By Catherine Womack
Solea Pfeiffer’s last stage role was in a student production of “Guys and Dolls” at the University of Michigan. Her next is at the Hollywood Bowl.
Pfeiffer, 21, has been plucked from relative obscurity to sing the role of Maria in Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” on July 14. She won the job after the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s artistic team showed YouTube clips of Pfeiffer — her intense stage presence and a powerful, thoughtfully controlled voice on full display — to Music Director Gustavo Dudamel.
Performing at the Hollywood Bowl is a break that Pfeiffer is embracing with the sort of unbridled enthusiasm that will come in handy as she twirls around the stage singing “I Feel Pretty.”
Speaking by phone from New York recently, Pfeiffer’s sentences were punctuated by exclamation points as she processed her whirlwind summer.
Tell us a little about yourself. Where did you grow up?
I was actually born in Zimbabwe. That’s my fun fact. My parents are anthropologists and they currently teach at the University of Washington. Seattle is my hometown.
I just moved to New York in May from the University of Michigan, where I studied musical theater. Michigan was my dream school. I loved it so much. It felt like a dream the whole time I was there.
When did you start singing and acting?
My musical life really began when I started taking violin. I was around 4. I had watched a movie –– “The Red Violin” –– and I was so inspired I started violin lessons.
I was also a big camp kid. Summer camp is where I thrived. I did a theater camp in Cleveland when I was around 6 or so, and that is when I “got the bug,” as people say.
After that, I started taking any chance I could to perform. I did all the school plays in middle school and high school. I started taking voice when I was 14. That same year I decided to stop taking violin. One love really overcame the other. Voice became the thing that made me happy, and it does to this day. It’s weird when the thing you love becomes your work, but it’s also the best thing ever.
Do you know which of your YouTube videos convinced Dudamel to hire you?
I’m not entirely sure which clip he saw. Those videos have come in handy many times in ways that I really didn’t expect. There is a concert series in my hometown called “New Voices.” It’s just a bunch of local Seattle singers who perform to live music. I performed a song called “The Pile” in that concert series, and that video got shared and viewed way more than I thought it would. The power of the Internet is really changing the way actors are getting jobs now, which is exciting and scary, but in this case awesome.
What was it like to get a call from the L.A. Phil? How did you react?
I didn’t even know that job was a possibility! My manager called me and said, “How would you like to be Maria at the Hollywood Bowl?” I just started laughing hysterically. I couldn’t believe it because it just seemed so outrageous. It’s the Hollywood Bowl! And it’s actually my first job out of college. My friends were baffled. I’m baffled! But I’m also just beyond excited and crazy, crazy grateful.
Have you ever been to the Hollywood Bowl?
I have never been to the Hollywood Bowl. I haven’t even been to California since I was a toddler. I’ve seen a million videos of my idols performing there, so I’m familiar with the general idea. But until I step on the stage, I’m not going to really have a sense of the grandness of it.
Have you ever sung the role of Maria in “West Side Story” before?
Never officially in a show, but I’ve been singing those songs in the shower my whole life! “West Side Story” is a show that I personally love. It will always make me cry. It is a show I’ve wanted to be in since I was really little. After “Rent,” it was one of the first movie musicals that I saw. It’s iconic. It’s classic. In a way it was kind of like the “Hamilton” of 1957. I feel like it was that big of a deal. A lot of what they were doing was revolutionary. And it is still is!
Maria is Puerto Rican, but in the classic 1961 movie adaptation of “West Side Story,” her character was played by a very white Natalie Wood. What is your ethnic background and what do you think you bring to this role that is unique?
I didn’t grow up in a Spanish household, but I actually did grow up speaking Portuguese. I am mixed. My dad is as white-German-Scottish as you can get. My mom identifies as African American, but she was adopted and so she is not entirely sure of her lineage. It is interesting to be a mixed person in this industry right now because there is a big push, and a necessary push, for both diversity and authenticity in casting. For me, it is important that I never say no to myself, that I never say, “I can’t play this,” or “I can’t pass for this.” That’s just not my job.
The kids in “West Side Story” are searching for a place where they can be themselves. I offer a unique perspective on that as someone who doesn’t fit into any category. I choose to have that be my strength, but it’s something that can be kind of isolating too. I think I understand that feeling, that yearning, and that is something I can bring to this role.
“West Side Story”
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. July 14 and 19
Info: (323) 850-2000, HollywoodBowl.com