BWW Interview: Hunter Foster Narrates PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES
Hunter Foster, about to wrap up the ENCORES! OFF-CENTER series in a production of Pump Boys and Dinettes, set on Highway 57 in North Carolina, likens the show to the classic ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW of the '60s, also set in North Carolina. The production revolves around a gas station that brings together four local attendants and two sisters who cook at a nearby roadside diner in a sleepy southern town. This tribute to small-town American life was originally seen on Broadway in 1982.
With its country-pop hybrid tone, the original Pump Boys and Dinettes was performed by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmell and Jim Wann. The book, music and lyrics were created by the original cast members in their tribute to life on the road. It premiered Off-Broadway in July 1981 at the Chelsea West Side Arts Theatre and opened on Broadway on Feb. 4, 1982 at the Princess Theatre. It played 573 performances and was nominated for both Tony and Drama Desk awards for Best Musical.
"I'm the narrator of the show, which doesn't really have a distinct plot," Foster said. "It's more of a celebration of a simpler way of life." Foster said the story is more of a loose concert than a musical with a traditional arc. "The actors play instruments and accompany themselves. It's almost like being at a concert," he said. "Fishing is a big occupation. There's lots of talk about southern down-home cooking and you can practically smell the apple pie baking.
"I love the simplicity of life there. It's the sort of community where everyone knows everyone because generations have lived there. I know it sounds like Mayberry," he said, "but it's especially great for New Yorkers who are always rushing. This is a more innocent time, and the show reminds us of that.
"It's a challenge to be in a band -- in past productions I've relied on orchestras, and now I'm in control of the music as well, not just the singing," he added. It's a big challenge for the guys to act like they've been playing as a unit for years. Real bands have a secret language among themselves."
Foster was most recently in BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, which closed in May. He's also appeared in HANDS ON A HARDBODY, URINETOWN, LES MISERABLES and on the television series BUNHEADS, with his sister Sutton, now starring in VIOLET.
Foster would be intrigued if the show attempted another Broadway run, he said. "I think I'd want to be part of a Broadway experience with this show. It was a unique experience in 1982 -- they served apple pie at intermission to sustain the theatrical experience," he said. "The show is about more than music. It's steeped in that cultural and social time, that time of innocence. I think this will be a unique experience for the audience." The original cast accompanied themselves on guitar, piano, bass, fiddle, accordion and kitchen utensils. Expect more of the same. "It's a musical tribute to life on the road."
Surprisingly, as a child Foster was more into movies than theater. "Initially I was a movie fan as a kid. I wanted to be an actor and started doing shows. I loved doing musicals, but not so much a fan of old school, like the Fred Astaire movies. Popular rock musicals always grabbed me, like JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and LES MIZ.
"And as I got older I saw how the art form changed a lot, and it's been great to be part of that world and where new musicals are heading these days," he said. "Hopefully in a good place," he said with a laugh. He cited the cross-over success of Cyndi Lauper (KINKY BOOTS) and the upcoming THE LAST SHIP by Sting as examples of the new wave of musicals. "They're writing really good music, and they're not being lazy about writing for characters, too."
Another of his favorites is HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH. "It's such a great show with a great score, and an example of being a great cross-over with musical theater and rock. I would have listened to it regardless of it being either a show or concert. I also think JERSEY BOYS is another great example of a successful juke box musical.
"I think for Encores to get a musical up is very challenging," he said of the chosen performances. What Encores does is take musicals that rarely got revived or re-examined. VIOLET is a perfect example," he said, mentioning the show in which his sister Sutton stars. "VIOLET played first Off-Broadway and Encores re-examined it. Audiences liked it and it was brought back in a safe environment. People need to experience shows this way and if things go beyond, then that's great.
"The more they try to unearth shows that people haven't seen -- the hidden gems -- the more opportunities Encores has to reach wider audiences," he said.
The cast of Pump Boys and Dinettes also includes Jordan Dean, Mamie Parris, Randy Redd, Katie Thompson and Lorenzo Wolff. It's choreographed by Danny Mefford, with music direction by Chris Fenwick. It's directed by Lear deBessonet.
Foster will be directing AIN'T MISBEHAVIN' at the Bucks County Playhouse in August.
His hopes for Pump Boys and Dinettes are simple. "I hope audiences have a good time," he said. "Maybe discover a new appreciation for a simpler time and way of life, away from all the complications of busy."
PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES runs July 16-19. It will be performed at City Center's Mainstage, 131 W. 55th St. between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.
Photo Credit: Walter McBride / WM Photos