Early in her career, actor Phillipa Soo was advised to change her name. Soo’s father is Chinese, her mother is white, and Soo was told her name “sound[ed] too Asian,” she recalled. At the same time, industry professionals also said, “You don’t really look Chinese.”
Soo didn't change her name, and she’s gone on to play a variety of roles where her background was an asset, from Eliza Hamilton in the Broadway musical “Hamilton” (which was filmed and released on Disney+) to the Chinese moon goddess Chang’e in the Netflix film “Over the Moon.”
Now Soo is playing Cinderella in the classic musical “Into the Woods,” whose new Broadway revival has a more diverse spin and is running at the St. James Theatre until Aug. 21.
Cinderella has historically been played by white actors, and getting to be the rare Asian American actor to play that role “has been incredibly affirming,” Soo told NBC Asian America from her dressing room at the St. James two hours before she had to be onstage. “And it feels very right.”
“Into the Woods” has a rich history. Written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, it was first staged on Broadway in 1987, where it won three Tony Awards and was then filmed live onstage for PBS. The musical tells the story of a baker and his wife, who have been cursed by a witch with barrenness. To break the curse, they have to go into a mysterious forest, where the duo meet familiar fairy-tale characters who are on their own personal quest: Jack with his beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella.
“It’s been a dream of mine to be in a Sondheim show,” Soo said. “I’m reveling at how amazing this experience has been.”
The revival of “Into the Woods” has been universally acclaimed, with The New York Times calling Soo “a shimmering soprano who can make each emotion as legible as skywriting.”
According to Soo, “Into the Woods” may seem like a “fantastical” musical about fairy-tale characters, but it’s much more “complicated” than that. “Into the Woods” has always been performed on Broadway during a time of crisis, such as during the AIDS epidemic in 1987 and right after 9/11 in 2002.
“Now we’re doing it again on Broadway. It’s a piece that has the ability to help you work through very complicated and difficult feelings that you may be having about the world around you,” Soo said.
Notably, “Into the Woods” does not end with “happily ever after.” “It asks you to feel multiple things at one time: pure joy, despair and sadness,” she said. “And I think that it heals people. I think it brings people together.”
This also means the Cinderella in “Into the Woods” is different from the Disney version. In the musical, Cinderella is not wishing for a prince to save her. Instead, she runs away from him because she is not sure if she even wants a prince. That ambivalence is what Soo finds relatable about the character.
“She is trying to find her voice,” Soo said. “And I think the beauty is that she doesn’t know [what it is]. That’s something that I relate to as a person growing up. I feel like the more adult I become, the more aware I am of how much I actually don’t know.”
Like “Hamilton,” this revival of “Into the Woods” is also notable for its cast. The show also stars Tony-winning actor Patina Miller, who is Black, as the Witch. And well-known characters like Jack and Rapunzel are played by actors of color. While Broadway was shut down for almost two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many artists in the theater industry were calling for greater diversity and inclusion. In putting a multicultural spin on a classic musical, Soo sees “Into the Woods” a sign of progress.
“It’s a show that is meant for everyone, and we’re representing the diversity that we want to see in all facets of the world that we live in,” Soo said. “It’s a beautiful process to be able to come together post-pandemic, post this reckoning of social and racial justice — to be able to come together as a group and make something, and hold everything that we’ve experienced in the past couple of years there.”
Soo has played both white characters and Asian characters. She admitted that as a biracial actor, “I am different from the character that I’m playing, but there is something about my own experience that can inform a performance,” she explained.
For instance, Soo was in “Hamilton” years before it became a cultural phenomenon. The role of Eliza Hamilton was crafted around Soo’s performance, and she used her experience as a biracial person to inform Eliza’s experience of “feeling out of place, not feeling like she’s being treated equally in the eyes of her contemporaries,” Soo said. Eliza’s way of trying to find agency as a woman in a male-dominated world mirrored Soo’s experience of “trying to find my way and my own identity through the world.”
In short, when it comes to acting, “I’m a tools-not-rules kind of person,” Soo said.
She added: “I identify as an Asian American woman and a mixed-race person. I hope my unique experiences and my identity can shine a light on the characters I portray and the stories I tell.”