On paper, Hamilton is unlikely: a nearly three-hour-long musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton based on an 800-page historical biography and, for the most part, rapped the entire way through. But after runaway success at New York’s Public Theater and almost unanimous critical acclaim, it’s now headed to Broadway, leaving a wake of trophies in its midst: it’s won essentially every award it’s been up for, most recently sweeping the OBIEs, the Off-Broadway Alliance Awards, and the Lortels. Early Tony talk is unshushable.
I saw the show the weekend it closed at the Public and, between you and me, I considered canceling beforehand—it was the first nice day in New York and the production was three hours long, for one. But most of all, as a person who grew up with hip-hop and listens to it still, the idea that rap could succeed in a historical musical context without being overwhelmingly corny seemed near-impossible to me, even if it was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the much-heralded talent behind In the Heights. I’d lived through the still-cringeworthy backpacker rap era and emerged mostly unscathed, but the conceit of this translation felt like it was going to be a slog back through the tenets. I went, as a guest of my friend Jon, but was reluctant at first. I ended up doing it for cultural literacy.
I am pleased to say I was utterly wrong: Hamilton was, no bullshit, the most transformative, immersive art experience I have seen in probably ten years. (And, with FKA twigs’ Congregata, an important step forward in taking institutional forms and making them relevant to younger audiences that might not bet interested otherwise.) With Miranda as the lead and a brilliant cast that includes clipping.’s Daveed Diggs as a show-stealing, swaggy Thomas Jefferson, Jonathan “Looking” Groff as the petulant British king, and Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler, the story was perfectly executed, against all odds. A deeply compelling story with overarching themes like immigration, legitimacy, love, betrayal, friendship, nation-building and the ethics of idealism, it was universal but also stayed current with contemporary music references—a Biggie homage here, a nod to Gyptian there—and New York ones, too. (I doubt very much that I will ever see another musical that shouts out the unfairly criminalized, deeply awesome Showtime dancers.)
One cast member who stood out to me, though, was Phillipa Soo, the powerhouse 25-year-old who plays Eliza Schuyler, Hamilton’s lover and eventual wife, and has perhaps the show’s most emotionally difficult material. As Eliza, she’s got a trip through the ringer as the shy middle child of the wealthy, covetable Schuyler sisters; by falling for Hamilton in the first place, her fate is already sealed for a whole spectrum of heartbreak, including infidelity and, of course, death. She emerged as a key reason for the show’s emotional resonance, most especially delivered in her final-scene solo, in which she recounts Eliza’s accomplishments after her husband’s death, redeeming a somewhat lost historical figure through tears. It was the most notable part of Hamilton, for me—that Lin-Manuel Miranda would end the show by righting the essential erasure of a woman who was key to the creation of America—and I ended up in tears, on my feet with the rest of the audience, participating in a standing ovation I felt.
Last week, I called Soo to discuss her character, redeeming women in history, and the sheer effort of being in a musical as great as Hamilton. She had just won the Lucille Lortel Award for Best Lead Actress in a Musical, and was in Los Angeles for a well-deserved break before Hamilton heads to Broadway this July.
JEZEBEL: How were you cast in Hamilton?
Phillipa Soo: So Tommy Kail, the director, and Lin-Manuel Miranda came to the show I was in before, which was my New York theatrical debut. It was called Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. That was how they were introduced to me and my work. Last December, Tommy asked me to be part of a table read for Act II, because they still hadn’t heard it all in one time. So from then on, I was asked to come in and work with Tommy on some stuff, so that was kind of my audition, but it was mostly just a work session. Then they asked me to be part of the first workshop in January, the first time the whole show had been put together. I continued to work with them throughout last year, and here we are.
When you first heard the story and saw the script, what did you think about it?
I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t really know that much about Alexander Hamilton, and who is this Eliza person that I’ve never heard about?’ It was a fun re-discovery of history and that whole story—getting into all the facts. But also to know this unheard story that not a lot of people know about, getting into her life, her personal relationship with him; I think that’s what basically drew me into it. It was history waiting to be unlocked.
To jump ahead a bit, the ending when you have the beautiful solo where you sing about Eliza’s accomplishments, a lot of which revolved around being a tireless preserver and archivist for the work of Hamilton until she died; I was a mess, crying. But that part in particular was very touching because you don’t always hear stories about women in history, especially stories about the wives of our founding fathers.
I think it definitely was really amazing to me that I would talk to people after the show and they would say to me, “There’s all these things about Alexander Hamilton that I didn’t know, but you—I didn’t even know that I didn’t know about [Eliza].” I think it just reminds us that women have such a huge place in history but their voices weren’t necessarily as loud. They did their part. It’s just very touching, and at the end of the day it goes back to the fact that it’s a love story, and it is a love story between two people who had a lot of struggles and loved each other very much.
Also with that, as Eliza, your character had as much or more emotional depth as any other character in the play. What was it like going through the character development? You have songs about meeting him and falling in love, then there’s a betrayal, then forgiveness, et cetera. How did you prepare for it?
I think the writing and the story and the way that the piece is, at least for me, the way that Eliza’s story is set up is really well done. As an actor, you’re just there—it’s mostly just about what’s around you, to be there with your scene partner and it’s really easy to be there emotionally. I think the thing that you really have to prepare is what you do know coming into a scene so that you can set yourself up to be there emotionally. The emotion is there no matter what, because even just talking about it, she had such a crazy, wonderful, and hard life. Thinking about all those things makes me emotional to just talk about it. I think her job was just to keep telling the story, to keep doing the work, to just carry on. It was really about her inner strength and I think Eliza as a person herself, which I tried to incorporate but is not really visible in our show, is that she was actually pretty religious. Her faith in god and her religion really helped her through a lot of her life. That was a huge part of it in terms of working through all that emotion. That there’s a higher power that was beyond what was happening to her in her life, that there was much more of a legacy that she had to do, for him, her family. Aside from the fact that she had all these terrible things happening to her, there were things that there were more important.
Do you lose yourself in it? I mean, it’s pretty long, for a musical! To its credit, it’s so engrossing that I didn’t really notice, but it is pretty long!
It’s long, but I think it’s one of those brilliant pieces that it’s like looking at a tapestry: you don’t necessarily see every single little stitch, or every single every piece of work that was put into it, but you look back at the whole thing and it’s like, wow. Lin did an amazing job of weaving in these little moments like, me being at the piano with my son, singing in French; that part comes back later [at a pivotal scene]. I just feel like Lin did such a good job at weaving in those things that when you’re watching at the time you don’t necessarily see, but it’s all there with you. That’s how you feel for her, because of all those little parts.
The way the piano part comes back later in the play, I just… It’s so good.
It’s one of those really beautiful stories that I think we can all kind of relate to in a way. There’s love, there’s life, there’s death. And forgiveness—I think those are all huge things people relate to.
Because of the nature of how it’s written, it’s very verbose. Because you’re singing instead of rapping, I think you have maybe fewer words than some of the other characters even though you have as much stage time as anyone. I’m very curious as to how it was written out—was it on sheet music? How did you learn the material?
There was a score and a libretto, and then there was the script. Some people like to learn the music and they the script, but I like to be able to look forward the whole time. As someone who knows music there were things that I would take as cues to get inside of what was happening in the scene. So, it was all written out: all the music that you hear was on a piece of paper written out, and the beats to the rhythms are all very specific and intricate and they’re all there.
That is phenomenal. There’s a lot being said about how the rapping aspect is playing so much with form, how it’s broadening the musical as a medium. For something set in the 1700s it feels so current, and I’m coming at this from the perspective of someone who grew up listening to hip-hop and still does, but doesn’t necessarily go to musical theater. What did you think about it from the perspective of someone who studied at Juilliard? I read somewhere that your first CD was by the Backstreet Boys.
I felt really drawn to it—I grew up with a lot of R&B. There have been comparisons between the Schuyler sisters’ song together and Destiny’s Child, so that goes back to female groups that I grew up listening to, and a lot of Aretha Franklin and Alicia Keys, a lot of really powerful female artists which is sort of there. But also, all the musical theater references that are in the show. I think it’s one of those amazing shows that is its own… it definitely pays tribute to all these types of music that Lin grew up with, that inspired him, but also it’s his own style and taste at the end of the day. I feel like all the little references are there solely for inspiration and they carry you to take it wherever you want it, which is the most amazing thing. Like, you don’t feel like you have to live up to any sort of style or make it anything other than what you bring to it. That’s one of the most amazing things about his writing.
Another thing that made it feel very current was how New York it was—it was a classic, timeless New York story. The immigration theme was big for Lin, obviously, and for me having an immigrant family. How did that play for you?
My grandparents came here from China in the ‘40s after the war. My dad was born here, and I recently kind of rediscovered my family history, and it’s really cool to know that we all came here and tried to make something of ourselves. That’s not just one person’s story, it’s almost all of our stories, you know?
And in New York, you can still see all these buildings that they lived and worked in—the history of the City is so cool, even if you look at the names of the streets, there’s a whole history behind it, why they called Wall Street, Wall Street. And Trinity Church! It’s just right there, and [Eliza and Alexander Hamilton are] buried there. It’s so great that we were able to do the show in New York where it all happened—that the ground that we’re walking on now, they walked on.
Were you surprised at how it was received? And that it is now going to Broadway?
Yeah, it’s crazy, and I’m so grateful that I get to be a part of it. The best thing is that now that we’re moving uptown, more people get to see it and be there with us. That’s what it’s meant for.
Yes, immediately once it ended I was like… I need to see this again. This is your second period piece. Is that a coincidence?
I’m really just drawn to doing new work, doing new plays and musicals is really fun for me, and I love the collaboration process. That’s the best part of my job. Natasha Pierre was this electro-pop opera that was fully sung through that was based on a classical text and set in a classical time but wasn’t necessarily packed that way, it was a present-day casting of interesting people of different races and cultures. So I’m not surprised that this is where my path has led me!
I’m just so happy to be where I am. I have worked very hard to get to this place where I know that I have a job, and I’m kind of just reveling in that.
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