GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Jenifer Foote of 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood'
Dictionary definition of beacon: a source of guidance or inspiration. And that's pretty much what the Beacon, with a capital B, in New York City has been for Jenifer Foote. The California girl spent her first month in NYC living at the Beacon Hotel as a drama student from UC-Irvine studying in the university's satellite program. Fifteen or so years later, she performed on the Tony Awards for the first time at the adjacent Beacon Theatre. "The dressing room [for the Tonys] was one of those little suites at the Beacon Hotel, just like I had stayed in," says Foote, "which was so overwhelming, feeling like it's all come full circle." She now lives on the Upper West Side just two blocks from the Beacon: "I think because when I went there [in college], I felt like this is New York."
Foote's Tony appearance was momentous for her for other reasons. She performed not as part of a big ensemble but in a trio, with Danny Burstein and fellow chorine Kiira Schmidt in "Buddy's Blues" from Follies. Foote had received the gypsy robe when Follies opened on Broadway, and it was the first show for which she sang on a cast album.
A couple of years earlier Foote attained another career highlight, and another "full circle" moment, when she was in A Chorus Line on Broadway. Back in high school, Foote saw A Chorus Line in its original Broadway run the first time she ever came to New York--on a one-day side trip from Maryland when she competed in the Olympics of the Mind academic tournament. She joined the Chorus Line revival in early 2008 as an understudy for Sheila, Maggie, Val and Judy and played Val for the last few weeks of the run that summer. "I feel like that's the peak, doing A Chorus Line on Broadway," says Foote. "It's a dream show--except you don't even dream that big."
Currently Foote is on Broadway in one of her personal dream shows, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. She saw Drood as a preteen in Sacramento and waited at the stage door to get star Helen Reddy's autograph, fascinated by the idea of a woman playing a male role. Frequent listening to the cast album followed, though she'd been enthralled by "Don't Quit While You're Ahead" ever since the song was featured in a local production called Best of Broadway when she was about 10 years old. "I was obsessed with this song, knew everything about it," she recalls. "I can still picture the people in that production doing it."
Foote was in Best of Broadway that year and many others while she was growing up in Sacramento. "That show probably made a bigger impact on me than they could ever realize," Foote says of Best of Broadway, which is still being produced annually. "It made a huge impact on me because the director would cull songs from all these shows--it was really eclectic. It got me interested in all kinds of musical theater." And that interest has not dimmed one bit to this day, no matter that Foote's been making her living in the business for more than a decade. "Probably more than anyone I know here, I have a strong, strong fan passion for musical theater," she says. "I'm still listening to showtunes when I'm walking around the city."
By being a fan and not just an "employee" of musical theater, Foote maintains a newcomer's attitude, even after seven Broadway shows (including Rock of Ages, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Dracula). "It still feels like a hobby," she explains. "I take it really seriously, and I'm thankful I have a way of maintaining my life, but I still feel like I don't work. It feels exactly like it did when I was a kid. Fun."
For Foote, going to the theater when she was a kid was as vital as her training in preparing her for a career in the biz, and she appreciates that her parents not only ran up their odometers shuttling her to classes and rehearsals (including four-hour roundtrip drives daily during the two summers in high school that she trained at San Francisco Ballet) but also took her to see shows. "I saw a lot of theater, whether it was community theater or professional--Sacramento has the Music Circus and a big touring house. I just became a huge fan of theater," says Foote, who also has her parents to thank for putting her in dance class. They first took her to a studio when she was an extremely shy preschooler, in an attempt to bring her out of her shell. Eventually, she'd be going to three different places for her varied training: ballet at Crockett, a feeder school for the Sacramento Ballet; semi-private tap lessons with an elderly local legend named Laverne Krei; and jazz and theater dance classes at the Krei-Matthews studio.
Yet Foote always knew her performing ambitions extended beyond dance: Theater was what she wanted to do. She studied acting in the youth program of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater and took singing lessons with Daniel Truhitte, a Sacramento native who played Rolfe in the movie The Sound of Music. She began performing in community theaters such as Davis Musical Theatre and the Best of Broadway revue, as well as at the Sacramento Music Circus, at a very young age. She was even in nonmusicals, including The Bad Seed at an area dinner theater. Her Music Circus debut came at age 9 with the role of Marta in Sound of Music, and she did many more shows there over the years, including two summer seasons during college in the late '90s.
Her social life revolved around the theater and studio, as she and her closest friends were often in dance classes and shows together. "This group that I grew up with in Sacramento--we were from different schools and parts of town, but we all went to the same dance studio," says Foote. "There were, like, eight of us that were good friends. We stayed good friends, all came to New York, most have been on Broadway or successful. And our parents are still best friends--it's this extended family." Those childhood friends include Kate Levering, who starred on Broadway in 42nd Street and Thou Shalt Not but is now L.A.-based, with a regular role on Drop Dead Diva. In fact, notes Foote, "they've all gone back to California; I'm the only one left here."
Another of Foote's childhood friends, Rick Spaans, was in the original cast of the 1999 revival of Annie Get Your Gun, and Foote made her Broadway debut as a replacement in the show late in its 2½-year run. She'd spent about six months on the Annie Get Your Gun tour prior to joining the New York company for the show's last few weeks in summer 2001. Her next Broadway credit would come three years later in a new musical, the much-maligned Frank Wildhorn version of Dracula. "Most people think of it as not the greatest show," Foote says, "but I had a blast. It was my first original show that I'd been in, and [the first time] having an opening night. I'm super-super-thankful all the time to ever be working, so it's never lost on me."
Since both Foote and Internet chat boards were relatively new at that point, her excitement wasn't diminished by criticism of the show. "Now I feel like I'm so hyper-aware of what other people think," she reflects. "I think I didn't know about that then. And I didn't know about the grosses, I didn't know what it meant that there was no one in the balcony... I knew that we didn't get good reviews, but that's about all. I was in my happy Broadway bubble.
"We opened in August and closed in January--which felt fine. I hadn't done more than that [in any prior shows], so it felt like a successful experience," she continues, adding that even with the turkey that you know will fold, "it's sort of your duty to love the show you're in and believe in it. If you don't, you shouldn't be in that show. I'm always in the moment, feeling so happy that I'm walking through a stage door."
Dracula was directed by Des McAnuff, who'd known Foote from a show they'd done at Radio City Music Hall in 2003, Sinatra: His Voice. His World. His Way.--which Foote calls "maybe my favorite job I've ever had." Foote was in the show as a Rockette, but McAnuff pulled her out of the line to sing a song with three men, the four of them representing Sinatra collaborators Jo Stafford and the Pied Pipers. Foote made a few other NYC appearances during her two years with the Rockettes but performed in the Nashville edition of Radio City's Christmas show.