From the corsets, petticoats and hip-hop beats of her Broadway debut as Eliza Schulyer in the smash hit Hamilton to the cobbled streets of Paris as the shy, whimsical Amélie in a new musical based on the 2001 French film of the same name, Phillipa Soo has had one hell of a year. Crossing the country from New York to Los Angeles (and centuries in the storytelling), she has made her mark on the American musical theater landscape with her diverse and compelling work over the course of 2016.
For 26-year-old Soo, who took a few months off after ending her run in Hamilton in July, Amélie is a welcome chance to return to the rehearsal room after playing Eliza for nearly two years in its off-Broadway and Broadway runs. “I’m just grateful to be back creating again — to kind of start from the bare bones and building a show feels really nice,” she says.
Until she had some time away, Soo says, she hadn’t really processed the immensity of Hamilton and being a part of the original cast of such a groundbreaking new musical. “I’m just so grateful that I was part of something that not only was functioning as an art piece, that I was proud of as an artist that I helped create, but also as a citizen of the world, that it’s played such a part in our culture and shaped a lot of people’s lives in a really beautiful way,” she says.
Amélie is a chance for her to start fresh, creating a new work in a different city. Soo, who graduated from Juilliard in 2012, has spent her entire professional life helping bring new work to the stage, beginning with an off-Broadway run as Natasha Rostova in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, an adaptation of a portion of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Amélie premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theater in 2015 with Samantha Barks in the lead role, but Soo was attached before that, participating in early readings around the same time she joined Hamilton in early 2014. Soo says she loves participating in new works, likening it to cooking, another love of hers. “You’re trying to make something, but you don’t really know what it’s going to be,” she says. “You have to try it and see if it works, and I love that process.”
Amélie director Pam MacKinnon first saw Soo in Great Comet and was taken by her voice and sense of intelligence. MacKinnon says, “Working with her through workshops and now in production, I am struck by her sense of humor and musicality. She is a real comedienne, always at the ready with a smart, fun choice. It is a true delight to watch her build a role.”
As a performer, Soo possesses a magnetic charm and rarefied skill. Her talents and unique blend of vocal prowess, raw vulnerability and a gentle strength have left their mark on the roles she’s originated. Soo humbly downplays her role in the process, seeing herself as a means to helping the creators realize their vision. “Everyone has a different interpretation of characters we know and love from Shakespeare, from Miller. There’s specific things about them that are written that are kind of the fingerprints of the first person who played that role, and so, I like to think of it as a road map,” Soo says. “I’m helping them figure out what that map is. Hopefully, there will be countless numbers of people taking this journey, using this map that we helped create.”
Amélie is the whimsical story of an introverted young woman whose efforts to become an anonymous do-gooder launch her on an adventure that brings her romance and unexpected connection with the people in her life. The show spans from her birth in 1975 to her coming-of-age as a young woman in 1990s Paris. Though the setting is fairly contemporary, Soo says the show feels like a period piece because of its lack of iPhones and social media connectivity.
“There was an element of mystery that we were still able to hold on to,” she says. “There’s a huge shift in the way we connect with people as humans in the technology age versus right before that, when we still had a little bit of mystery.”
This is Soo’s first major debut outside of New York. Though she worked on Great Comet and Hamilton from early days, they both started off-Broadway in Manhattan. It’s an experience she’s relishing. “Doing something out of town is so beautiful,” she says, “because it really becomes about the process, and the product will be a result of it, but process is what is the goal — to really see what works and create the best story possible.”
Soo also notes that the warmer weather makes it easier for her to maintain her instrument as a singer, and to avoid illness. More than its professional advantages, though, she’s enjoying L.A.'s extracurricular offerings, making time to discover new hiking spots (“It’s just taking advantage of the nature that’s available out here that you don’t necessarily get in Manhattan") and a culinary tour of some of the city’s best eats including Mozza, République and Sugarfish. “The difference between here and New York,” she explains, “is New York, you’re walking around all the time, so you’re just like, ‘Ooo, what’s that place?’ But here, what I love is that you have to do your research and go find places.”
However, she's found great comfort in the similarities between the cities, saying, “It doesn’t matter where you are, theater brings people together. What’s so beautiful about this experience is we’re on opposite sides of the country, but the magic of being in the theater is still the same.”
Soo’s quietly appealing demeanor and sunny disposition are a natural fit for the role of Amélie, a character originated onscreen by French actress Audrey Tautou. Soo first saw the film while she was in high school and felt immediately drawn to the character. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, finally a young woman who I can relate to in film,’” she says. “At that age you start to really appreciate poetry and the meaning of life, so it was just a really ripe time to see that movie for the first time. Seeing her see the world in such a colorful and poetic way, it inspired me to try to see the world that way.”
Still, Soo is hoping audiences set aside the film when they come to see the show, in order to engage with a new version of the story. Though Tautou’s performance left its mark on her, Soo says much of the process of creating this character has been asking what to keep from the film and what to bring anew to the storytelling.
Nowadays, Soo still relates on a personal level to Amélie and the character’s appreciation of other people. “I’m an actor because I’m fascinated with people and their stories,” she says, “and I think that’s something she’s also fascinated with. ... I am inspired by her to connect with more people, whether it’s just in my day-to-day life or if it’s through my art.”
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Soo has already connected to and inspired countless young women with her success as a Chinese-American performer. Hamilton made headlines with its diverse casting, with creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s quip that it is the “story of America then, told by America now.” With Amélie, Soo breaks down another barrier, taking on a character written as a white woman but one who could theoretically be any race or ethnicity.
For Soo, this is the most exciting part of her work and something she hopes marks a new normal. “A lot of young Asian-American women have expressed that they’re very excited to see me working and doing the projects that I’m doing,” she says. “That’s kind of the way our culture is going. We’re finding new ways to tell stories. And I hope to see a lot more diversity onstage and on film and television because I think that there are more stories to tell.”
If Soo is there to help tell them, well then, how lucky we are to be alive right now.
Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; through Jan. 15. centertheatregroup.org.