Phillipa Soo Brings History To Life In Broadway’s Smash Musical Hamilton

Photo: Hao Zeng.
The Broadway musical Hamilton, about the first U.S. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, has received crazy-good reviews, visits from both Obamas, and a shout-out from Beyoncé. Written by Tony-winner Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also stars as Hamilton, the show defies conventions in a variety of ways: It has a score that owes as much to rap and R&B as it does to traditional show tunes, it stars Black and Latino actors as Founding Fathers, and it ends on a woman, Eliza, Hamilton's wife. While the show makes the case for the importance of the man it describes as the "10-dollar founding father," it also implores the audience to remember women like Eliza, who became an abolitionist and championed her husband's legacy, setting up New York City's first private orphanage. She lived to be 97, dying 50 years after her husband was shot by Aaron Burr in 1804. And it helps that Phillipa Soo, a 25-year-old Juilliard graduate, plays Eliza so well. Over the course of the show, Soo, who previously starred in off-Broadway's Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, transforms from a giddy young woman discovering New York with her sisters and singing a Beyoncé-inflected tune about her new love, into a proud, beatboxing mother, then an angry, betrayed wife, and finally a woman coping with enormous loss. She does all this with a magnificent voice takes your breath away. You can now listen to the cast album (which is available for purchase today), and have your heart broken by Soo. Refinery29 spoke with the actress about playing Eliza, performing for the Obamas, and her backstage traditions. When you first got the material, how surprised were you about how important Eliza is in the narrative?
"It was kind of the furthest thing from my mind. I knew that the show was about Alexander Hamilton and Tommy [Kail, the director] approached me and asked me if I wanted to play Eliza in one of the first readings. I was like, 'Great.' And I think the minute I got off the phone with him, I was like, 'I need to Wikipedia this, because I’m actually not sure.' Then I was like, oh, that’s his wife. Her story started revealing itself to me as I read the material and started learning Lin’s story. It just unfolded before me in this way that was so surprising and beautiful." Were there current figures that you drew inspiration from when developing Eliza?
"My mother is a superhero to me, and I drew a lot of inspiration from her. I drew a lot of inspiration from some of my mentors and teachers, and all of these incredible women who are in my life who are not known in the history books. I am who I am as a person, as a citizen, as an artist because of them. I feel like there is just a huge lesson in the fact that we all deserve to have our stories told. It’s kind of amazing that I get to tell Eliza’s story. She was such an incredible woman, and I don’t think that it was a coincidence that she lived as long as she did. She had such a purpose in her life."
Photo: Joan Marcus.
One of your songs, “Helpless,” strikes me as a song that Beyoncé could record. Who were you listening to and taking inspiration from when developing Eliza and her singing style?
"I drew from a lot of mixes of styles. The feel for what kind of style we're going for in 'Helpless,' Beyoncé is a great parallel — and artists like Alicia Keys. But, then some of the greats like Etta James and other jazz artists. And then drawing from my classical training background. I just feel like it’s all me. There’s not really any sort of conscious choice to make one song like, 'This is my Beyoncé song' and 'This is my Les Mis number.' The style of the music is informative to the audience of what is going on within these characters. For me, it was a way to navigate what Eliza’s journey was turning into."
You beatbox in the show. Is that something you had done before Hamilton?
"I definitely did not consider myself a great beatboxer, but I’ll just stay this: The minute that they suggested that I beatbox in that scene during the rehearsals, I was so excited. That night I went onto YouTube. I think I typed in 'female beatboxer' or 'incredible amazing female beatboxer.' I went down the rabbit hole of these amazing beatboxers. That's kind of like how I learned to sing, listening to a lot of different singers and styles of singing, and kind of just mimicked it. So, I was just sitting alone in my apartment watching these videos just making beatboxing sounds. I think my neighbors were probably like, 'What the heck is that girl doing in there? My new neighbor is so strange.' I had just moved into that apartment at that point." Did you have any Obama-related jitters when Michelle came to the show at the Public Theater, or when Barack came during the Broadway run?
"Well, we didn’t know Michelle was there. We saw all of the Secret Service backstage, and that was when I was like, 'Okay, someone’s here,' but I didn’t know it was her. That was a really fun surprise. We knew that the president and his daughters were coming. That was also the first day that Javier [Muñoz], [Lin’s alternate], was on Broadway in Hamilton. The day was like a huge celebration because of that. Because the show is based in our American history and what it is to be an American, it was a very special, celebratory day for us." I wanted to ask about your relationship with your onstage sisters, played by Renée Elise Goldsberry and Jasmine Cephas Jones. Was it an instant click that you had? Or did you do anything special to bond as the Schuyler sisters?
"We had to share a dressing room down at the Public [where the show originated off-Broadway]. I think that was a huge part of our bonding experience. Jasmine and I actually met in a commercial audition a week before we started rehearsal. We both knew at that point that we were cast, but we didn’t know that we were going to be working together. So, it was really funny to show up to rehearsal and to see Jasmine and to be like, 'Oh, didn’t I just do a commercial audition with you that neither of us booked?' It was really great seeing her there, and then discovering how amazingly talented she was and what an incredible soul she was. Renée and I had worked together a couple times before we started at the Public. "As a trio we are all three very different, independent spirits, but together we have this great combination, because we’re all coming at this from a very different place. Renée has been on Broadway before, and this is my and Jasmine’s first time on Broadway. We’ve all been kind of learning from each other, and also just having a really great time and laughing a lot." There was a great New Yorker piece on the women of Hamilton. At the end of that piece, the writer asks if the show has a feminist ending, and concludes "almost." I was wondering your take on that.
"I think it’s more. I think that word 'almost,' it’s like, sure, but I think that it’s much more than a statement about feminism. I think it is feminist in that it ends with this woman. It’s interesting that that surprises people. One of my really great actor friends told me that he was so touched because it reminded him of how much he loved his mother, and I think that there is something to that. Like I said before, I drew inspiration from all these important women in my life, so I think that’s something really special that has come of it, that we hold these women that we love so dearly in a light and really uphold what their legacy was."

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