The Song of Sutton Foster
John Thomas Oaks penned an ode to Broadway's newest star when she was still a star-to-be.
Got the original cast album of Thoroughly Modern Millie. My heart sank early on, as I heard the chorus sing "So beat the drum, 'cuz here comes Thoroughly Modern Millie now!" I'd forgotten that this happens in our newest Tony-winning musical. Back in 1967, I adored that Sammy Cahn lyric, which Julie Andrews sang as she arrived in the Big City, declaring her zest to take on the town. That makes sense--but what doesn't is having a chorus sing it while Sutton Foster's Millie stays silent. Granted, Foster later joins the ensemble and sings the line with them; but why are New Yorkers, famous for being blasé, welcoming this unknown newcomer from out of town? Val in A Chorus Line said that after mastering tap and acrobatics and moving to New York, "I figured the mayor would be waiting for me at Port Authority." He wasn't there for her, but it seems that just about everybody else turned out to welcome Millie.
I thought I'd better jump to the song I most enjoyed in the show--the second-act opener, "Forget about the Boy." Here, Millie is determined to get over the man in whom she'd placed her trust. "Cut the cord," she sings. Hmmm, I might be wrong, but isn't that an expression that came into use much later than Millie's flapper era? Moments later, Foster sings "Pull the plug," and I had the same feeling. Perhaps, as the title tune says, "What they're forgetting is, this is 1922."
So I took off Sutton Foster's song and put on "The Song of Sutton Foster." Indeed, someone has written an anthem in praise of her--and he wrote it before she won the Tony. Tennessee native John Thomas Oaks, a most enterprising and talented young composer-lyricist, is the person who first told me that Sutton Foster would be a star. He proclaimed this in the days when Kristin Chenoweth was supposed to be Millie, long before Erin Dilly was tabbed for the role. Oaks told me he knew the moment he saw Foster in the Broadway revival of Annie as "The Star-to-Be" that she was a star-to-be. I like to pride myself on catching new talent--I predicted big things for Stockard Channing, Tommy Lee Jones, Jason Alexander, and Donna Murphy early in their careers--but I have to admit that Sutton Foster slipped through my consciousness. Give Oaks credit.
Actually, I'll give Oaks credit for much more than that, and I have done so ever since I went to see a reading of his musical Chipper a few years ago. This is an update of the Cinderella story, only this time it's a Southern farmhand named Chipper who's woefully taken advantage of by his stepfather and his two stepbrothers. They keep poor Chipper in the fields shoveling manure. The story and songs were charming but, when the Fairy Godmother showed up and sang "A Little Bit of Faith Never Hurt Nobody," the house went wild. This tune wisely ended the first act and, let me tell you: During intermission, an amazingly high percentage of people in the lobby were either singing or humming "A Little Bit of Faith Never Hurt Nobody." I still am.
I suspect that one reason the song is so good is because John does believe that a good deal of faith has often helped people. Oaks, I'm happy to report, is a deeply religious man, and his father is a minister. We've all seen plenty of program bios that end with a line acknowledging Jesus; at Chipper, the program had Oaks citing Jesus first before listing his own credits. Oaks has also co-written a musical (and its title tune) called Jesus Can. So when he told me that "A Little Bit of Faith Never Hurt Nobody" tore down the house in a North Carolina production of Chipper a couple of years ago, I totally believed him.
Every now and then, Oaks sends me a tape or CD of his work, which has resulted in my having a whole peck of Oaks favorites, including "When Misty Says 'I Do'" from a project called Love, Austin and the title song from a show called Sunny. So when he gave me "The Song of Sutton Foster," I stopped everything to put it in on my CD player. The tune isn't a mere tribute, though Oaks' love for our newest Best Actress in a Musical does run deep. "The Song of Sutton Foster" is from Blue York, Oaks's newest musical, which is filled with bluegrass songs about our city's citizens. For Foster, that makes perfect sense, because the lady hails from Georgia. "But I just didn't want it to be country folks in New York singing bluegrass," Oaks told me. "There have been so many songs about New York and I just thought it'd be a fun novelty to have bluegrass songs sung by native New Yorkers, too, just for a change."
As I put on the song, I wondered if Sutton Foster is the first Tony-winner to have a song named for him or her. I can't say that anyone else came immediately to mind, but pretty soon I wasn't thinking about that and was just enjoying the song, which I wound up playing about 50 times in a row. Its amiable country strut of melody is wonderfully catchy and the lyric is simple but sincere. It starts with "In a crowded hall in a New York night / There burned a blazin' fire / At center stage, a sweet, enchanting voice / As an angel choir." It concludes with, "There's a new marquee in the heart of town / And just in case you wonder / You can stop her just as soon as you can stop the thunder." (Who'd argue with that?) Three times in between, there's, "If I live to be a hundred, I will live without regret / 'cause I've heard The Song of Sutton Foster / It's a tune that I never will forget."
What I'd like to hear is Sutton Foster singing the song that I'll never forget--the one from Chipper. Maybe she won't get around to playing the Fairy Godmother in John Thomas Oaks' musical, but a little bit of faith never hurt nobody.