When Hamilton ended its Public Theater run in the spring of 2015, there was a lot of pressure to open immediately on Broadway. After all, it was already a runaway hit, with several sold-out extensions downtown; why waste lucrative weeks? But author, composer, lyricist and star Lin-Manuel Miranda wanted to buy some time to fix a few things he felt he hadn’t quite got right.
One of them was the role of Eliza, the upper class Schuyler sister who will marry the near-penniless Alexander Hamilton and stand by him through the death of a son and the scandal of an affair before his own death in the infamous duel with his political rival, Aaron Burr. One can deduce that Miranda heard some criticism that
“I have been describing it as a hurricane, where we are in the eye, the Richard Rodgers Theatre is the eye, and the show, it’s the ground. You know it’s strong. It’s holding us up, but I look around and I see like chairs and trees and, like, large objects flying around, this phenomenon.” — Phillipa Soo
Eliza was underwritten, for when the show did open on Broadway last August, Eliza was less of a cipher and more of a force. As played with poignance and delicacy by Phillipa Soo, Eliza becomes the guarantor of her husband’s legacy as both Founding Father and foundling father, her proudest accomplishments being the establishment of an orphanage that still stands and the first school in Washington Heights. The final image of the show is, in fact, that of Eliza Hamilton.
Even before Hamilton made her a Tony-nominated star, Soo had been winning critical praise as a Russian It girl in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. Dave Malloy’s environmental, dinner-included, musically expansive story, drawn from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, originated at the off-Broadway nonprofit Ars Nova and then moving like a tent show to various locations, Pierre, Natasha became a cult hit. It’s opening in the fall on Broadway, but not with its original leading lady. She’s riding a comet of another sort.
DEADLINE: Did you know about Hamilton when you were doing Natasha Pierre?
SOO: During the winter of 2013, we were running Comet up in midtown — as opposed to downtown and across the street in the Standard, and that was like our third time going at it, from Ars Nova to downtown to near Broadway. We weren’t on Broadway. We were near Broadway, as we said. We were just in the middle of our run and I didn’t know if we were going to extend. I was in the middle of doing a bunch of readings and workshops and kind of drove myself crazy by doing double-duty. But then Tommy [Kail, Hamilton‘s director) called me for a reading of Act II. That was December of 2013.
DEADLINE: Had they seen you in Comet or did you know them before?
SOO: I knew of him peripherally and it was like a week long, very simple, just learning music. I didn’t know anything about Eliza and I didn’t know anything really about the first half of the show because it was just focused on getting the second half all in order. And that was it. I just continued on.
DEADLINE: And Eliza hadn’t become what she became at that point.
SOO: No. No. The end of the show still wasn’t written. I didn’t actually find out what Eliza did at the end of the show until the last day of the reading and Lin handed me the music says, “This is the last song of the show and you’re singing it and it’s basically Eliza’s whole life within two minutes of a song. And I was like What? I had no idea of what Eliza did until the very last day of that reading and I was just as shocked as everybody else is when they see the show. I so got to love Eliza.
DEADLINE: I’m sure you’ve been asked a million times, but what’s the derivation of your name?
SOO: Soo? I’m half-Chinese and half-Caucasian. My grandparents came here from China. My father was born in New Jersey.
DEADLINE: Do you see any connection between Natasha and Eliza?
SOO: Definitely. I had a conversation with Tommy very early on, in I think the lab rehearsals in April 2014. I imagined that where Eliza is at the beginning of the show is kind of where Natasha leaves off at the end of Great Comet and of course, it was very close to me — moving on to my next thing. Less of this explosion of a moment in my life and more just, Yes, I’m choosing the rooms that I want to be in and the things that I want to work on and it was very much reminiscent of where I was at that moment too. Which was perfect I guess.
DEADLINE: During the run-up to the opening at the Public, did you have any idea what was going to happen?
SOO: No and yes, in the sense that I was always like taken aback by the amount of enthusiasm that we received from everybody else, but also knew how hard we were working.
DEADLINE: But everybody works really hard on every show! I think you’re suggesting something more.
SOO: I guess it’s less deserving of something from other people and more to do with self pride and being proud of the work that you have to share. It’s rare when you can say this thing that I’ve worked on and tried so hard to create and perfectly gift wrap and share with you is being received in the same way. It’s being recognized for something that yes we all do but we just happen to have this wonderful moment where everybody else is like, okay, sure.
DEADLINE: None of the team seems to have wanted to say, Okay, we’re out, our work is done. It must demand a lot of the company.
SOO: Yeah. Things I was in that don’t even appear in the version you see now — like great songs! and it’s like oh, that’s my song, but you know what.? It makes the story better to cut it. And even if you don’t see it, it’s still part of the fabric.
DEADLINE: You have to have an incredible intimacy with Lin. Can you talk about what that’s like for you? Does he have good breath?
SOO: So you’re talking intimacy like literally being physically close. There’s two things that work, which are one, just the story itself and the incredible relationship that we see between Eliza and Hamilton and how complicated and deep it is and her forgiveness of him, which is the most powerful thing — almost greater than her love is her forgiveness. That is made easy by wonderful writing, And then the second half of that is seeing Lin in this moment where he is also like Alexander, writing like he’s running out of time. I mean the whole world is at the tip of his pen, so to speak. So watching me, just me Phillipa, watching Lin go through this experience, coming in with new pages every single day was also very similar to Eliza, just in awe of his talent and his passion. As an actor you have to be willing to be physically intimate with people in various ways, so I mean it’s not necessarily hard. He’s a very likable person, so yeah.
DEADLINE: What was the most important thing you got out of going to Juilliard?
SOO: I think not being afraid to fail — and I mean that not in a success/failure way. I mean that in like a trial and error, creative way when you’re in the room and you make a creative choice or an acting choice, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t tell the story or it tells a different story that maybe you’re not necessarily wanting to go for and not being afraid of that, just saying oh, okay, well that’s information. Also the idea that the artist is a citizen and what it means to pursue your art but also be a citizen of this world. Of course the beauty with Hamilton is that I feel like it’s doing both of those things. I feel more like an American citizen now than I ever had and it’s artistically fulfilling.
DEADLINE: What were the shows that most influenced you growing up??
SOO: I played Nina in The Seagull and I think that that very much informed me with Natasha, the idea of this young woman trying to find herself in this world. She has these wants and needs and the world around her is telling her otherwise and how was she negotiating that, how was she like speaking with her heart and then with her head. Also, just emotionally speaking, the last scene where she comes in and says, I have faith now. As an actor, in school, you’re like, What the heck am I supposed to do with this?
DEADLINE: How long does it take you to get into Eliza’s head, to prepare for each performance?
SOO: You just show up, for me. It also helps that the way this show is written. The minute that I step on stage, I’m taking my journey in preparation and preparing for Eliza and then I make a costume change and that’s another step, and then I have to enter but only on the periphery so I’m not fully Eliza yet but I’m in Eliza’s clothes and then “Schuyler Sisters” happens and that’s when we enter and we’re ourselves.
DEADLINE: And what has it been like to be part of this thing that’s so much larger than the show you do eight times a week?
SOO: I have been describing it as a hurricane where I’m in the eye of the hurricane, we are in the eye, the Richard Rodgers is the eye, and the show, you know, it’s the ground. You know it’s strong. It’s holding us up, but I look around and I see like chairs and trees and like large objects like flying around, this phenomenon, this hurricane. There’s stuff going on but I feel relatively calm and if I just stay where I am and witness this phenomenon around me, that’s the best thing for me to do at least.
DEADLINE: I’m grateful for Lin’s crusade against the texters and filmers.
SOO: I am too. I mean beyond just the respect that you want to have, people just miss out on being in the moment when they have a screen in front of their face. I just don’t know to tell people. I feel it’s like, you know: Turn off your phone and go to the theater. Don’t forget to brush your teeth. Floss. Just add it to the list of human things you need to remember. But some people just can’t remember to floss.