On Broadway

At just 11, Sophia Caruso has overcome tragedy to go from Spokane stages to New York City

Sophia Caruso has dreams like every other 11-year-old girl. She wants to be famous, sure. Who doesn’t at that age? Yet in Sophia’s case, it’s beyond a girlish “someday” fantasy. She wants to perform on Broadway, and as she belted in her 2011 portrayal of Veruca Salt, she wants it now.

It’s been a big year for Sophia. She’s performed to rave reviews in her hometown before transporting her entire life to New York City. But she’s also experienced the most significant loss of her life — a tragedy that she says inspires her to continue striving toward her goal.

If you experienced Sophia last spring as Spokane Civic Theater’s Annie, you get why she’s a big deal. (For a quick display of her prowess, watch her “Born to Entertain” clip on YouTube.)

“I think I actually realized this is what I want to do the very first time I went on stage,” Sophia explains in a surprisingly diminutive speaking voice; quite the contrast to her stunning multi-octave singing voice.

“I was only six, and it was opening night of [The Civic’s] Best Christmas Pageant Ever, and when I went on, I was supposed to sing a sweet version of ‘Silent Night,’ and I just belted it out. I love to sing big.”

“Sophia’s a triple threat,” says local theater director Troy Nickerson, who has worked with other Broadway-bound actors. “She can act, dance and sing. And she’s got incredible intensity and drive.”

Nickerson says Sophia’s demeanor is distinct from other young actors, who can be “pageant-y.”

“They think they have to talk big and smile, or be cutesy. It’s not genuine,” he says. “Sophia’s different. She gets the text and the subtext. If I explain something once, she’ll do it the next time… She’s that strong.”

Sophia has come close to landing lead roles in two Broadway productions in the past two years. She made it to the final callback for Annie out of 5,000 other kids. That’s when she, her family and the theater community knew she has what it takes.

Sophia worked with choreographer Angela Pearson all summer and perfected theatrical and vocal technique with The Civic’s Michael Saccamoto and Andrea Dawson, as well as the theater’s artistic director, Yvonne Johnson, spending nearly 30 hours working on songs and monologues.

“When you see someone this young with this much talent and perseverance, who is committed to her art… I think it’s important to put time aside and make sure they get the nurturing they need. It took a community to get that little girl ready,” says Johnson.

Sophia called her casting at Tina Denmark in Interplayers Theatre’s production of Ruthless! The Musical her “role of a lifetime.”

She was starring alongside longtime Spokane theater stalwart David Gigler, an actor she’d come to know and love. But at a rehearsal in June, Gigler died of a heart attack on stage in front of Sophia and the rest of the cast.

“The hugest disappointment in my life, the biggest hurdle, was losing David,” Sophia says, her voice breaking into an earnest cry. “I’m doing all of this for David. Because he wouldn’t want me to give up. That was what motivated me to come back and audition again and again and again, until I got the job. “

In addition to being a well-loved local actor, Gigler was also Troy Nickerson’s longtime life-partner.

“That loss changed all of our lives forever,” says Nickerson. “One of the things that made me so sad, other than losing my partner, was that Sophia had to see that at her age. It was a very violent moment.”

Out of respect for Gigler, Ruthless! never opened.

“We never made it to stage, but that cast was going to tear that show up,” Nickerson says. “When Sophie did her number... it would not have surprised me if people had stood up and cheered.”

Her arrival in New York wasn’t easy, either. When she and her mother arrived at auditions for Fly — a new musical adaptation of Peter Pan that the creators call “a fun, scary, sad and magical” take on the “darker elements of the original novel” — Hurricane Sandy had descended on the East Coast. At the time, they were stranded in New Jersey.

“We spent our first five days with no power and gas rations,” Deena, Sophia’s mother, recalls. “We thought we couldn’t get back one night because we had to have three people in the car, so we were riding the bus, and waiting at scary train stations and taxi stands.”

Yet, through strange interactions on public transportation traveling adjacent to flooding water, and running 20 blocks through a snowstorm in ill-prepared shoes, they made it to each callback.

“I felt like I was ready to cry and give up so many times,” says Deena, “but I had to figure this was a great lesson for her about how to survive.”

And so far, she is surviving. But whether audiences will get a chance to cheer on Sophia’s performance in Fly is up to investors. With rave reviews from this summer’s run at the Dallas Theater Center, Fly may be Sophia’s first Broadway show.

For the past month, Sophia and her mom have traipsed each morning through the art and theater district of midtown Manhattan on the way to Sophia’s current gig,

Fly is a “workshop;” conducted as a Broadway-bound show that will be staged this summer in Dallas. Its creators include Tony Award-winners Jeff Seller (he produced Rent, Avenue Q and In the Heights), Bill Sherman and Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Rajiv Joseph.

Sophia is the only female cast as a “Lost Boy.” Her rigorous routine, including daily workouts and dancing outside of practice, is somewhat common among her fellow actors, but still a contrast to your standard Spokane fifth-grader.

“Most kids get up, eat Fruit Loops, go to school, play, eat, do their homework. Maybe go for a bike ride,” says Sophia. “I wake up at 6 or 6:30. I have my Red Bull — I’m not addicted yet — do my homework for two hours, eat a high-protein breakfast and go and spend my day learning a whole new level of dancing and acting.”

A lot of people are from New York here,” says Sophia. “When people say, ‘Where are you from?’ I tell them Washington, and they say, ‘Washington D.C.?’ I say Spokane is near Seattle, it’s by Idaho, it’s by Canada!” she laughs. “I feel like it’s different, it’s something they’re going to remember.”

In fact, at her final callback, producers called Sophia “Miss Spokane.”

“Getting where I am right now is all I could ever hope for,” says Sophia. Yet she’s still contemplating her next career move, which may include film and TV.

Sophia promises once she’s famous, she’ll pay back everyone who has helped her get here, including her parents and Spokane Civic Theater.

“I’m getting closer and closer and it’s right above me; I just have to keep jumping for it until I can grab it.”