Sophia Anne Caruso has had a musical theatre career most would kill for. She starred as Helen Keller in Academy-Award-winner Patty Duke’s The Miracle Worker; she’s performed at the Kennedy Center; played Girl in David Bowie’s Lazarus; and most recently, won the Theatre World Award for her role as Lydia Deetz in the Broadway production of Beetlejuice (which she just departed from in February). All of which before she was eighteen.
So indeed, the young star has carved for herself a particular niche in the theatre biz; and the eccentric roles she’s known for have led to many more knocks on her door. These days, though, she’s turning down far more roles than she accepts. She can afford to be picky.
Her success, according to Caruso herself, is in part due to a deep well of energy and a mind that gets bored easily. That’s perhaps why she has already made the leap to TV and is now beginning a career as a recording artist. Her debut single “Toys” marks the start of yet another adventure for her.
A week before its release, she took a moment to hop on the phone with BlackBook, to chat about her path to musical stardom, and the biggest differences between singing on stage and singing in a studio.
Who would you cite as some of your biggest musical influences?
Oh wow, that’s so hard. I listen to so many different kinds of music, and I don’t really have an answer—pretty much everything. You know, “Toys” isn’t so much inspired by others as it is by my co-writers and the collaboration we did. Really, it’s inspired by our relationship as friends.
But other than that, I have a fascination with Arabic music, with French music—I love rock & roll, I love old folk music. I grew up listening to jazz. As a kid I sang musical theatre—I was a performing kid—but deep down I love to sing jazz. To this day, that’s definitely an influence for me.
Who were some of the jazz artists that were playing in the house when you were growing up?
I grew up listening to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald—you know people ask me, “What’s your hidden talent?” And I’m like, “Well, I do scat.” Mostly, it was classic jazz.
Who are some of the actors you admire?
I love Saoirse Ronan. I have a sort of fascination with her, I think she’s really special and talented.
Do you have a favorite film?
I don’t watch as many new things as I do older things. One is called Wings of Desire. It’s really fascinating. It came out in ’87 I believe, and it’s kind of this fantasy about these two angels who are in Berlin and can hear people’s thoughts. One of them falls in love and ends up coming to life. It’s probably my favorite movie of all time. But I also love Alexandro Jodorowsky films, El Topo and The Holy Mountain.
Was there a particular moment in your life that made you realize you wanted to be on Broadway?
Oh, I just knew that I wanted to sing and act, to perform. I was always very, very artistic. I was never great in school, aside from English. I was always a very good writer, but aside from that I didn’t have a large interest in school. So, my mom always let me skip it and work with her in the antique store. She would drop me off at the local theatre—she would call it “free babysitting.” I would watch older people acting and singing, and I said, “Mom, I want to do that.” And she said, “Alright.”
So she took me to my first audition. The more I did it, the more I was like, “I want to do this forever and ever.” Of course, I have this very over-achieving, striving for the best–type quality, so of course when you think, “What is the top-tier of theatre?,” that’s Broadway. So I think that’s where it came from. I just had this really big idea of what Broadway was. My imagination created this huge dream.
What was the first play you ever performed in?
For my very first professional job, I played Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, and it was directed by Patty Duke, who won the Oscar for it. And that was super exciting for me at the age of nine.
When you first get a role, what’s your process like for fleshing out a character?
I teach acting lessons, too, and I think a lot of girls ask, “How do I go in? And how do I book this job?” And I just say, “You’re going to get it if they want you, and if they don’t want you, then you’re not going to get it.” And what I mean by that is if you go in and try to be somebody else, you try to be what they’re looking for, they’ll see through that, and that’s not authentic to your interpretation. So going in and doing what comes up naturally, what your instincts are, and the unique performance and perspective you give is what will get you the job, or not. So when I get the job, I focus more on enhancing and bringing out these instincts. My “process” is very relaxed. I just show up every day and I work hard. That’s pretty much my process. Just showing up and working hard.
Do you find that doing musical theatre and film are very different?
Yeah, they’re completely different art forms. Even musicals versus plays are completely different. Depending on the musical we’re talking about—something like Beetlejuice for example—the style of it is very big, it’s got a sort of camp to it. It’s very intentionally like that; it’s written that way. And so if you take that versus film, for film, you’d pull back 90% of that. It’s much more intimate, it’s much smaller. You have a camera in your face, you’re not performing in front of 1,500 people with [some] in the nosebleed seats. You’re performing for no one except for the camera that’s six inches in front of your face. The difference is that you pull back. Instead of speaking with your face and your expressions, you speak through your eyes and tone of your voice, if that makes sense.
You have a bit of a history performing in funky off-broadway shows; what is it about those that you like so much?
I tell some of my friends that I’m chronically bored. And I mean that, because I start on one thing and I easily get bored of it. Especially if it’s something that doesn’t challenge me or is something that’s very common, like I’ve seen in every show. So when someone offers me a job or asks me to come in to read with the director, I always read the script first—I think that’s so important—and some of the time I do end up turning it down, because I read it, and if it doesn’t really speak to me, then I’m not really interested. What I’m looking for in a script is if it’s thought-provoking, what is it telling the audience, what are they learning from it? What is this putting out in the world? Is it a message that I believe in?
And also, is this role written well for a young woman? Is it authentic and real? What’s the difference between it and every other show I’m currently seeing? And when something meets all of those criteria, then it’s absolutely something I’ll pursue until I get it. I’ve been very choosy over the years with the kind of work I want to do between TV and plays and musicals, specifically with musicals. So that’s how I end up choosing things. I have always been on the darker side. I’m kind of introverted and introspective. Naturally melancholy. I think that the plays that speak to me most are those which I relate to. I’m less the chipper girl-next-door type and more the funky thing. I think that’s how I read on stage.
You’re adding “recording artist” to your resume now.
I have other music that’s out from doing cast albums, and I’ve gotten a lot of comments from people telling me I have a beautiful voice. The difference really is that when I’m recording those albums from a Broadway show, I’m singing in character. My voice sounds different. It’s still my voice, but the tone is different, the style is different from what my natural, instinctive vocal style is. There’s one song that we’re working on for the EP that they just stuck a microphone in front of me and said, “Do something.” So I started singing this melody to this poem I had written. That is uniquely my voice. I was very much in my own natural style. In a Broadway show, the music is written for you, and it’s just different than what I would put out as a musical artist.
Can you tell us a bit about your debut single “Toys?”
My collaborators Nick [Littlemore] and Henry [Hey] were primary writers on a lot of it. They had this idea for “Toys” eight years before I met them. And there was this moment where they said, “Oh my god, Sophia. We have this song. We haven’t really done much with it, but we think you would be the perfect person for it.” They pulled me onto this piece they had written. When it came to the lyrics, I of course added my own touch, my own style, my own adaptation. It was very collaborative. I think “Toys” is something unique to each of us. For Nick, it’s about watching your loved one fall apart. But for me, I see it more internally. It’s more about that part of you watching yourself spiral downhill. There are two very distinct voices interacting with each other—it was originally written as a duet that I would sing with Nick, but I ended up just singing it. If you listen to the words you can hear that. I think of it as me talking to me about myself.