in the chorus!") He graduated from the University of Michigan and then toured in Cats; that's where he met his wife, who will soon return to Broadway in Taboo. Among Hunter's Broadway credits are King David and Footloose. His regional theater credits include Children of Eden and Martin Guerre.

Seymour (Hunter Foster) andhis beloved Audrey (Kerry Butler)
Seymour (Hunter Foster) and
his beloved Audrey (Kerry Butler)
He's also known as a writer, having penned the book for the short-lived Off-Broadway musical Summer of '42. "I knew the movie very well and I've worked on enough new musicals that I had an idea how to do it," he says of that experience. "It's a crapshoot. One thing I learned is that you can't write a show for the critics, because then the audience isn't going to like it, and you have to please the audience. They're the ones paying the money." At the moment, two of Hunter's writing projects "are kind of on hold." He and Rick Crom, who's in Urinetown, "are turning Bonnie and Clyde into a dark musical comedy. And David Kirshenbaum, my collaborator from Summer of '42, and I are working on a musical of Fearless, the movie with Rosie Perez and Jeff Bridges [about a plane-crash survivor]."

For Hunter, the down side of the business is that "you're constantly being scrutinized. You're constantly being told you're too short or not good-looking enough. It makes you very insecure. You're criticized in publications that are going to be read by millions of people. You have someone like John Simon, who [in his New York magazine review] called the cast of Footloose the most unattractive cast on Broadway." How does Hunter feel about new shows vs. revivals? "New shows are scarier because you're creating something that's never been done," he says. "With a revival, there's a safety net; there are things you know are going to work. Of course, you also have to live up to expectations. With Grease, we got compared to the original. Critics look back on the original show with a good-old-days mentality."

He's happy to be working with Kerry Butler and Douglas Sills. "We recently did a workshop of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers at Roundabout," he relates. "They're both wonderful in Little Shop -- Kerry as Audrey and Doug as the dentist. He actually plays eight characters in the show." Have there been any changes in the musical? "The only thing added is the movie version of the opening number, the title song. Two more verses were added because we needed a bigger opening."

At the time of our interview, Hunter was looking forward to the start of Little Shop previews. "You learn how a show works with an audience," he says. "Jerry Zaks says that's when the work really begins." Is this Hunter's first time playing opposite a plant? "Yes!" he answers. "They say, 'Don't play opposite children or puppets.' And here I am!"


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