Rising Star Solea Pfeiffer Tells Us What She's Learned in 7 Months of Nonstop Musicals
Pfeiffer went from starring in Almost Famous to Evita to The Light in the Piazza to Gun & Powder. And she loves it all.
At only 24, Solea Pfeiffer has conquered some of the most iconic roles in musical theater: Maria in West Side Story at the Hollywood Bowl (she won the job after conductor Gustavo Dudamel saw videos of her singing on YouTube); Eliza in the national tour of Hamilton; Guenevere in Camelot at Lincoln Center.
Over the past handful of months, Pfeiffer has continued to top herself with several mammoth roles in rapid succession: Penny Lane in in Cameron Crowe's new musical version of Almost Famous in San Diego; the title character in New York City Center's 2019 gala production of Evita (she sang the Andrew Lloyd Webber score in its original key); and Clara Johnson in Adam Guettel's The Light in the Piazza in Chicago, opposite Renée Fleming.
Now, Pfeiffer is originating the part of Mary Clarke in Signature Theatre's new musical Gun & Powder. It's a very personal character for her, and she's not taking the responsibility lightly. She may be a little sleepy, but she realized early on that the exhaustion is worth it, especially if it means avoiding spending her life wondering about the roads not taken. (And really, how can you say no to starring in a truly original musical?)
Gun & Powder is the fourth show where you've played a leading role in five months. How are you holding up?
As an actor, you're always told that you're going to be starved for work, and that is generally true. Over the last few years, I've been lucky to be consistently doing acting work. The bulk was labs and readings and workshops, which is ultimately where you plant the seeds and get to work with people who may want to work with you again. All of the seeds that I had planted over the last few years blossomed at the exact same time and it happened in such a way that I could take each opportunity.
I don't think it's something I'm eager to do again [laughs], but at the end of the day, each of these opportunities were things that would make me crazy if I said no. One of my biggest career goals is to originate new work and create roles, but if you have something like Evita and The Light in the Piazza come along, you can't say no.
I was like, "I might be tired, but I'd rather be a little more exhausted, and drink a little extra coffee, and have all these amazing experiences that are contributing so much to who I am as an artist and person, than be well-rested at home wishing I was doing that."
This show certainly contributes to your goal of working on new material. Tell me what about Gun & Powder interested you.
I've never seen a musical that's looking at race in this way. Gun & Powder is a story about passing and what that means. It's set in the 1890s, the sharecropping era of America, which hasn't really been dramatized. We see slave stories and then we see civil rights stories, and there's all this time in between that was so complicated. We're looking at the generation that wasn't born into slavery, but were born to freed slaves.
It's based on the family of our book writer, Angelica Chéri, and is a story that's been in her family for years. There are twin sisters, Mary and Martha Clarke — I play Mary — and they are mixed-race daughters of a freed slave and a white man who left even before he knew he had children. Because they're biracial, with the help of a little bit of makeup and altering the way they talk, they're able to pass for white in a very polarized time in our history.
Both Emmy Raver-Lampman [who plays Martha] and I are biracial people who are having the experience of playing a mixed-race character for the first time. I've never had a chance to play myself, ever. I think the only other specifically biracial role is Julie in Show Boat. It's a topic that people tend to shy away from because it's very complicated, but it's one that needs to be told.
Do you see any intersections between this role and Eva Perón or Clara Johnson or Penny Lane?
These are all women who are around the same age. Eva and Clara are both specifically 26. Each character has something that informs us about how we look at female sexuality, and how men write about it, and how women are tasked with figuring that out and making sense of it. Each one has different types of power, also. I've never felt more powerful than standing onstage as Eva in that dress. It was insane.
Can you give us a status update on Almost Famous coming to Broadway?
Fingers crossed for a 2020 opening, but who's to say? I really miss doing that show and I really miss that character. It was the first role that I had ever really originated to the point of a full production and I feel such ownership of it. Once it became clear that it was a show that people consistently loved, the main concern for our creators and producers became making sure we were in the right place. We don't want to rush into a theater just because it's there. It wouldn't have worked for our show, because it's a rock show, but it's so intimate. You want to see our faces. I think it was smart. So fingers crossed.
Looking back on your year, what do you think is the most important thing you've learned?
I think I'm learning a lot about my limits. I've realized that you can just do it. It's the anticipation of how much work you think something might be that's the worst part. I have gained a whole new sense of trust in myself that I can get the job done no matter what. And in each new job, I learn more about what I need, the things that help me, the things that hurt me; I can go on forever. This has been a hugely informative time in my life, and has changed me a lot.