It takes a special actress to play Amélie Poulain, the enchanting Parisian heroine created on screen in 2001 by Audrey Tautou and now the title character in a captivating new musical. Fortunately, the creators of Amélie found the leading lady of their dreams in 26-year-old breakout Broadway star Phillipa Soo.
“Phillipa has a rare combination of serious smarts, huge depth of feeling, and true comedic flair,” says Pam MacKinnon, the Tony Award–winning director of Amélie, which is headed to Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre on March 9, 2017. “This, along with her gorgeous voice, make her the perfect Amélie.”
Released just after 9/11, the original film touched audiences with wit, whimsy, and optimism in telling the story of a shy young waitress who emerges from her solitary life by performing secret acts of kindness. Along the way, she bonds with her eccentric coworkers at a Montmartre café, a wise old artist in her apartment building, and a mysterious young man she encounters at a photo booth. Tautou’s winsome performance made her an international star, earning comparisons to Audrey Hepburn and placing pressure on anyone playing Amélie in the future — anyone, that is, other than Phillipa Soo, who expresses only calm delight at the opportunity to bring Amélie to life on stage.
“It’s amazing to return to a character I connected with in my formative years,” says Soo, recalling the instant bond she felt after seeing the movie as a teenager in Libertyville, Illinois. “Amélie is highly imaginative, with a playfulness that felt very close to me. It was so nice to see a vivacious, independent young woman portrayed [on screen] at that precise moment in my life.”
Fans of the film will recall that Tautou’s Amélie is frequently seen in extreme close-up, conveying her thoughts through changes in expression rather than dialogue. On stage, where such subtleties aren’t possible, the writing and staging guide the journey. According to Soo, the new musical is not just a standard movie reboot but has been reinvented for the stage by a creative team that includes three-time Tony Award nominee Craig Lucas (book), Daniel Messé of the indie rock band Hem (music and lyrics), and Nathan Tysen (lyrics).
“Much of what the film does through cinematic technique, we are able to do through music and storytelling,” explains Soo. “Small moments can inspire an entire song, or we can create new elements that you don’t see in the film. It’s always wonderful to find ingenue roles with a strong sense of depth, and Craig absolutely achieves that with Amélie — he’s created beautiful and very funny moments.” Previewing the show’s score, Soo says, “it has colors of a classic musical-theater show mixed with pop, rock, and jazz. The style of each song takes shape based on the action of the scene.”
MacKinnon’s production aims to provide the theatrical equivalent of the movie’s quirky charm. “I think it will awaken people’s minds,” says Soo. “And I hope it will inspire audiences to reach out to someone and do something good. Especially given the state of the world right now, I think our show can help people appreciate the beauty in life’s small moments.”
Speaking from the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles during Amélie’s pre-Broadway run, Soo is poised and friendly, qualities that served her well when she was thrust into the Broadway spotlight as Alexander Hamilton’s loyal wife, Eliza. Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda had spotted her as the lovesick title heroine in the 2013 Off-Broadway premiere of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Starring in three original musicals in less than four years is a huge achievement for anyone, and Soo — known to friends and fans as Pippa — accomplished it straight out of Juilliard. What’s more, this daughter of a Chinese-American doctor and a Caucasian dramaturge confidently portrays heroines of Russian, Dutch, and French ancestries. “Progress starts by not creating labels,” she says of her background, noting that it hasn’t been an issue in casting.
Soo didn’t picture herself pursuing musical theater when she entered Juilliard’s drama division, “although everybody else probably thought that was what I was going to do,” she says with a laugh. “The thing I discovered at Juilliard is that I really enjoy the creation process, throwing out ideas in the rehearsal room and working in a group.” Though she is the lovely public face of Amélie, Soo insists the new musical is as much an ensemble piece as The Great Comet and Hamilton were. “The people who shape Amélie’s world are extremely prominent,” she says. “In getting to know the wonderful characters who inspire her, the audience watches her come out of her shell and find her place in the world.”
Soo began Amélie rehearsals three months after leaving Hamilton, capping off an eventful year in which she received a best actress Tony nomination and became engaged to actor Steven Pasquale, known for playing Detective Mark Fuhrman in The People v. O.J. Simpson and for starring in the Broadway musical The Bridges of Madison County. (Yes, they’ve set a wedding date, and no, she won’t reveal when it is.) She handled the hoopla of Hamilton by relying on her castmates and loved ones, and by observing how Miranda responded to the unending attention.
“I learned from Lin that every gesture, every word you say, carries weight and meaning,” Soo says now, “so I try to make sure that the things I say and do are helpful to others. I’ve also learned that balance is really important. I do yoga and stay active, and my fiancé and my family inspire me to keep going. I hope I’m able to do the same for them.”
One measure of Soo’s popularity is her 168,000 Twitter followers and 220,000-plus Instagram followers. An Amélie-appropriate post of the actress’s blinking left eye recently drew a whopping 77,000 views and dozens of adoring comments. “It’s really fun to see how my work affects people,” Soo says, adding that she doesn’t consider herself a social media pro. “I love getting notes and seeing fan artwork, knowing that there’s a community of people who are interested in engaging with what I’m doing.”
Looking toward her next milestone, Amélie’s arrival on Broadway, Soo says: “I can promise a lot of beautiful moments that will surprise people. Our show is humorous, it’s romantic, and I hope that it inspires everyone who sees it to connect with others.”