The American Voices Festival: ‘Musical Theater Master Session with Sutton Foster’ by Nicole Cusick

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This weekend Opera Singer Renee Fleming hosted a series of master classes followed by expert panels at The Kennedy Center to connect students with successful professionals who could offer exceptional advice about the field and the technique.

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Broadway sensation Sutton Foster was a guest artist who coached four lucky students in a musical theatre master class. Foster has appeared in ten Broadway productions. Most recently she her second Tony Award playing Reno Sweeney in the revival of Anything Goes (her first was for playing Millie in Anything Goes ). She also had the opportunity to originate roles in The Drowsy Chaperone, Little Women, Young Frankenstein, and Shrek the Musical.

Sutton Foster at American Voices concert. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Sutton Foster at American Voices concert. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The morning began with a charismatic welcome from Foster, and from there the coaching began. First was Nicole Elledge – a 20 year-old from The Catholic University of America, who sang “Willing to Ride” from Kander and Ebb’s Steel Pier. Technically the song was almost perfect. Foster helped her navigate the song in finding what her character needs to be fighting with internally in the moment. After a few discussions and trying the song from the top – Foster coached Elledge to experience a very tangible journey from the beginning to the end of the song, and in the end it was quite moving.

Betsy Stewart, a 21 year-old from Northwestern University sang Wonderful Guy” a song from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Again, it was a technically flawless performance. However, what Foster chose to work on with Stewart was living in the moment of the song, she is singing about falling in love for the first time when she never thought she would be able to. The song has the potential to be a mix of bragging about her new love while being completely free and floating on this cloud that might never reach the ground again. The two discussed what love is, and shared a few nervous laughs before Stewart sang the song and really found that “madly in love” place.

The only male of the session was next, Miles Mykkanen, 22 years-old, who is just beginning his masters at The Julliard School. Something truly arrived in the house when he sang “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story. He had a powerhouse voice that Foster seemed to really enjoy playing with. She began his session by making him run up and down the aisles of the house while the accompanist began playing the song, he has to run up on stage short of breath and jump right into the song. That was the exact urgency he needed in his body to help him sing the song like he really was on the precipice of something.

The master classes was rounded out by Isabelle McCalla, 20 years-old, from the University of Michigan who sang “Colored Lights” from Kander and Ebb’s The Rink. She was the fourth technically stunning performer of the day she delivered this song that takes a great level of vulnerability to share with ease. Foster helped her find the balance and how to communicate the difference between the real world and the fantasy world she wishes to live in. They should feel very different, and together Foster and McCalla created those two worlds.

Those four students were very lucky to have those quick coaching, hopefully they will remember the thoughts Foster shared with them as they continue to perform those songs. After the coaching Fleming came out again brought out an esteemed panel to join Foster to discuss what life is like in the world of musical theatre today.
The panel included Norm Lewis, Broadway actor, Tara Ruin, casting director, David Caddick, Broadway Music Director, David Lai, Senior Vice President of IMG Artists, and Joan Lader, Foster’s voice teacher.

Fleming lead the panel through as discussing about what the casting process is like for those casting the show and those auditioning for roles. Lader discussed the rational of starting with classical training to work on stamina so when auditioning for shows you have the voice to supporting singing eight shows a week. Foster admits that was something she has to work on after booking Millie she had a loud voice and a lot of passion, but she was brought to Lader to learn how to maintain that for the two years she performed as Millie on Broadway.

Then the panel broke out to an audience ‘Q and A’ session. Audience members asked things about how long it is worth trying to get your break on Broadway and Lewis and Foster both said that if it is your dream then it is always worth a try, perseverance is key in the industry.

The other panelists involved in casting also discussed the mindset of those holding auditions today that for example in the original production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying the ensemble of business men were all character actors, and in the revival three years ago they were all dancers who could sing equally as well. There has been a noticeable evolution that it is rather crucial to be strong in dancing, singing, and acting now to be cast in almost any role.

Sutton Foster. Photo by Laura Marie Duncan.
Sutton Foster. Photo by Laura Marie Duncan.

Overall, the panel was inspiration for the generally younger audience that was drawn to this event. This was the first year that Fleming has organized this packed weekend of master classes, but the general sentiment was that D.C. audiences would love to see the American Voices become an annual event.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with no intermission.

American Voices Festival’s Musical Theater Master Session with Sutton Foster was on Sunday, November 24, 2013 at The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater— 2700 F Street NW, in Washington, DC. For future events, go to their Calendar of Events.

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Watch the entire Musical Theater Master Session with Sutton Foster. Scroll down and click on ‘Watch and Listen.’