Early in her career, actress Phillipa Soo was advised to change her name. Soo’s father is Chinese, his mother is white, and Soo was told his name “his[ed] too Asian,” she recalls. At the same time, industry professionals also said, “You don’t really look Chinese.”

Soo didn’t change her name, and she continued to play a variety of roles where her experience was an asset, from Eliza Hamilton in the Broadway musical “Hamilton” (which was filmed and aired on Disney+) to the Chinese moon goddess Chang ‘e in the Netflix movie “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 runs at the St. James Theater until August 21.

Cinderella has always been played by white actors, and becoming the rare Asian American actor to take on the role “was incredibly affirming,” Soo told NBC Asian America from his dressing room at the St. James two hours before she doesn’t have to be on stage. “And it feels very good.”

“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 later filmed live on stage for PBS. The musical tells the story of a baker and his wife, who have been cursed by a witch with sterility. To break the curse, they must travel to a mysterious forest, where the duo encounter familiar fairy tale characters who are on their own personal quest: Jack with his Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella.

“It was a dream of mine to be in a Sondheim show,” Soo said. “I’m looking forward to 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 every emotion as legible as celestial writing.”

According to Soo, “Into the Woods” may seem like a “fantastic” musical about fairy tale characters, but it’s much more “complicated” than that. “Into the Woods” has always played on Broadway in times 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 some very complicated and difficult feelings you might have about the world around you,” Soo said.

Notably, “Into the Woods” does not end with “happily ever after”. “It asks you to feel several things at once: pure joy, despair and sadness,” she said. “And I think it heals people. I think it brings people together. »

It also means that the Cinderella in “Into the Woods” is different from the Disney version. In the musical, Cinderella does not want a prince to save her. Instead, she runs away from him because she’s not sure she even wants a prince. This ambivalence is what Soo finds relevant about the character.

“She’s trying to find her voice,” Soo said. “And I think the beauty is that she doesn’t know [what it is]. It’s something I identify with as a person growing up. I feel like the older I get, the more aware I am of everything I don’t know.

Like “Hamilton”, this cover of “Into the Woods” is also notable for its cast. The show also stars Tony-winning actress Patina Miller, who is black, as the witch. And well-known characters like Jack and Rapunzel are played by actors of color. As Broadway was closed for nearly two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many artists in the theater industry were calling for more diversity and inclusion. Putting a multicultural spin on a classic musical, Soo sees “Into the Woods” as a sign of progress.

“It’s a show for everyone, and we represent the diversity that we want to see in all facets of the world we live in,” Soo said. “It’s a beautiful process to be able to come together after the pandemic, to release this calculus of social and racial justice – to be able to come together as a group and do something, and hold on to everything that we’ve been through over the last two years there.

Soo has played both white characters and Asian characters. She admitted that as a biracial actress, “I’m different from the character I play, but there’s something about my own experience that can inform a performance,” she explained.

For example, Soo was in “Hamilton” years before it became a cultural phenomenon. Eliza Hamilton’s role was designed around Soo’s performance, and she used her background as a biracial person to inform Eliza’s experience of “feeling out of place, not feeling out of place. be treated the same in the eyes of his 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 person who has no rules,” Soo said.

She added, “I identify as an Asian American woman and a mixed race person. I hope my unique experiences and identity can shed light on the characters I represent and the stories I tell.