Lili Thomas Was Once Told She Was 'Too Ethnic,' Now She's Making History in Chicago | Playbill

How Did I Get Here Lili Thomas Was Once Told She Was 'Too Ethnic,' Now She's Making History in Chicago

She is currently the first Asian-American actor to play Mama Morton in the Tony-winning Chicago revival, and she's been ready since 1997.

Graphic by Vi Dang

Lili Thomas is not only currently making her Broadway debut in the Tony-winning Broadway revival of Chicago at the Ambassador Theatre, she is also making history. On September 11, she became the first Asian-American actor to play the role of Matron "Mama" Morton in the long-running Broadway production.

The daughter of classical musicians—pianist Mihae Lee and cellist Ronald Thomas, and stepparents violist Cynthia Phelps and French horn player William Purvis—Thomas has appeared regionally in productions of Dave Malloy's Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 and Octet. The actor was also seen as Cynthia Murphy in the national tour of the Tony-winning Dear Evan Hansen, while her Off-Broadway credits included We’re Gonna Die at Second Stage Theater and The Hello Girls at 59e59.

In the interview below for the Playbill series How Did I Get Here—spotlighting not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—Thomas reveals the day job where she worked as a cook, and what kept her going when she was told she was "too ethnic" to be on Broadway.

Lili Thomas in Chicago Jeremy Daniel

Where did you train/study?
Lili Thomas: I trained at NYU’s former musical theatre studio, CAP21. I did their pre-college program from the age of 14 and continued my studies when accepted to NYU Tisch as a drama major.

Was there a teacher who was particularly impactful/helpful? What made this instructor stand out?
Oh, I had so many amazing teachers, especially at NYU. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one from a little earlier in life. When I was 10, I started doing community theatre musicals and met a local director named Cagle McDonald, who quickly became a mentor and, eventually, a lifelong friend. She stands out because she always cast me in roles based on my skill set and energy, regardless of my “type” or race, which really helped me find myself as a performer without boundaries.

What was your initial reaction when you heard you would be making your Broadway debut in Chicago?
It was a lifelong dream come true! I became completely obsessed with the soundtrack in the summer of ‘97. I was staying with extended family while my parents, who are classical musicians, traveled for concerts. They all remember me portraying the murderesses in “The Cell Block Tango” nightly in their Charlottesville house, where I firmly decided it was Broadway or bust, so I couldn’t be happier that this is the show I’ll be making my debut in!

What does it mean to you to be the first Asian-American actor to play Matron Morton on Broadway?
I have spent most of my professional career wanting to play the types of roles that people wouldn’t see me in. Unfortunately, my career has often suffered from the strong presence of an Asian female stereotype in the industry…one that I do not fit in to. So, to be the lucky, big-belting, bold character actor—to have the honor of making history in this role—is more fulfilling than words can express. There are many Asian women in this industry who, like me, are much more of a “Sheila” [the no-nonsense character created by Kelly Bishop in A Chorus Line] than a “Connie” [the role created by Baayork Lee and typically portrayed by an Asian actor in A Chorus Line], struggling to be seen as such. 

Mama Morton is a perfect representation of the kind of characters that are so rarely ever seen played by Asian-Americans; she is tough, strong, loud, brassy, sassy, and domineering…and I cannot wait to represent those characteristics in such an iconic Broadway show!

Lili Thomas and Kimberly Marable in Chicago Jeremy Daniel

As you've been rehearsing, have you found a favorite moment in the show for Mama? What makes that special?
It did not take long for me to fall in love with the scene she has defending Hunyak in Act II. We get to see Mama’s more sensitive side as she is emotionally threatened by the flaws in “Uncle Sam’s” justice system. It’s one of many vaudevillian comments on our country’s current issues. But, for me, it's the most powerful and heartbreaking moment in the show.

What made you decide to become an actor? Was there a particular production or performance that influenced your decision?
My father took me to my first Broadway show, the Damn Yankees revival with Bebe Neuwirth and Victor Garber, and I was absolutely mesmerized! I became such a huge Bebe Neuwirth fan, which led me to buy the Chicago soundtrack… the rest is history! I did at least two musicals a year from the age of 10 on (one in school and one in community theatre) and never felt more at home than when I was on stage. That is what inevitably influenced my career choice. It was apparent that I couldn’t not do this for the rest of my life. Years later, when I had my children, Annabelle and Jack, I took some time off from the business, often wondering if I’d ever make it back. I kept feeling more and more like I was losing myself the longer I went without performing, until it was apparent that I had to return to the theatre to feel “alive” again.

Tell me about a job/opportunity you really wanted but didn’t get. How did you get over that disappointment?
The year after I graduated NYU, I made it to final callbacks for three Broadway shows all accumulating in the same week. Surely, I was to land one of them… Wrong! If the rejection wasn’t hard enough, the feedback is what really wrecked me. All three shows confirmed that my singing, acting, and dancing were outstandingly what they were looking for; however, for reasons related to my looks, they went in another direction. 

I looked “too ethnic.” I needed to “lose 20 pounds.” My body was “too voluptuous for an Asian woman.” I wasn’t “Asian enough.” I felt lost, not seen, and hopeless, and seriously contemplated leaving the industry until some smaller regional theatres reached out with opportunities. I started to let up on the race to Broadway and indulge in that magical feeling of performing with great people in wonderful working environments. I learned that the art you get to make with the community you build in a show is where true success and fulfillment is. Anytime I tried to leave the business, this is what kept pulling me back by my heartstrings.

Alaina Anderson, John Hemphill, Lili Thomas, and Anthony Norman in the national tour of Dear Evan Hansen Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

What is the most memorable day job you ever had?
Anytime I feel stunted artistically, I always turn to culinary arts. It is my alternative creative outlet! I love to cook and have worked many restaurant jobs. The most exciting one was Keith McNally’s former Schiller’s Liquor Bar on the Lower East Side. I started out as a waitress, each one of us slicing up our T-shirts, only to put them back together in some unique way that supported the attitude we were encouraged to throw at the customers. I rotated through every job in the front of house (waitress, bartender, hostess) before taking a shot at the line in the kitchen. Those days of sticky toffee pudding prep, and nights cooking and plating on the line are forever ingrained in my memory as the most fun and invigorating of my years of restaurant work…including the year I worked for Anthony Bourdain!

What do you consider your big break?
I think that this late Broadway debut is a result of the fact that there is no obvious answer to this question! But if I had to pinpoint one show, it would be Dear Evan Hansen (first national tour), mainly because of the opportunity it gave me to be a part of representing an American family, the type of role I was rarely even considered for pre-pandemic. The chance to portray the mother of an American family with what was very obviously a mixed-race family was not only an amazing sign that the industry was growing and changing, but such an honor to bring that representation (that I had spent a lifetime longing to see) on stage throughout the country.

What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?
Trust that what is for you will not pass you. Trust that life is not a race. Trust yourself to create your own path, and stop looking for a paved one to follow.

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