Breaking down boundaries on Broadway is natural at this point to Lilli Cooper. The 29-year old made her Broadway debut as a teenager as Martha in the original cast of Spring Awakening, the trailblazing, pop-rock-driven musical; since then, she’s played roles ranging from Elphaba in Wicked to gung-ho squirrel Sandy Cheeks in SpongeBob SquarePants. But she has her biggest role yet — and her first Tony nomination, for leading actress in a musical — in the new theatrical adaptation of the beloved Dustin Hoffman film Tootsie.
As a very contemporary Julie Nichols, Cooper transforms the role originally played by Jessica Lange into much more than a love interest, with a blend of dry humor and subtle warmth. Ahead of Sunday’s Tony Awards, Cooper spoke to Billboard about how Broadway has changed since her Spring Awakening days and how her Tootsie co-star (unintentionally) broke the news that she’d scored her role in the show.
You were in the ensemble of Spring Awakening’s original cast. Did that alone really launch your career or did it take you a long time to prove you could be a leading actor?
I think a little bit of both. It absolutely put me on the map, but I was really young — I was 15 when I started. For the most part I’ve played very youthful characters, and this really does feel like my first leading lady role. It’s funny, casting directors who’ve known me since I was a teenager are like, “OMG, you’re grown up!” Well yeah, that’s what happens! It does feel like I’m finally setting the groundwork for the future of my career.
Was there a role that felt like a turning point for you in terms of being considered for a leading lady part?
SpongeBob was my first original principal role on Broadway, and Wicked was my first principal role in general. Whenever I’m nervous about a performance or worried about my abilities, I always think, “I played Elphaba on Broadway” — it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done or will ever do. I set the bar there, and I feel very capable to really do anything! I think that was an important role for me to play, in terms of proving myself as someone who could carry a show. And then SpongeBob was physically the most challenging show I’ve ever done. We all just had a slew of injuries. Tootsie feels more like an acting challenge — so it feels like I’ve checked all those boxes.
Having been part of Spring Awakening — a show that really was a turning point for Broadway feeling more in touch with modernity — and now cutting to this year, when there are so many shows that are cutting-edge in their approach: What’s changed?
I think our social climate has changed so much in the past few years, with the presidential election, with these #MeToo and Time’s Up uprisings, with these subjects being so prominently covered in the news and in the world. It has to be ingrained in our storytelling on Broadway, or else we woudn’t be displaying the world the way it is. I think people crave seeing things they understand and relate to onstage. It would be a disservice for us not to take that into account. And it’s so satisfying — we have these great moments in [Tootsie] when the reactions in the audience are so palpable. Moments when people burst into applause at lines — not just at the ends of songs, not just funny things, but things that are poignant and fresh and teaching moments. There’s a fine line. We never want it to feel preachy, or like you’re coming to a show making a statement. We’re just making it as real honest as possible.
Were you a fan of the movie Tootsie? And when you found out about this part, did you know that the show would have a more kind of feminist take on things?
I got an audition when I was still doing SpongeBob. I was so excited about the prospect of it. I knew the creative team’s work and I knew because they were just willing to see me for this rolethat they were already ready and willing to change and shift the show to make it work in today’s world. Casting someone who looks like me in a role Jessica Lange played is such a valuable thing. That was my first hint, this team is really smart and wants to update the story and the message. I knew Santino [Fontana] was attached, and I’ve known him for years and I’ll jump at the chance to work with him on anything. And it was a fun audition process. I worked one-on-one with [director] Scott Ellis in a session with just us, I had two callbacks, and I found out — Santino sort of spilled the beans to me one night when I ran into him in Shubert Alley when he was doing Hello Dolly — like “Oh, congratu — oh, do you know?” That was on Friday and I found out on Monday.
How did you find out about your Tony nom?
I really wasn’t expecting it and was feeling anxious about watching the broadcast, so I set my alarm in the morning for when it was over. So I was sleeping but my body sort of woke me up, and I figured if my phone went off it would be a good sign. Around nine o’clock I realized my phone was on silent and I had like 60 text messages and all these missed calls, like, “Okay, I guess this is a good sign!” And them my mom called and was the one to tell me. It feels very life-changing.
It’s exciting to see how diverse the stars of Broadway shows are now, especially this year the acting nominees in musicals. Does it feel like Broadway has always been more welcoming in that regard or is a change happening now for a certain reason?
I think things are changing. We’re slowly shifting into a more diverse, more inclusive world in the theater. I do think we still have a long way to go. One thing I’m really passionate about is ensuring [diverse casting] doesn’t ever become a fad, and is something truly ingrained in the culture of Broadway. I hope it’s not just a passing phase, and that we work harder at making it truly integral to storytelling. I’ve actually had the lucky experience of being able to play roles that are not racially specific, and I think that type of inclusivity is important. It’s allowing all different shapes, sizes and colors to tell universal stories. It’s just so important to see someone onstage who looks like you.