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.
The short-lived Sinatra show made another connection for Foote: Casey Nicholaw, for whom Sinatra: His Voice was an early choreography credit. As director-choreographer, he'd hire Foote a few years later for the City Center Encores! production of Follies. A few years after that, Foote would be in another production of Follies--the 2011 Broadway revival that originated at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Foote was in it in both D.C. and New York, and then in L.A. last spring. The Los Angeles run was concluding right around the time of the 2012 Tony Awards, and Foote was flown to New York in a private jet for the Tonys with Follies' acting nominees, Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein, Ron Raines and Jayne Houdyshell.
In between Follies' Broadway and L.A. runs, Foote returned to Rock of Ages for a couple of months in early 2012. She'd been in the still-running '80s jukebox musical for over two years prior to Follies, and when she gave up her Rock of Ages job to do Follies in Washington it was the first time she'd left a Broadway show before it closed. "Working on Broadway is such a rare, amazing thing that it's hard for me to ever want to give it up," Foote says. While she was in Rock of Ages, Foote met her girlfriend, Tracy Geltman, who was the show's company manager and now has the same position with Peter and the Starcatcher.
Foote was dance captain and swing for Rock of Ages, and she's a swing again in Mystery of Edwin Drood. That means covering all female ensemble tracks, and she has been going on fairly frequently since Drood opened in November. Back in 2006 Foote was a swing in Broadway's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels for six months, and she says swinging Drood is "an easy gig" compared to that: Scoundrels had eight women in the ensemble, whereas Drood has only four. In Drood she also has her own set of costumes for all the roles, which swings don't always get.
Another thing Foote loves about being in Drood is working with Chita Rivera, who costars in the Roundabout revival as Princess Puffer. "Chita is everything you want her to be," states Foote. "She's amazing just to watch on stage. But better than that, she is just a gypsy at heart. You can tell that's a big part of how she thinks of herself. She's so generous and makes a point to say hello to everyone. When I'm in the greenroom, she'll come in and say hi. She's a legend, she's almost 80 years old--she doesn't have to be that kind. It's a good reminder of how to be."
Foote would advise newbies in the business to follow such a model. "It's important to be nice to everyone you work with," she says. "You wouldn't believe how many people you see again, whether it's the doorman or your wardrobe assistant or that new girl in the chorus. I think you have to be really talented to get your first job, but you've got to be a good person to get your second. People have to want to work with you as a person."
That has apparently been the case for Foote, as she's doing her second straight show for choreographer Warren Carlyle (he also directed Follies). Carlyle even gave her a special audition since she was out of town, playing a merry murderess in Chicago at St. Louis Muny, when Drood's auditions were held last summer. Drood also reunites Foote with author-composer Rupert Holmes, who wrote the book for the musical The First Wives Club, which premiered at southern California's Old Globe in summer 2009 with Foote in the cast.
The First Wives Club, like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, was adapted from a popular movie comedy. Foote has done plenty of old-fashioned musicals too, between her work at Sacramento Music Circus and Music Theatre of Wichita (during college) and more recently in Annie Get Your Gun and 42nd Street (Goodspeed, '09). Her repertoire has probably been more diverse than the typical musical theater performer's: She's done contemporary musicals such as Drood and Dracula, a Tom Stoppard play (Rough Crossing at Yale Rep in 2008) and, heck, between Follies and Rock of Ages spent a year switching between Sondheim and hair metal. The blonde sometime showgirl has even been in The King and I...twice. Even in the Rockettes, a job for which there's definitely a type, she was somewhat against type at just 5-foot-6. "Always the end of the line," Foote says of her post-Annie Get Your Gun tenure with the Rockettes, where the girls fan out in decreasing height from the tallest in the middle.
Foote is happy to do musicals of different eras and genres, as she's always enjoyed all kinds. And her feelings about musical theater in general have helped her navigate professional ups and downs. "What's served me is to be a fan of this business," she says. "I love being on stage, but I also love being in the audience and supporting this whole community, and that has kept me happy. I've never had too many 'I wish I was in this...' crazy actor moments."
She includes her philosophy, "Live gratitude," in her Playbill Who's Who. "To simply live gratefulness has had a huge impact on my life," says Foote, "and I would share that simple shift in perspective with anyone looking to find 'tools' as to how to find your happiness and success in all that comes with being a working--and especially when you're a non-working--actor."
Yet she does prefer staying in New York to work. Since playing Jolene on the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels tour in 2006, she's worked mostly in the city. "I grew up thinking I wanted my life to be like a Woody Allen movie," she says. "Even if I'm not working, I'm in love with New York at all times. The more I can stay here, the better."
Photos of Jenifer, from top: her headshot; left, in The Mystery of Edwin Drood with Robert Creighton and Kiira Schmidt; as Jolene in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, with Tom Hewitt; flying as a vampire in Dracula; with her girlfriend, Tracy, in 2011; left, performing "Buddy's Blues" in Follies with Danny Burstein and Kiira Schmidt.
Updates on some previous Gypsies of the Month:
* Kristen Beth Williams, last June's Gypsy of the Month from Nice Work If You Can Get It, takes over the Ginger Rogers role in the London stage adaptation of Top Hat, opposite Gavin Lee, early next month.
* Kevin Bernard, profiled when he was in Billy Elliot, is appearing off-Broadway in Resonance Ensemble's revival of the 1922 play R.U.R.
* Daniel Cooney (December 2011 GOTM) has the principal role of Bill in Mamma Mia on Broadway. Adrienne Jean Fisher (March 2010) is in the ensemble.
* Brian O'Brien is playing Fred Casely in Chicago on Broadway. Read his GOTM story here.