• Ideas
  • Culture

Hamilton Star: Michelle Obama Gave Me ‘the Best Compliment I Have Ever Received’

13 minute read

Phillipa Soo played Eliza with the original cast of Hamilton and is a contributor to The Meaning of Michelle

Before Hamilton moved to Broadway, we were at the Public Theater in New York. After the opening number, “Alexander Hamilton,” I had a crossover. I had to go down the stairs and I had to change and then I had to cross over and come back up. One day while crossing over, I opened the door to the backstage stairwell space, and there was a very tall man in a suit, with one of those earpieces. It was the Secret Service. I was like, “Oh. Please be careful. Sorry, I don’t mean to run into you.” I was like, “I think there’s going to be people coming in and out. I got to go, bye.” It was such a quick, awkward exchange but I thought, Somebody is here. Somebody’s here today who’s very important. We had had some celebrities coming to the show, I assumed it was a politician, but I didn’t know who.

I had anticipated that the First Lady might come, one day, when we made it to Broadway, but downtown—at the Public Theater? It wasn’t until after the show ended that they said, “Michelle Obama’s here!” At the time I shared a dressing room with Jasmine Cephas Jones and Reneé Elise Goldsberry, my Schuyler sisters. We hurriedly got out of costume to say hello. Giddy with excitement, we made our way to the greenroom. There she stood. So poised and beautiful. She said hello to each and every one of us. I will never forget what Mrs. Obama said, “This is the best piece of art that I’ve ever seen.” I was floored. She has seen so much art in her life. Coming from her, our First Lady, the modern-day Schuyler sister incarnate, and one of the most inspirational women of our time, it was the best compliment I have ever received.

St. Martin's

Hamilton is, of course, closely tied to the Obamas because Lin first performed the opening number at a White House poetry jam. I didn’t know anything about Eliza when I first got the call about Hamilton. Tommy Kail, the director, asked me if I wanted to be a part of it. I knew what he was talking about because I’d seen the video of Lin performing it at the White House for Barack and Michelle Obama. I specifically remember a friend showing me that YouTube clip while I was a student in drama school. Cut to five or six years later when Tommy calls me and asks me to be a part of a December reading of Act II of what was then called “Hamilton Mixtape.” I did what most people do when they don’t know something, I googled Eliza. I saw that she was his wife but there wasn’t a lot more. I just chalked it up to me being a lazy researcher. I thought, Okay. I’ll do digging later. I’ll go and see what this project is and enjoy the experience. Hearing the music for the first time was incredible. It had such an instant cool factor. But it wasn’t until I got into the room with Lin, Alex, and Tommy (I would end up working with Andy a few months later) that I truly discovered what the “Hamilton Mixtape” really was. I thought: These artists and creators that I’m working with . . . this story . . . is going to change the world. And I get to be in this room. And it changed me, too. I just didn’t know it yet.

In December of 2013, the end of the play still hadn’t been written. It actually wasn’t until that workshop in January, a day before our presentation, that Lin gave me the last song. In the moment at the end of Hamilton when Eliza steps out and you see her, most people tell me they are so taken aback. “Oh my gosh! She’s the one who is telling us this story, like we’re learning this story because of her.” That was the way that I felt getting that last song. A moment of: Really? And you want me to finish the play? I mean I’d love to but . . .

Lin went on to explain that in the song you look and see everything that she did after Hamilton died. I was just as surprised and awestruck by the beauty of this woman’s legacy that not many people know about, and how beautiful this moment was that we’re giving her, a voice and a place in history for the first time. It’s huge.

My grandmother was a classical pianist so I grew up with Schubert, Mozart, Beethoven. I studied piano as a kid. My musical background and upbringing was very much a mix. Right out of school I did this show called Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. It is based on a classical text with new music—not necessarily confined by a certain genre. It was a diverse, interesting group of musicians, actors, nonactors and singers all creating this thing that is bigger than all of us. We couldn’t have done it on our own; we had to come together in this particular way to make it. I feel like that led me to Hamilton because they are very similar in that way, both based on a moment in history.

Singing Hamilton each night feels like such a release. It’s so brilliantly written and the style of each song is so specifically chosen for the character and what they’re going through. Developing the show became like a fun game of “How can I make everything that I’m looking at on this page and everything I’m hearing inform me as an actor about Eliza, and where she is in her life, and what she might be feeling?” It’s kind of like playing detective. It’s like when you are reading Shakespeare, a very similar experience. You’re looking at the text—the structure, the poetic imagery, the rhythm— to inform you of what’s happening in the scene. It was fun.

When Eliza says, “I took myself out of the narrative,” in reference to guarding her privacy after Hamilton’s cheating is revealed, her situation feels stunningly contemporary. It took me a while to understand this particular moment in Eliza’s journey. In discovering how to play Eliza, I first asked myself, “What is the difference between the common woman then and the common woman now?” But that proved to be less useful. I was only separating myself from Eliza. So I started to ask the question, “What do all women, past and present have in common?” The answer: survival. Women have struggled a great deal, yes. But it has been their ability to overcome, the way women have chosen to deal with their struggles. Not only survive, but flourish through their achievements. The struggle is real, the struggle has always been real and will continue to be real. It’s just a matter of how you choose to find your way through whatever challenges you face. Eliza is empowered by taking herself out of the narrative. I think that’s why forgiveness is such a huge part of the play.

People seem confused when Eliza forgives Hamilton. I suppose it is because we have more options now. It’s easy to opt to avoid someone, avoid forgiveness, avoid conflict, or avoid complicated feelings, love and disgust, that coexist. But ultimately it doesn’t matter how many options we have; it is a miracle that we choose to survive.

One of the amazing things about Hamilton is the way it makes us feel less distant from the people we know to be our Founding Fathers and Founding Mothers. A few weeks ago, we all went to the White House to perform the musical and to work with students as part of the educational initiative around Hamilton. I could tell just from watching Mrs. Obama that she has such an awareness of what it means to bring people together, how important that is. We can all be doing our separate thing amazingly, but when you bring groups together the way she does, it can actually create something better than you could have imagined.

I truly believe that the energy that I experienced that day at the White House was because of how the Obamas like to run their workspace, how they like to have people greeted and feel like they are a part of the White House, even if it’s your first time there. It was just very exemplary of the idea of, What is your profession? What is your calling? and then, What is your role as a citizen? And how do those two things go together? How do they inform each other and when can you do them at the same time? The notion of artist as citizen is at the very heart of Hamilton. For me, growing up half Chinese, I feel very American for the first time in my life and I feel very much like who I am as a citizen is right in the same car as who I am as an artist, which doesn’t always happen. That’s a really beautiful thing and I hope that the rest of my work can be artist-to-citizen inspired.

The Obamas have shaped my journey as an adult in a profound way. I remember being in New York when they were elected. I remember being in Times Square. I remember hearing cheers in the streets. I remember just being so excited. It’s kind of funny. My journey from Chicago to New York runs on a parallel timeline of their journey from Chicago to the White House.

I visited D.C. on a school trip, as a teenager. At the time, my biggest concern was “Am I going to get a CIA hat or an FBI hat?” But there’s something about Hamilton and what it’s doing to young people that’s making history and the intricacies of who governs and how we govern come alive.

Hamilton reminds us that the Founding Fathers and Founding Mothers were real people.

I went back to visit my cousin who goes to school in D.C. in November of ’14 right before we started rehearsals. It was research, but also to see her. We went to the museums, we went to the monuments, and I remember thinking, This place I experienced before is very different than what I’m experiencing now. I feel like I am tied to this place somehow, whereas I didn’t before. I think eighth graders going to D.C. now have a totally different outlook on the trip because of Hamilton.

The show has made me feel more American in the way that I am interested in being involved in how we live and continue to live. It has made me realize that I do have a voice and that the power does not reside in the beings that are the higher-ups. It starts with us, it starts from the ground up, which is how this nation was built. I think the second time that Barack Obama came to see Hamilton, when he brought the Democratic National Committee, that was very much what he was addressing. We can’t forget, with all of these issues that we’re trying to address, that so much of the change starts with us in this room, with conversation, with ideas, with curiosity, with questions.

In his last letter to Eliza, Hamilton calls her “the best of wives and the best of women.” If I’m trying to get into Hamilton’s brain, he was saying “best of wives” like “best of who you are to me” and “best of women,” meaning who you are to the world. The letter used to be in the show. I used to read it. I still remember every line:

This letter, my very dear Eliza, will not be delivered to you, unless I shall first have terminated my earthly career to begin, as I humbly hope from redeeming grace and divine mercy, a happy immortality.

If it had been possible for me to have avoided the interview, my love for you and my precious children would have been alone a decisive motive. But it was not possible, without sacrifices which would have rendered me unworthy of your esteem. I need not tell you of the pangs I feel, from the idea of quitting you and exposing you to the anguish which I know you would feel. Nor could I dwell on the topic lest it should unman me.

The consolations of Religion, my beloved, can alone support you and these you have a right to enjoy. Fly to the bosom of your God and be comforted. With my last idea I shall cherish the sweet hope of meeting you in a better world.

Adieu best of wives and best of Women. Embrace all my darling Children for me.

Ever yours

I used to read it, and I don’t anymore. I think we cut it out for time’s sake, but the idea of the letter still lives. It’s chilling. It gives me chills.

I’m a total believer in the universe and the over soul. Somehow the energy that our Founding Mothers put into our history has lasted and has traversed centuries and found its way to me. Eventually, it will leave me and find its way to somebody else. It does feel like ages have passed by the end of the three-hour play so I definitely use that. Because Hamilton has had such a universal voice, it’s brought some of the most amazing women into my life. Women who are politicians, who are actors, who are writers, who are my family members that I respect so much, strangers—mothers and daughters who have lost their loved ones, all of these women, choosing to survive. And to be able to share it with them in this way, I feel like it’s paying homage to them, it’s paying homage to Eliza, and to all the other versions of Eliza that have existed throughout history and will exist for ages to come.

From “The Best Wives and Best of Women” by Phillipa Soo as published in The Meaning of Michelle edited by Veronica Chambers. Copyright © 2017 by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press LLC.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.