Phillipa Soo: Her Moment

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The first time Phillipa Soo was supposed to perform, she got stage fright. She was 3 years old, or maybe 4, and it was going to be her dance recital debut. Although she completed the dress rehearsal, she refused to go on for the show and instead, she sat backstage, watching the older ballerinas preparing. Her teacher, Miss Lisa, came to find her before curtain call.

“Phillipa, will you please come out and bow with us?” Miss Lisa asked. “Because you worked so hard, and I’m sure your parents would love to see you just bow.”

“No!” a young Soo refused.

So Miss Lisa suggested a compromise: She would go with Soo and the two would have a special bow together.

“I held her hand, and I remember bowing and just hearing all the applause and feeling the energy of the room and looking up at Miss Lisa and just thinking, ‘Ohhhh, I was totally missing out. What was I thinking?!’” Soo recalls. “And then I’ve continued to be onstage since that day.”

Soo, known as “Pippa” to her friends, still has that childlike sense of wonder, whether she’s talking about her love of theater or finding delight in sitting on a swing in the photo studio for her interview. She celebrated her 26th birthday a few days earlier, and it’s been a big year for Soo: She made her Broadway debut in Hamilton, earned a Tony Award nomination for her performance as Eliza Hamilton, and got engaged to the love of her life, fellow actor Steven Pasquale.

“I honestly feel like fifty years have passed,” Soo says, as she swings back and forth. “It’s like the last song of Hamilton, where you see like fifty years happen in two-and-a-half-minutes. I feel like that’s my year.”

But Broadway, particularly musical theater, was never the goal for Soo. She grew up dancing—from ballet and hip hop to Irish step dancing—and didn’t start performing in musicals until high school, when she played roles like Alice in Bye Bye Birdie and the Leading Player in Pippin. She’s from the Chicago suburbs, and as a child, she would go into the city to see shows at Steppenwolf, where a friend of her mom was in the ensemble. “I didn’t actually get to see a lot of musicals growing up,” she adds.

She studied acting at Juilliard, and two months after she graduated, she was cast as the female titular character in the musical Tolstoy-riff Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. 

“I’m really surprised that it happened this way,” says Soo, adding that storytelling through song spoke to her as someone so vulnerable coming out of school.  “I’m glad it has, but that wasn’t what I was setting out to do.”

It’s time to leave the studio, as Soo has rehearsal at the Richard Rogers Theatre, where Hamilton is playing indefinitely, for the Tony Awards performance, so we go downstairs where there is a car waiting. I ask Soo if she had an interest in fashion from an early age as well, and she enthusiastically recalls attending birthday parties at a glorified dress-up emporium called Let’s Pretend. “It was probably so germ-y now that I think about it, but it was heaven!” she says, remembering the rooms and rooms of costumes to wear.

“The main reason I knew I wanted to be an actor was because it felt like getting dressed up and playing pretend,” she says. “I remember spending hours in my front yard just playing games and creating stories.”

Her mom would let her dress herself for school, and to this day, she still wears mismatched socks because of it. With the high profile of Hamilton, Soo’s fashion opportunities have gotten a bit more sophisticated. She’s worked frequently with Prabal Gurung, who designed her opening night look as well as several other ensembles for red carpets over the course of the season. “I just love the combination of his textures and shapes,” she says.

Soo’s friends describe her style as “grandma chic” because she likes to pair items that are “not necessarily cool” with more on-trend pieces. Today she’s wearing a cropped tan cardigan, army green pants, and black ankle boots.

“I just started wearing more colors again,” she adds. “I moved to New York and my entire closet turned grey and black, and I thought, ‘Wait a minute, what happened to me? I thought I was a fun, colorful person and now I have one red shirt!’”

Her favorite color is orange, which is also the color of her engagement ring. The delicate band has an orange diamond flanked by smaller diamonds. She and Pasquale discovered it at Doyle & Doyle, a boutique that specializes in vintage pieces. “As soon as I tried it on, it just fit,” she says with a smile. “I didn’t even need to resize it.”

Both of Soo’s major New York stage credits have featured her in period costumes from 19th century Russia in Great Comet to her 18th century wardrobe in Hamilton, designed by Paul Tazewell. (She loves the idea of living in the 1940s from a fashion perspective and cites Katharine Hepburn as a style crush, but ultimately thinks living in that decade would be “too much work.”)

She wears six different looks in Hamilton—beginning with the “parchment” dress in the opening number, when all of the actors are introduced as “players in the story,” and then she lives in Eliza’s color palette of minty green, teal, and baby blue. Soo thinks if Eliza lived today, her fashion sense would be similar to her own.

“She loves the little flares,” Soo says, adding that she likes to accessorize her looks. “I have this belt that I wear in Act 2, and I only wear it for one scene. I kind of have a joke about it. It’s just the smallest little thing, and so one day I told Renée [Elise Goldsberry], ‘I feel like you sent me this from London, and I was like, Ooh something from London and I’m wearing it today because you’re coming.’”

We arrive at the theater a little after 1 p.m., with plenty of time before her 1:30 call. There’s an impressive line outside for cancellation tickets, and a few fans straggle by the stage door, hoping members of the cast will arrive. Soo admits it can be overwhelming at times, but she’s so appreciative of all the support she and the show receive on a daily basis.

“Do you want to see our fan art wall,” she asks, as we climb several flights to her dressing room. In the hallway, there is a full-wall collage of everything from illustrations to needlepoint homages to the Schuyler sisters. There’s a drawing of Soo framed on her door as a nameplate, and there are several more pieces in her cozy dressing room. She points out one in particular that’s framed above her mirror. It’s Eliza with a word collage drawn around her. A young, Asian girl sent it to Soo because she was so happy to see someone like herself represented onstage.

“That’s just one example of how many young Asian women who have been like, ‘Thank you so much, you are representing me,’” Soo says. “Mixed women tell me they never felt like there was a place for them in the theater, and now there is. It’s just really important for them to be able to see it, and know that it’s not just a dream. You can pursue it.”

Soo is biracial. Her father’s parents came to the States from China, settling in New Jersey, and her mother grew up in southern Illinois. And she admits that her racial identity was never really in the forefront of her brain until Hamilton. She spoke about this in a conversation with Lea Salonga, who was the first Asian woman to win a Tony Award for her performance in Miss Saigon, in The Hollywood Reporter.

“It wasn’t until being part of this show—even though I’ve been in other mixed-race casts—that I have been considered an actor of color,” Soo told THR. “Up until now, I haven’t been talking about being an Asian-American woman! I don’t know why, but clearly it has something to do with the statement that we’re making in our show, and that you’re seeing so many different colors that you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, what is everybody?'”

She’s also in an interesting role playing a character who is the woman behind the man in a show about politics and history during a heated election season when the role of women in the race is being hotly debated among the public and the media. The cast has performed at the White House, and several women in politics—FLOTUS being one of the biggest champions—have come to the show. A few days after we chat, Hillary Clinton is named the presumptive nominee for the Democratic party, making her the first woman to lead a major party’s presidential ticket.

“There’s something that we can’t ignore about the fact that being a woman means something different in terms of the way you do things,” says Soo, naming her costar Renée Elise Goldsberry, her mother, her two grandmothers, and her Great Comet collaborators Rachel Chavkin and Amber Gray as role models and inspirations. “But it’s also not helpful to equalize. Equal rights, yes, but it’s more about equal opportunities. Because clearly, as women, we have different things to decide upon in terms of our lifestyle choices—in terms of children or no children, and what does that mean? But that doesn’t mean that you can’t, like Renee says and I love, run to your life. We’re just people trying to live on this planet the way we always have, and the world is changing, and we just need to keep up with it.”

Her call time is approaching and she needs to order lunch, so she pulls up the Seamless app on her phone and scrolls through the options at Kodama, one of her local standbys. While she’s excited about the Tony Awards and the rehearsal that she has to get to, she’s mostly excited about getting to the afterparty and “raising a glass with the cast.”

“Raise a glass to freedom,” I say, almost unconsciously quoting the show and feeling like a dork.

“I quote it all the time,” Soo says. “People are like, ‘You’re in the show, you’re not allowed to quote it.’”

She laughs and her smile brightens up the room. I ask her what’s next and she coyly says she’s just enjoying this time. “I definitely need a vacation,” she adds.

We say our goodbyes, and days later, it’s announced that she’ll be teaming up with Hamilton scribe and costar Lin-Manuel Miranda on the Disney-animated film Moana. She’s not leaving the limelight any time soon.

How lucky we are to be alive right now.

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Styling by James Brown III and Allegra Levy
Hair by Aubrey Mae Davis
Makeup by Geo Brian Hennings
Clothing by Hellessy and Christina Economou
Shoes by Summit by White Mountain