You're a star on Broadway when people know half your name. Ethel, Patti, Kristin, Idina - there's no need for theater aficionados to attach Merman, LuPone, Chenoweth or Menzel to those monikers.
After the last few years, a corner of the Great White Way can be considered Sutton's place.
If you still need a surname, you haven't been keeping up with the Tony Awards. Sutton Foster has been nominated four times over the last seven years as best actress in a musical, winning for the 2002 "Thoroughly Modern Millie."
You can get to know all facets of her Saturday, on a short tour that brings her to McGlohon Theatre. She'll be fresh from the Broadway production of "Shrek The Musical," which closed in January - she played Princess Fiona - and even fresher from her 35th birthday, which will come Thursday.
This is a sort of homecoming: Her dad comes from Winston-Salem, her mom was born in Chadbourn and grew up in Whiteville, and "my extended family's coming to the show. I lost my Southern accent when I moved from Georgia to Michigan (at 13), but it'll come back as I soon as I get back there."
Though she'll sing show numbers here, she's just as likely to add standards from the Great American Songbook and pieces by less familiar modern tunesmiths. Whatever material she brings, you can expect an optimistic bent: Her only CD isn't titled "Wish" by chance.
"That reflects my personality," she says. "The album came from a really trying time (spring 2008), when I went through a lot of things personally and found hope. Creating it became a healing process.
"We have choices in life. We can either dwell on the misery and darkness or reach for light and joy; and that's what my M.O. is about." She laughs. "It's on the edge of cloyingness!"
Apparently, nobody else has ever thought so. She has earned rapturous New York response as a sweet small-towner in the wicked city in "Millie," as spunky Jo in "Little Women," as a starlet-turned-wife in "The Drowsy Chaperone," as amiably dim Fraulein Inga in the musical "Young Frankenstein" and the ever-endearing Fiona.
In fact, her career has been charmed since she left high school before graduation to join the national tour of "Will Rogers' Follies." (She got a diploma by correspondence.)
She had some success by 2001, including a stint as Eponine in Broadway's "Les Miserables," when she signed on to understudy the lead in "Millie." The star's illness thrust her into the role on three days' notice during a California tryout run. Producers delayed the opening so she could settle into the part, and "Millie" later won a Tony as best musical.
The right path
At that point, everyone smelled a star in the making, but Foster had barely realized her theatrical destiny herself.
"In my 20s, I was uncertain if this was the path for me. I was making my living in musical theater, and I knew I had talent, but I didn't know if I could take the criticism and (pressure).
"Right before 'Millie,' something happened. It was Thursday in the middle of February in San Jose, and I was doing 'The Three Musketeers.' I was onstage singing, and it suddenly clicked: This was what I should do the rest of my life.
"But I find joy in other things. If I never work on Broadway again, I don't want to say, 'Life has no meaning!'"
That's why she's taking her song set to the Café Carlyle in New York, where Bobby Short played for decades. (Music director Michael Rafter, who is accompanying her at McGlohon, will be her pianist there.)
That's why she's teaching a cabaret class at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts: "I have 10 students, and at the end of 15 weeks, we'll put on a show in Joe's Pub. Fabulous or not, it will be an amazing learning experience."
That's why she looks forward to the nastiest character of her career, bank robber Bonnie Parker. Rick Crom and Hunter Foster, her older brother and a Tony nominee for "Little Shop of Horrors," have written a musical called "Bonnie and Clyde: A Folktale." It's in workshop form now, and it's set in the Louisiana town where they died.
With luck, Foster's name will get backers panting. That can be a mixed blessing. Back when Ethel Merman was just "Ethel," producers offered her second-rate material, hoping her oversized personality would put shows across.
"I'm looking for that next step now," says Foster. "I can't play the princess or the young girl coming to the city with her suitcases in her hand any more.
"I'd like to be considered for non-musical stuff; and I hope the roles I've chosen have been varied enough to show I can do different things. I never in a million years thought I'd play the sexy blonde in 'Young Frankenstein.' I just hope the casting gods are open to me."