May 24, 2011

The Broad Standard

I was underwhelmed by the current revival of Anything Goes, but I found Sutton Foster riveting; like Kelli O'Hara or Raul Esparza, or any of her overqualified generation of musical theater triple threats, she brings as much bone-deep conviction to her singing and dancing as she does to her acting. I'm not sure she's capable of a false moment; her blazing sincerity even shone through that awful Shrek makeup.

But there's been a strain of thought about her performance as Reno Sweeney that, as talented as she is, she's not a broad—that the brass in her voice is not matched by her performance or her type; that she's essentially too soft, too much of an ingenue. Well, I see what the critics are saying—Foster certainly doesn't have the edge or the bite, nor the Greek-mask glare, of a Lupone or Merman. But I wonder, for one, if that's the only way to play Reno. More to the point, I wonder whether Reno is even a character per se, or just a cluster of showstopping songs and period attitudes.

Then last week I was introducing my son to The Wizard of Oz and it hit me: The best template for pondering Foster—with her toothy, all-American sincerity, her easy but not default vibrato, her game and goofy side, her touch of vulnerability, her gift for genuine joy and surprise—is early to mid-period Judy Garland, from roughly Meet Me in St. Louis to Easter Parade. This is Judy after her eager child-acting days but before she was a hot mess, before her performances got querulous and brittle and in many other ways fascinating (cf. A Star Is Born). You might call later-period Judy a "broad," but what would you call middle-period Judy? Ingenue? Soubrette? Girl-woman? Do these categories matter?

I'd venture that Sutton Foster is similarly sui generis, which is why I don't particularly care whether her Reno fits a type; it's enough that it fills the stage, and then some.

Below, two flavors of Judy from a favorite film; I find it hard to watch her now without thinking of Foster.

1 comment:

martha said...

Ah, the categories don't matter when it comes to Garland. Of any era. It's the pure communication, the pure power of the performance. The moments you have selected from Easter Parade are exquisite illustrations of your point. Similar gentle girl-woman moments can be found in Garland films of any era of her filmmaking life, I'd contend.

And fascinating connection here to the apparent power of Foster to connect to people. Not me at this point, but your connection to Garland here helps me to understand what might be working for people in Foster's performances.