Growing up, Hunter Foster knew he enjoyed being onstage, but it didn’t really dawn on him until his college years that he could actually do what he loved for a living. He’s managed to exceed his expectations the last 20 years as a performer.
Foster, who grew up largely in Georgia, is a production consultant for the musical Hands on a Hardbody, opening Thursday at Aurora Theatre and running through May 31. It’s a production he is familiar with — he was in the original version at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego in 2012 as well as the subsequent Broadway staging the next year as Benny Perkins, one of 10 Texan contestants (and the returning champion) vying to win a new pick-up truck over a rigorous four-day marathon. Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Wright, with music and lyrics by Amanda Green and Trey Anastasio, it’s inspired by a 1997 documentary of the same name and features a local cast including Rob Lawhon, Eric Moore, Laura Floyd, Wendi Melkonian and Jill Hames.
Foster was originally going to direct the Aurora production but got a gig at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle directing Jasper in Deadland. Nonetheless, he cast this show when he was in town earlier this year and is conferring with new director Brian Clowdus.
Hands on a Hardbody is a musical Foster’s been working with a while and is fond of. It was not a huge success on Broadway, however. “It’s about real people, about the backbone of America, the heartland,” he says. “This truck represents the American dream. Unfortunately, that is one of the reasons it did not work in New York. I think New Yorkers were not interested in seeing those kinds of people. I think it will do better in smaller cities and in the Midwest and South. New York is in a bubble — I talked to some people and they said they didn’t know the people in the show. I grew up in the South, so I do.”
This is not the first time Foster has worked with Aurora. He has long had a passion for creating new musicals and in 2012, he was at the company for the world premiere of Clyde ‘n Bonnie: A Folktale, which he wrote. It was staged as part of a New York festival before, but Aurora’s take was the first full production. “(Aurora Theatre producing artistic director) Anthony (Rodriguez) and (associate producer) Ann-Carol (Pence) are artistic and creative people; they don’t just put up anything. They were active in helping create the piece and were willing to go with our screwball take on it. That whole process was a lot of fun.” He is hopeful the musical will pop up back in New York soon.
Foster is pleased with director Clowdus — “I think he understands who these people are and what the truck means” — while Pence, who is serving as the music director of the production, is very impressed by Foster’s dedication and passion for new musicals. “He left right after Clyde ‘n Bonnie to work on Hardbody,” she recalls. Even though he’s across the country now, he’s been willing to offer advice. One of the best pieces of feedback he’s given to the creative team is to show the passing of time on stage and how it becomes a test of endurance for the contestants, which was not done in New York.
Much of Foster’s childhood was in Augusta and in Athens. His plan was to attend the University of Georgia, but his father got transferred to Michigan. While helping with the move, he got cast in a show and stayed in the area, working professionally in Detroit and attending the University of Michigan. After he graduated, he moved to New York when he was 22 and landed his first major gig, a touring version of Cats. He was cast in the revival of Grease with Rosie O’Donnell, Megan Mullally and Billy Porter on Broadway in 1994 and later hit it big with the success of Urinetown, which began off-Broadway in 2001 and moved to Broadway. He played lead Bobby Strong in the production and recalls the cast and crew had no idea the unconventional musical could become a mainstream Broadway success.
He auditioned for and later appeared as Seymour in a 2003 Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors, for which he was a Tony Award-nominee, and appeared in 2014’s The Bridges of Madison County.
His sister, Sutton, is a performer herself who has two Tony Awards, for Thoroughly Modern Millie and Anything Goes. Having her in the family has been an asset. “We can both relate to each other,” he says. “She understands where we are both coming from; we can commiserate.”
While he is based in New York and enjoys his work there, working in regional theaters around the country is a nice counterbalance to the hustle-bustle of the Big Apple. “New York can be a lot of politics, pressure, money involved, and you can lose sight of artistic quality sometimes,” he says. “These are multi-million dollar productions. Other places, it feels like you’re doing it for the artistic sake and not for the business end.”