On and off-stage, Phillipa Soo is living Eliza Hamilton’s legacy: telling her story eight times a week. At the Richard Rodgers Theatre, Soo brings her innate wisdom, compassion, and strength into the spotlight as a Schuyler sister and the spouse of Hamilton. Her performance has recently garnered her a Tony nomination. Behind the curtain, Soo proves to be just as philanthropic as her character. She kickstarted The Eliza Project to bring theater arts education to inner city youth. Soo is a fierce performer, but a kind spirit. In this interview, Soo’s goodness, as well as her utter understanding of her craft, shines through. She discusses training, succeeding, and everything in between. Check out how Phillipa Soo became the “best of women” this Broadway season.
When did you catch the theater bug?
I caught the theater bug at a very early age. My mother worked in the theater—I grew up in Chicago—and she worked at a repertory company in Chicago. As a kid we were always going to see lots of Shakespeare, classical theater, [we went to] Steppenwolf because my mother had a friend who was in the ensemble there. I was surrounded by it at a very early age.
Did anyone or anything inspire you to pursue a career in theater?
I feel like, funny enough, I had a lot of teachers who were really inspiring, but my mother was a huge inspiration. She was always encouraging me to pursue it because she could always see that I loved it so much. I started out in dance and I had an incredible dance teacher who was just so enthusiastic. Seeing her passion for what she was doing and the whole performance aspect of it was another form of encouragement to pursue what I wanted to do: my dreams—what made me happiest and most joyful in my life.
You went to Juilliard for acting. How did the school set you up for a successful career?
I feel like the program, one, creates a student body—this goes for the drama division, but also all other divisions, music and dance—a bunch of individuals really interested in working on their craft…[The school] really caters to you as an individual artist, which I think is an amazing thing. President Joseph Polisi really advocates for the idea of artist to citizen, which is kind of self explanatory. You have an obligation as an artist to be a citizen of this world…
Another thing I learned is to not be afraid to fail. Failure is great. Failure helps you learn. It helps things you wouldn’t see in your success. When you’re not afraid of that you’re not afraid of failure.
It’s funny, because you’ve had just such an amazing upward trajectory since Juilliard. Do you feel like you bypassed all that fear and felt like you could dive headfirst into auditioning because you had experience with failure and risk taking at school?
It’s funny because when I say “failure” I guess I mean more in the actual creation of art. The success, you know—how much money you make, or how many awards you have on your shelf, or how many productions you do per year—that’s all subjective. There’s not one way to do it. But when I mean by “failure” is that when you’re in the room and your working on a scene and you make a choice and that acting choice actually fails, you don’t actually end up playing the scene the way the story could be best told, but you still fully commit to whatever choice you make and find discovery in that failure. The same goes for if you’re working on a poem and you’re trying to memorize it, when you go up on a line, you learn something about why you went up on that line. [Phillipa laughs] That informs you. So that’s sort of more what I mean in terms of failure. Not necessarily in terms of success, but more in relation to trial and error, if that makes sense.
When I talked to Leslie Odom Jr, he described the rehearsal process as an “artistic conversation” in the way everyone had a voice in crafting the piece. Was there one conversation in particular that you had with a collaborator that really shaped a moment for you in the show or Eliza in general?
Yeah, I feel like there were a lot of conversations I had especially with Thomas Kail, our director, about what this woman’s intentions were in her undivided devotion to her husband who did betray her and was potentially responsible for their child’s death. We had a lot of conversations about things you don’t necessarily find the answers to. But what was beautiful about it was that our conversations usually turned out to be a lot of questions just back and forth: asking a question like, “Well, what if she was like this?” And then another on top of that, “But maybe she could have done this? What do we think she was thinking?” It goes on, and on, and on. Those small conversations that I was able to have with Thomas were really valuable and also just conversations with Lin about why he was so passionate about this man and this time in history—particularly Ron Chernow’s book. Those conversations, too, were enlightening, even if they weren’t necessarily about Eliza Hamilton…
You know, Lin is very much like Hamilton himself. He writes, “like he’s running out of time.” Watching him I think I got an idea of maybe what it was like for Eliza to watch Hamilton write, “like he was running out of time.”
Thomas and Lin brought you on very early in the process—for one of the first readings of the show. When was it clear to you that what you all were doing was working?
Well, I mean, the minute that I stepped into the rehearsal room—the first day that I did a reading for Act II with the team—the minute I saw Tommy, Lin, Andy [Blankenbuehler, Choreographer], and Alex [Lacamoire, Music Director] all working together, I thought, I want to be in this room! [Phillipa laughs] I want to be creating things with these guys. And then it wasn’t until another reading later when we did the whole show behind music stands when I got the last song of the show. I didn’t know what the ending was during the previous reading, but the second to last day of the reading, Lin wrote this song and handed to me and was like, “Okay, this is what the end of the show is!”
I was shocked. I was so, so surprised, at like, oh my gosh, Eliza ends [the play]—what? Then learning about all the stuff that she did, it was such a huge eye opening moment for me with the shear and utter awe at this woman that I happened to be portraying and the significance of her input and her dedication to upholding Hamilton’s legacy: why we know this story, why this story exists. It’s because she made it known.
Listen to the last song of Hamilton “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”
The way Angelica describes Eliza in “Satisfied” is so tragic in the way that she’s so accommodating. Then, at the end, we have the reveal of all of the amazing stuff she did. What’s it like playing that journey onstage: from, in many ways, helpless to a trailblazer?
I feel like the beauty of it as my job as an actor is to play the scene knowing as little as possible just so you can be surprised. The writing is so genius because you have this young woman—this young woman of Eliza, who we’re introduced to—whose eyes are just opened to the world. [She] has so many questions, is stepping out on her own for the first time to take charge of the revolution—her revolution. Not only is there a revolution happening in her country, she has the chance to start her own revolution within herself. The beauty of it is that she doesn’t need to know much at the beginning because it unfolds rapidly in front of her.
That experience in itself is an exciting thing to do as an actor, to just be watching the world swirl around you, and, I think, also very telling about what it means to be a young person in general, whether it be 1776 or now. Then as the play progresses, for her to really ask a lot of hard questions of herself, in terms of her love and devotion for Alexander and what it means to forgive somebody, what it means to love somebody. It’s described pretty well at the end: “When my time is up, have I done enough?” It’s all about having time. She had a lot of time. So I think that there was a moment after his death when she realized, this is what I must do. I’m going to keep going until I don’t have any time left. So she just tried to finish it as much as she could and she ended up doing so much. Obviously, her journey and her story, the way Lin presents her story, is just so touching. I think that we feel for her as much as Lin intended because it’s just so beautifully displayed.
Congrats on your Tony nomination! Are you ready for the weeks leading up to the Tonys? Are there any questions you’re tired of being asked by journalists?
You know, a lot of it is, “Where were you when you found out?” or “How did it feel?” I guess the beauty of it is that I feel different about it every second. But I do know it makes me want to celebrate with my cast because at least I have been working on the show for almost two years. It’s so wonderful to be recognized for the work we’ve put in. I’m so proud to see some of my greatest friends being recognized for their work as my fellow actors. So that’s really awesome.
What’s your advice for aspiring Broadway performers?
I would say, relentlessly be yourself. Always pursue things that make you happy. It’s very simple [advice]. You always have a choice in terms of what’s good for your career or what’s good for your artistry. Those are both the right choice depending on what your situation is. It’s an even better choice if it makes you happy to do it. So, I would say, do what makes you happy. ♦