She’s the toast of Broadway with two Tony Awards to her credit, but Sutton Foster isn’t yet a household name to the rest of America. If there’s any justice, that’s about to change, however, as she makes her TV series debut in “Bunheads,” a delightful new dramedy premiering Monday, June 11, on ABC Family.
Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, the gifted writer-executive producer behind “Gilmore Girls,” the new series stars Foster as Michelle Simms, a classically trained dancer who has spent the past few years in Las Vegas, where her chorus work has caught the appreciative eye of Hubbell Flowers (Alan Ruck, “Spin City”), a shy but affluent Californian who showers Michelle with gifts and dinners anytime he’s in town.
As the series opens, a depressed Michelle has hit a career slump in her mid-30s, unable to land legitimate dance work but bored and unfulfilled by her Vegas gig. After a night of heavy drinking over dinner with Hubbell, she awakens to discover herself in a car with a new husband, heading back to Hubbell’s tiny coastal hometown of Paradise, Calif. What Hubbell forgot to mention, however, is that he shares his beautiful home with his acerbic mother, Fanny (Kelly Bishop, “Gilmore Girls”), a former ballet dancer who holds dance classes for girls on the property. And Fanny is less than pleased that her son has married a total stranger from Sin City.
Sherman-Palladino was working on a play about young ballerinas (who often call themselves “bunheads” because of their preferred hairstyle) and their mothers when ABC Family executive Kate Juergens approached her about creating a new series for the channel built around a female character in her mid-30s.
Actually, what ABC Family was looking for was its own version of “Glee,” which didn’t interest Sherman-Palladino, but she took her play and “mashed it up” with some elements from her own life.
“I come from a dance background,” she tells Zap2it. “My mother was a dancer, and she trained in a teeny town called Long Beach, Miss. There was a woman in town called Miss Jackie, and she taught everything: ballet, tap, jazz, modeling, tumbling, baton, husband-gettin’, you name it. Her big claim to fame was that she had gone to New York and been in one Broadway show but then came right back. She dined off that for years. So I wanted to incorporate elements of that feel into this show.”
While Sherman-Palladino was working on the “Bunheads” pilot script, she happened to catch Foster during her Tony-winning Broadway run in “Anything Goes” and began to think she may have found her Michelle.
“Even from several rows back in a large theater there was just something about her that caught me,” Sherman-Palladino says. “By the time I had finished writing the script, I called Kate again and said, ‘I just think it’s Sutton Foster.’ It was just a gut instinct. So while I didn’t write it expressly for Sutton, she definitely was in my head the whole time I was finishing up that script.
“When you meet Sutton, you just like her. She’s not kiss-assy, she’s not super-demure, but there’s something about her that is almost painfully genuine. I’m used to finding a lot more walls up around most actors, especially female actors, because of all the criticism they have to deal with. So far, I haven’t figured out what Sutton’s walls are.”
Foster was at her place in her own career where she was looking for a fresh challenge. She also happened to be a massive “Gilmore Girls” fan.
“I never had a moment in my career when I was actively pursuing being on television,” says Foster, 37. “The guest roles that I had done were usually when I had gotten a script and thought, ‘Oh, that sounds interesting, and I think I can do that.’ When this came across my path, it was like a no-brainer for me, because I am such a fan of Amy’s writing. And once I read the script, it just seemed like a perfect fit, because the show is about dancing and young people and all the things that are important to me in real life. All the pieces just came together.”
At least they did after Sherman-Palladino talked Bishop, who had played the imperious Emily Gilmore in “Gilmore Girls,” into joining the cast after initially saying no, since she lives in New Jersey and “Bunheads” films in California. Sherman-Palladino finally was able to work out a production plan that would allow Bishop, a Broadway veteran in her own life, to take part without relocating.
“Kelly was the original Sheila in ‘A Chorus Line,’ and there is something about someone who has lived that life that just makes you different,” Sherman-Palladino says. “You hold yourself differently. You walk differently. You wear your clothes differently. You carry that training, that physicality, all through your life. You can tell when someone who is not a dancer is trying to play a dancer, even if they’re not really ‘doing’ anything.”
“Kelly was like the ingredient that turned the cake into a blue-ribbon winner,” Foster says. “I mean, it was always a good cake, but now it’s even better. She’s just a very special woman, and I have a true sparring partner, someone who is giving me some real static to fight against. It’s really exciting.”