BY GREGORY BOSSLER
SINCE 2012, Thespian alum Phillipa Soo has originated roles in three Broadway productions — a rare feat in the course of any actor’s career, let alone in a handful of years. Her dizzying journey began just months after she graduated from Juilliard, when she debuted Off-Broadway as Natasha in the world premiere of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 at Ars Nova. The show soon transferred to the custom-built Off-Broadway venue Kazino, where it was seen by directors Thomas Kail and Pam MacKinnon, both of whom began thinking of Soo for new musicals they had in development: Hamilton and Amélie.
In Hamilton: Revolution, writer Lin-Manuel Miranda describes what everyone saw: “Pippa has this sort of elegance and this lit-from-within quality. She’s so poised, and she’s in such control of what she can do, which is kind of amazing for an actor or actress of her age.”
“Look at where you are. Look at where you started.”
Soo grew up in a creative household. “There was always music or art or dance or movies being made,” she says. Her grandmother was a concert pianist, and her mother, who worked in theatre administration, took her often to see new plays and Shakespeare revivals in Chicago.
From a young age, the theatre beckoned. “I was always interested in performing, in anything to do with music or storytelling,” Soo says. “I took dance classes, acting classes, singing classes, improv classes. From a young age, I was set on my career. … Whether or not I ‘made it’ didn’t matter. I wanted to live and make a living as an actor. That was always the goal.”
Her parents encouraged her passion: her mother teaching her about shows and her father advising her about business. “My dad wanted to make sure I was working hard and doing everything I could to be the best at whatever I wanted to be,” she says. “It’s rare to have such a balanced household. I was lucky.”
Soo made an early impact in Thespian Troupe 1344, earning the role of Leading Player in Pippin, which Libertyville High School took to the Illinois state festival during her sophomore year. More musical roles followed, including Demeter in Cats during her senior year, but Soo didn’t see herself as primarily a musical actress.
“Music has always been a huge part of my life, and theatre has always been a huge part of my life,” she says. “I enjoy musical theatre because it marries music and theatre, but I wanted to be an actor — in any medium. … I was always interested in how you could tell one story in many different ways.”
She continued to explore her passion as a member of Group 41 in Juilliard’s B.F.A. drama program, and during her final year, she began testing the waters of the professional world, including an audition for Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. “I will always have such gratitude toward [director] Rachel Chavkin and [writer] Dave Malloy and all the people at Ars Nova,” Soo says. “They took me under their wings and gave a chance to someone they had no idea about.”
“It set me up for an amazing couple of years, and I had to remind myself to take it all in,” Soo continues, “to recognize that what was going on was unique. That was my main goal amid all the crazy, amazing fury.”
"How lucky we are to be alive right now"
Impressed by Soo’s performance in the Off-Broadway production of Natasha, Pierre, director Thomas Kail invited her to be part of an informal table read of the second act of Hamilton Mixtape, as Miranda’s show was then known. Soon after, Soo was offered the role of Eliza Hamilton in the world premiere of Hamilton at the Public Theater. She accepted, foregoing the chance to make her Broadway debut as Natasha.
Her experience in that first role, though, served her well as she began the next. “Natasha was great practice in how to tell a story through song and in how to find myself in an historical figure, both of which translated into my journey with Hamilton,” Soo says.
It was also great practice in the personal demands of professional theatre. “For a long run, you need a different skillset than the creative process. Stamina is not something you can learn in school, where you don’t have runs longer than five days. I learned how to assess my physical and mental state. I learned about how to rehabilitate and come to the theatre every day ready to tell the story.”
“In a long run, the show will also be different every day,” Soo continues. “The pendulum swings. We all have days that are better than others, but every audience is hearing the story for the first time. What you might think was not as good as last time was still good, because the audience doesn’t know what last time was — unless they keep coming back. Theatre is never the same twice.”
As for her creative process, she says, “It begins with reading the play and seeing what’s on the page. Next are my questions in general about the world, about what’s happening at the time, about who I’m involved with — my friends, my enemies. Those are the basic character research questions I want to know. Then I determine what else is useful — what information I’m talking about, what words I don’t know. The last level is letting go of all the homework and playing the scene to find the interaction with another person, the human connection.”
Her creative process never ends, even during a long run. “For Natasha, Pierre, I continued to read War and Peace as I was running the show. Doing research keeps you curious, keeps you fresh. You also may learn something that could be useful in making a moment more present. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with the plot or the show. Anything can inspire you.”
As part of her continued research for Hamilton, Soo interviewed Ron Chernow, whose book provided the source material for the musical, and she visited Graham Windham, a social services organization for children and families that started in 1806 as the Orphan Asylum Society, which the historic Eliza Hamilton considered her greatest accomplishment.
“After I visited the orphanage, I started the Eliza Project with my cast mate Morgan Marcell,” Soo says. This theatre teaching artist program at Graham Windham “started as research and turned into something else, something that still informs me and makes me feel a connection to Eliza’s legacy.”
“I found an inner strength in Eliza, and because of that I found my own inner strength. They influenced each other,” she adds. “I also learned how to step back and listen, to ask questions. I learned how to be messy and imperfect, to embrace failure and see it as a good thing — because when you fail, you learn how to become better. Once my fear of failing diminished, a door opened to so many possibilities. It felt so freeing.”
"I can see the world I'm dreaming all around me"
As Hamilton marked its first anniversary on Broadway, director Pam Mac-Kinnon was planning the out-of-town tryout of the Broadway-bound musical Amélie, based on the Oscar-nominated French film of the same name, and she asked Soo to take on the title role.
“I was inspired by the film as a young person,” Soo said. “I remember watching it in high school and thinking, ‘Finally, a woman on film who I can relate to.’ I was drawn to the romanticism of France, to the color and quirkiness of Amélie’s imagination. It felt like a good fit.”
“I also wanted to be a part of that project because it was so different from what I had been doing,” Soo continues. “Amélie is a modern woman. She’s quirky, sweet, and witty. She is very different from Natasha and Eliza. Yet she is also a woman trying to find herself in the world. That’s one common thread among those three women.”
Amélie closed this past May, but within six months Soo was back on the Broadway boards with The Parisian Woman, again under the direction of MacKinnon. In this original drama by House of Cards writer Beau Willimon, who has translated the 19th century Paris of Henry Becque’s La Parisienne to modern-day Washington, Soo portrays Rebecca, a recent Harvard Law grad pulled into the political intrigue of Chloe (Uma Thurman), as the woman maneuvers an appellate court position for her husband.
Soo’s preparation for this play did not greatly differ from her approach to musical theatre roles. “It doesn’t matter if you’re singing or you’re speaking, truth has no particular size or shape,” she says. “I try to find personal connections with all my characters.”
"Where do you go from here?"
Soo has no definite plans after the limited engagement of The Parisian Woman ends its run. “I take it as it goes,” she says. “Part of an actor’s job is to always be looking for work. That’s always a part of the gig. I never feel bored. I always feel challenged and excited. Even if I don’t know what’s on the horizon, I have space to ask what I want, which is important.”
“My journey has already become much more interesting than I could ever have anticipated,” Soo adds. “My profession has led me to different places and different people and different ideas.” Most significantly, it led her to actor Steven Pasquale, to whom Hamilton costar Jonathan Groff introduced her in 2015. The couple married this past September. “That’s the best part about the past couple of years,” Soo says.
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