In the Tony Award-winning musical Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda plays the founding father of the title who takes the spotlight, but let’s face it, Phillipa Soo’s Eliza Schuyler should take just as much of that spotlight because as Alexander Hamilton’s wife, she was the only one that could put him in his place. She stole his heart, supported him through his political journey and even after he cheated on her, she taught him a harsh lesson of love on being a real husband, father and man.
Soo played the original Eliza Schuyler when it hit Broadway alongside Miranda as well as Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, Anthony Ramos, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Christopher Jackson, Okieriete Onaodowan and Jasmine Cephas Jones. As we all know, it garnered an uproarious ovation as tickets were selling for thousands of dollars. More than that, it became a cultural movement and a watershed moment for inclusive casting and storytelling.
Eliza is essentially the heart of the musical and Soo amplifies the strength of her role in Hamilton’s narrative with her crystalline voice, soul and glowing stage presence. From her singing “Helpless” to the soul-stirring and heartbreaking performance of “Burn”, Eliza is just as much as a hero as Hamilton was and she deserves shine — as does Soo, who brought this woman to life on the stage.
She earned an Tony nomination for her role as Eliza, but beyond that, Soo’s career has been layered with diverse characters and inclusive casts including stage roles in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, the Broadway adaptation of Amélie and The Parisian Woman. On TV, she appeared in Smash and The Code, can be seen in the forthcoming feature The Broken Hearts Gallery and lends her voice to The One and Only Ivan Thelma and Over The Moon.
As the filmed production of Hamilton makes its way to Disney+ on July 3, Soo talked to Deadline about her journey to the groundbreaking musical, how it has affected her own advocacy, her cultural identity and how the musical is a mirror to the current social uprising and reckoning in the country.
DEADLINE: How did your Hamilton journey begin and did you even think it would become a benchmark in cultural history?
PHILLIPA SOO: I was incredibly lucky and fortunate. My first job out of school was this off-Broadway show called Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 and that was my first job. I got my equity card from that show.
From that, that’s where Lin and [Thomas Kail] saw me. They asked me to join Hamilton and then Hamilton happened. So it’s a very shooting star moment. My very first rooms in New York that I got to be in were all new shows with amazing writers and amazing material; getting to play these incredible multifaceted women who are critical historical figures…but the story is told in a new modern way. Not only that, these were very diverse and young casts that I got to be in.
Natasha sort of influenced my experience with Hamilton, but Hamilton was my first Broadway show ever. Because my cast members who had all already been on Broadway and because of what I knew, I understood very deeply that this is not normal. I was very wary to try and take it in one day at a time and really be present. At the same time, I knew that I should really soak it all up as much as possible.
DEADLINE: As your first Broadway show, did you approach Hamilton differently compared to projects from your past?
SOO: When I’m looking at projects, I definitely feel like there’s a very high bar set just because I’ve been so fortunate to be in such incredible rooms. At the same time, I have to let go of needing to have it be like my previous experiences. In fact, I’m more interested in having experiences that are different, scary, challenging and something that might be surprising to me, or might be surprising to other people. I feel like after Hamilton happened, I found myself doing a lot of comedy stuff. That’s where I am now — I have Hamilton coming out and then simultaneously, I have this independent comedy that I shot last year and also this family film, Over the Moon, which is coming out in the fall, which is also a comedy. I’m just interested in a lot of things and I never want to be bored. I always want to be challenged and asked to do things that I’ve never been asked to do before.
DEADLINE: Hamilton really just changed the course of things, when it came to the inclusion of underrepresented voices in predominantly white spaces. How has your perspective of Hamilton changed since you performed it for the first time to now when it is premiering on Disney+ during a social and cultural movement?
SOO: It’s a huge deal that we’re seeing a show that is retelling American history using actors of color. We’re channeling these characters and historical figures through our voices and our bodies. The writing is so genius and what Lin has given us is such a gift. It’s definitely not a history that we were necessarily included in as people of color but I think what the show does and it did then, and what it continues to do now is it holds this piece as a mirror up to society and ask ourselves where are we right now. It asks the question: How are you? I feel like the show is a doing that. It’s asking, “How are you? What’s going on in society at large?”
Or it can celebrate the fact that there are a bunch of Black and brown people telling American history on a stage on Broadway and any young person of color watching it would be inspired. Any young person of color watching it would be inspired just by seeing it.
It also asks “What are the things that we have not dealt with? What are the things that are messy, imperfect and flawed? What are the things that we have to strive to work toward?” It was incredibly messy when the first founding fathers were trying to figure out how to run this country.
I think we have to remember that it’s never perfect. In fact, there’s been many people throughout history who have tried to make what we consider to be a free society, but we have to stand up and fight against that — and revolution is necessary. Change is necessary. I hope that the show asks people to change and, at the same time, inspire people who might need this to listen, as well.
DEADLINE: As the country goes through this change and progress via protests, rallies, campaigns and action, is there anyone in particular you think is embodying the spirit of Alexander Hamilton?
SOO: Just off the top of my head, a specific person that reminds me of that sort of fervor is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I think there’s a passion in her, and also she’s so young like Hamilton and all of his friends. They were barely in their twenties. It’s a good reminder that so often young people are considered too young to be getting into politics. We need new people, new ideas — young people. We’ve been going in the wrong direction for so long and in order to turn this ship around, we need to get new ideas, new people and new faces in our political system.
On a very broad level, I feel like all of the people out protesting right now — all of the young people who are literally grabbing anything that they can stand on, any microphone that they can amplify their voice with and using it. I think that is very powerful even in the midst of this horrible pandemic that we’ve been having. The absolute necessity of society is to be able to gather and to be able to use your voice in order to demand things from society that you need. It seems not as exciting as being out on the street and standing on a box, shouting, but I hope that people think of voting like that. Using your voice by filling in some bubbles to vote is just as powerful, if not more so.
DEADLINE: It feels like we are very much at a watershed moment in history. I was just listening to the Hamilton soundtrack and realizing that there are a lot of similarities in what he was fighting against back then and what many are fighting against today. Speaking in broad strokes, not much has changed.
SOO: There’s a lot of progress that has been made, but I think there’s a lot of things that we just have not dealt with. We’re tired and we’re fed up, and this administration has literally squeezed the patience out of us.
We thought that the people that we elected were handling it and that they were going to take care of it and they didn’t, and they can’t, somehow. I think we’re all very aware that there’s some people power that needs to be happening in order for real change to take place.
DEADLINE: How has Hamilton influenced your own advocacy?
SOO: It certainly made me very proud to be among a very diverse company. It made be very proud to be an Asian woman. I’m always trying to find balance in my life and you can’t really have that all the time as an artist. Sometimes you’re really passionate about your job and you love what it says politically. Your art shows where you stand in the world and you can’t make a living with that so you’re constantly trying to find that balance. It’s so rare for it all to be wrapped up into one thing.
The art [in Hamilton] is so amazing, but the message behind it reached so many people and will reach more — that’s so rare. I’m so grateful to be a part of something where it’s doing all of those things at once. It asks hard moral questions, hard questions about humanity and at the same time, it’s just really good and entertaining at the same time.
I think that back when Obama was still president and we were really hopeful and proud. I think there was definitely a pride that I had never felt before as an American. That has not been diminished, but in the past four years, it’s become so clear that there’s just so much that we don’t know and don’t understand. There’s a part of me that feels like I wish that I had gotten involved sooner and not taken for granted the ability to search and have knowledge about what’s going on in our politics today.
It makes me say ”now’s the time…you didn’t necessarily know everything before. You wanted to be a citizen in this country and stand up for what you believe in.” The level of needing to take action in a way that I don’t think any of us have ever felt before was stirred by this moment in time that we’re living in.
There’s a great quote in Hamilton when Daveed [Diggs] says: “Revolution is messy but now is the time to stand.” It’s a revolution and we got to stand up for what we believe in now.
DEADLINE: You are half Chinese and half white and many biracial people have struggled with their identity. How have you navigated your own cultural identity especially during a time when discussions about race have been top of mind?
SOO: I don’t necessarily have an exact answer for you, but I do know that I’ve definitely been asking myself that question recently. I do have a deep pride for my Asian roots and my Asian heritage. I understand on a certain level what it means to be a person of color in this country. At the same time, I do see how I have, in a way, benefited from the system. Whether it be because of where I grew up or whether it be because maybe I’m racially ambiguous — I don’t know if that’s necessarily an advantage, but it definitely throws people off.
I’m still proud, but there are elements of how I grew up and how I’ve benefited from the system that has made me realize the things that I need to deal with and things I need to ask myself in terms of how I can be the best version of this person in this society. That might mean grappling with certain things about the way my elderly relatives might have said something racially insensitive and analyzing why I didn’t deal with that then. When you are young, you hear things coming out of your auntie’s mouth. You know it’s wrong and at the same time, you don’t quite know what to say. I think Chinese and other Asian cultures have a tendency to be a little bit more passive in terms of the way that we deal with conflict. As a family, we wouldn’t talk about something difficult like race or even economic relations in this country. We might just brush it off as like, “Oh, the elderly aunties. They don’t know what they’re talking about.” I feel like now is the time to say, “Actually, let’s not just let that moment go by. Let’s talk about it and let’s unpack it. Let’s have the messy things come out. Let’s not brush it away and ignore the things that are imperfect. Let’s bring it to the light and let’s get into it.”
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