The prologue of the show Amelie, A New Musical is a song called "Times are Hard for Dreamers.” Although the theatrical work, based on the beloved 2001 Jean-Pierre Jeunet film of the same name, is set predominantly in the '90s, it is impossible not to see this sentiment through the lens of our 2017 world. And much like its cinematic predecessor, Amelie evokes a sense of playful hope in the kindness of strangers and the possibility of love even when life’s circumstances have not always favored the existence of either.
The musical, currently at the Walter Kerr Theatre with a book by Craig Lucas and directed by Pam MacKinnon, focuses on a young woman, Amelie, who after a sheltered childhood and the tragic death of her mother in a freak accident, moves to the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris. Inspired by a series of events related to the death of Princess Diana, Amelie and her vivid imagination supplement her waitressing gig at the Café des 2 Moulins with genteel machinations to improve the lives of neighbors, coworkers and random strangers, all the while ignoring her own nagging loneliness.
Embodying Amelie onstage is Phillipa Soo, the 26-year-old Julliard graduate who began her career in the first, off, off Broadway production of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 (as Natasha Rostova) and moved on to originate the role of Eliza Schuyler in Hamilton, a part for which she earned a Tony nomination. Earlier this year, Soo and her two fellow Schuyler sisters sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl. Needless to say, Soo’s world is arguably as magic-filled as is Amelie’s.
Much has been spoken—rightfully so—about how there are currently three shows on Broadway whose roles you originated. That’s an insane feat for anyone. But Amelie is different because it is based on a movie. What was it like creating this role that already exists in a different medium?
It’s great because our version of this young woman’s story requires you to ask the same questions but in order to convey the story you sort of have to ask yourself, but in what way? And I think we played a lot with using the film as a touchstone, inspiration in order to really get at what is happening in the story, what is the feeling that we’re trying to convey, yes, but more importantly for me, for my job, what am I trying to do here? How is this person trying to find their way through the world and what are positive actions I can be doing for myself in order to make this story clear? Because I think feeling is very easily conveyed with the music and the setting is in Paris. So I think a lot of my job was not to get lost in this whimsical feeling of it and really ask some very basic questions of who is this woman and why does she do the things that she does. And discovering that a lot of that just stems from her childhood and confronting things about her younger self that she needs to deal with as an older person. And how do you make your way through the world in a new city for the first time on your own, embarking on your own journey and making decisions for yourself? And how do you deal with things when you don’t have control over those things? Especially when it comes to love and I think that’s really where our story kicks in, this cat and mouse we have between Amelie and Nino.
What I think is so interesting about the character is that she’s so proactive when it comes to doing good for others, but as her painter neighbor Dufayel points out, she’s not living her own life, she’s living through the life of others.
It’s a really beautiful, small—it’s a huge moment for her, even though it’s a very small thing, a very small gesture to reach out instead of go inside. And I think we take that for granted that really reaching out and offering yourself to someone is a really brave and noble thing to do. And making human connections with people even in small gestures of kind deeds can go a really long way in changing somebody’s life.
The film is set in the 90s, but I thought it resonated really strongly today, especially the storyline around her being a dreamer. What kind of resonance has that taken on for you in 2017?
We started rehearsals for this process before we moved to Broadway. And that was when the election was happening. I think the phrase “Stronger together” was kind of floating around, [there was] the idea of the first female president. I think we really started to think about this story and how amazing it was that it circulates around a young woman and it’s really about her. And that it’s not about the world swaying her one way or the other. It’s about her making a decision to pursue certain aspects of her life and that they are her choices. She’s not necessarily caught up in it. I think she’s surprised when she realizes other people have their own agency, but for the most part, it’s really her own will, her own decision. And that really spoke to us in rehearsal, in the conversations we were having with each other. And also as you were saying it takes place in the '90s: I think we have a nostalgia for the mystery, the concept of a pay phone that we’ve lost a little bit in 2017. We can still have it, we just find it again in other ways. There’s great things about social media and having access to all sorts of information, people all over the world and at the same time how do we not take that for granted and get lost in that and actually still appreciate the fact that there are unknowns and that you make a connection with someone via technology, that’s different than making a connection with someone in person. And I think in the process of creating the show I was definitely thinking about that a lot, the idea of not knowing who could be on the other line simply because there’s no caller ID.
Eliza Schuyler was clearly a very pivotal character in the storyline of Hamilton. But in this show, it’s about Amelie despite the amazing ensemble. And you are onstage for the majority of the show. What has this been like for you entering into this with that big responsibility?
It’s fine because in creating it I relied so heavily on everybody else in the room that that kind of just set me up for, I guess I would kind of equate it to riding a wave: you set yourself up, you have your scene partners and you can really rely on the set and the music and the words. Everything outside of myself I’ve found great meaning in because I know that if I make it about myself, it becomes too much. I get lost, actually. The more I can get out of my own head and just open myself up to the world that is swirling around me, that’s how I can stay on track. But it is really beautiful to have this gorgeous ensemble of actors who are so talented and such amazing storytellers that I get to almost just be an observer along for the ride as much as I am in most of the show. That’s how I balance it which is just by opening my eyes, turning on my best listening ears and just move through it.
That’s sort of like Amelie, no? She’s highly observant of others and her fascination with them is her way of moving through the world.
Yeah, and she’s a lover of people. She’s fascinated by mannerisms and gestures and quirks that we all have as humans. So the more that I can invest in finding something new every day, it makes it easy.
Did you see Amelie when it came out as a film?
I was in high school so I was about 16 or 17 when I saw it, and it definitely spoke to me for many reasons, the main one being I saw myself in a character and a film who was just as, if not more quirky and strange and curious about the world as I was. And I was really taken by the music and the colors and the vividness of her imagination. I saw that and wanted to see the world the way she did.
Were you at all concerned when you signed on for this that because it’s based on such a beloved movie people would come into the show with preconceived notions?
I suppose so. The film for me I hold in such high esteem as well, but it’s different. We’re not trying to top the film. I think we’re just trying to tell this story in a different way because it strikes a chord. And there’s really no place like the theater, to be able sit in a room with a bunch of strangers and experience something for the first time with live performers. And my approach from taking it from the film and bringing it to life onstage, I was just interested in this little clown in her that I was seeing. This sort of Charlie Chaplin inspired performance that, it’s magical and I think the film does play into a very theatrical tradition in a way. I think the film is pretty theatrical given it’s on film. For as many naturalistic moments as there are, there are completely absurd moments as well. So I was excited by the idea of it, just because getting to live through that experience sounded like a feast for me as an actor.
Eliza and Natasha both had some pretty emotional things happen in their lives onstage. Amelie does lose her mother at an early age, but the majority of her story is a happy one. Has that been a relief for you, to not be crying eight times a week onstage over the death of your son, for example?
It’s been joyful, really joyful. And all three experiences were really joyful. For my brain it’s just nice to really physically have a relief in the show, to feel like I can just get everything out, to not have any sort of restriction in terms of… it’s a modern setting as opposed to these two shows that were set in times when women didn’t have many options. So it gives me perspective certainly in terms of the feeling of having that freedom to live your life freely and openly. I think it’s definitely had an effect on my brain at the end of every day, knowing I got to have an amazing, joyful experience. It just makes the recuperation period of processing everything that happens during a show, it makes it a lot more about taking care of my body as opposed to this, 'Okay, I just had this crazy emotional experience and now I need to meditate a little bit.' It’s a lot less of a mental massage and more of a literal, physical working out the kinks.
You’ve had this amazing run of shows, all dream projects. Does that make you feel pressure over what your next project might be?
I’m aware of it. I’m aware of how incredible my journey has been so far and I’m also sort of astounded and surprised. And on the other side of that I worked really hard for about two years just developing work, being in a show and also developing new work at the same time. There’s a lot of work that went into that. So I feel a sense of accomplishment and at the same time, how-did-I-get-here feeling. But I’m just excited to keep surrounding myself with fantastic collaborators. I feel like I owe so much of my experience right now to I happened to find myself in an amazing room and that was my first job in New York. And from there just started to get a sense of what I’m interested in. So I owe a lot to all of my creative teams, all of my casts, all of the people I’ve been working with. And hopefully, whatever comes down the road I’ll be able to do more meaningful collaborations and find other people that I am inspired by or go back and work with the same people again. Who knows.
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