Originally published on Playbill.com
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A Tony-winning actor with more than a dozen plays and musicals under his belt, Chuck Cooper can seemingly do anything — except decipher a hashtag, that is.
“I’m pretty confident in my Facebook skills,” Chuck said when asked how social media has changed the theatre community. “My Tweeting, however…”
“OK, this is great,” his daughter Lilli quickly said, relating a forwarded email from her father about a Twitter hashtag with the subject, “What does this mean?”
Chuck was confused by a Tweeted screenshot of him performing in the musical Amazing Grace with the hashtag #ThomasCrushTuesday. He quickly passed his phone around the table as his children explained the image to him.
“I had no idea what this was!” Chuck said, as Lilli and his two sons, Eddie and Alex, began laughing. “When I started, you had to go to your agent’s office to get a mimeographed copy of your slides for an audition. That’s how much it’s changed from that to hashtags. That’s why I have you guys.”
The difference in generations between the Coopers aside, this family of talented actors shares many characteristics — their talent, their passion for the arts and their infectious laughter, which filled the corner table at Angus over lunch.
It’s an impressive family gathering. Along with Chuck’s stage work, which includes Romeo and Juliet; Finian’s Rainbow; Caroline, or Change; and Passion, his daughter Lilli originated the role of Martha in the Tony-winning musical Spring Awakening and recently concluded a run as a standby for Elphaba in Wicked. In July, Eddie starred as Audrey II in the City Center Encores! production of Little Shop of Horrors alongside Jake Gyllenhaal and the musical’s original leady lady, Ellen Greene. And, Alex is a musician and artist who was working on a vivid sketch of Audrey II just before the food arrived at the table.
“I Wouldn’t Wish This On Anybody”
Contrary to what he described as popular belief, Chuck never pushed his children into performing. Instead, he hoped they would pursue another kind of career — any kind at all.
“I wouldn’t wish this on anybody!” he said, citing the professional and financial instability as one of the many reasons he did not recommend a career in acting. “For me, it is a terrible way to make a living, but it is a wonderful way to live a life… I’m so surprised and astonished and amazed that they chose to do it. They have lived through it. They have been through, ‘No, I’m sorry, I’m broke. You can’t go to camp,’ ‘No, you can’t have those shoes,’ ‘We’re having beans again for dinner.’ They still chose it.”
“If there’s anything else you can do, do it. I’ve heard that many times!” Eddie added.
Eddie, for one, is glad he stuck with it. He is still riding high from starring in his favorite musical alongside one of his childhood idols. The role of Audrey II, the carnivorous plant from outer space, was originally going to be played by Chuck, but after the musical Amazing Grace announced its Broadway opening, Chuck was unable to do the show. So Eddie, who said he watched the movie several times a day on VHS as a child, went to audition for the part.
“I kind of lost my mind,” he said of learning he booked the role. “Ellen Greene, to me, is kind of everything. I remember the first time she walked into the rehearsal room, I just looked at the floor like, ‘Oh my God. She’s here!’ I had a mini panic attack. I feel so honored to have done it. I wish we could have done it forever.” (When asked if he sings the plant’s famous song “Feed Me”
The three concert performances, which sold out in record time, received critical acclaim, both from the press and the fans as well as Eddie’s family members. Chuck experienced one of his proudest moments as a parent watching the musical, where he talked with the musical’s composer, Alan Menken, at intermission and sang his praises, as well as producer Barry Weissler, who discussed possibilities for the show’s future.
“I said, ‘Whether this happens or not, I got to stand here and watch Alan Menken kvell about my son while Barry Weissler talks about transferring the show that he’s in.’ That’s a lot.”
“That Was Weird”
Chuck and Eddie had reversed roles in 1997 when Cooper won the Tony Award for Featured Actor in a Musical for his performance as the menacing pimp Memphis in The Life, which explored the lives of prostitutes in 1980s Times Square. Cooper’s date to the the ceremony was his son Eddie, who reminded his shocked father that he had to go onstage to accept his award.
“I was sitting next to him,” Eddie recalled. “They said his name, and he had this blank stare on his face. I turned to him and nudged him — ‘You gotta go up there!'”
Lilli and Alex remembered watching the broadcast at home. Lilli, only six or seven at the time, didn’t understand the importance of the event, while Alex said he jumped up on the couch screaming when he heard his father’s name.
The award found its home on the Cooper’s piano, where it eventually became dented. (“It may or may not have been dropped a few times,” Eddie admitted.)
“The Tsunami of My Daughter”
Lilli got a taste of the glamorous side of acting when, at age 16, she was cast in the Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater rock musical Spring Awakening. Playing Martha, a teenager sexually abused by her father, she was quickly thrust into the spotlight, performing at the Drama Desk and Tony Awards, where the musical won the trophy for Best Musical.
“There was the tsunami of my daughter,” Cooper remarked. “First of all, she goes to audition and gets an Off-Broadway show. Well, that’s amazing. That’s phenomenal. And it goes to Broadway, and there’s that piece. And, then she’s brilliant. She’s nailing this really powerful deep song about this darkness. It was almost too much.”
Often referred to as the next Rent, Spring Awakening was credited with bringing a new type of musical to Broadway. Less than 10 years after its original Broadway bow, the dark and explorative musical is already receiving a Broadway revival.
“It was very apparent she was part of something special right from the start,” Eddie said. “Seeing it for the first time was jarring — such a strong piece, and there’s your little sister. It was emotional and it was wild. Still looking back on it, I can’t imagine what it was like for her, but, for us, watching it was like a tornado. The show really hit with such force. Since Rent, there wasn’t a show that had that kind of buzz and fan base. And it’s being revived right now! It’ll be revived again. She’s part of something really special with that one.”
“With every step there’s been a mixture of complete awe and love and joy and also, ‘Duh. Of course,'” Alex added. “My brain doesn’t understand how she gets better and better. There’s no real words to describe it. It’s Lilli power.”
“Lilli Power” is the secret ability that Alex and Eddie told Lilli she had when she was unable to play with them because she was too small. Her secret power would give them energy when they were fighting or playing.
“If one of us was losing, we’d reach out for the Lilli power,” Alex said. “She’d crawl over to us. Once she touched us, I’d be able to push Eddie and Daddy off of me and have strength.”
“I’ve lived with that idea and energy, and having that support base from childhood has definitely given me the impetus to grow as an artist,” Lilli added.
Alex lost interest in theatre as a teenager, and his talents have been focused on art and music more recently. With performances at Birdland and Jazz at Lincoln Center under his belt, he recalls his favorite performance “learning with my dad, who taught me, and just having those moments with Dad, just jamming out. Lillie and Eddie would just be hanging out. That’s it for me. That’s the best feeling I have from music.”
The trio of children shared the stories and music that played a part of their lives in the Joe’s Pub show Lilli Cooper and the Cooper Clan: Up Till Now, an event they described as “the most magical night ever.” Another project that includes the whole family might be in the works soon — but they’re not supposed to talk about it yet.
Listening to the three siblings talk, while their father beams with pride, it’s clear there is no sibling rivalry in the Cooper clan. But, Chuck emphasizes, he didn’t raise them alone. Their mother, Tisa Farley, is also credited with contributing to their talent and character — which, it’s clear, is generous and loving.
“We were never jealous of each others’ successes. Never,” Eddie said firmly, adding that he would get angry when people asked if he resented Lilli being on Broadway at such a young age while he was still auditioning.
“People would assume I was jealous of her, and that I didn’t like seeing her up there, and that would make me so mad. There was nothing further from the truth. I was living for seeing her up there! It was just the best thing ever. I loved it and I still love it, and I will continue to love it. I will never be jealous of her success.”
Lilli’s Broadway debut inspired “immense pride” for Alex, who added, “Seeing your little sister achieve so much greatness and your big brother had this incredible experience working with people he idolized in a show he was absolutely perfect for — there’s no other feeling to have.”
“I think we all feel the same way and will always feel the same way,” Lilli added. “It’s more pride and joy and happiness.”
And, when they need it, they have Chuck to turn to for advice and help. “He will talk you off a ledge real quick,” Eddie said of his father, whose advice to his children is, “Whatever gives you goosebumps, that’s what you should do.”
Chuck added, “I really should just be levitating on how happy I am.” He credits his children with teaching him patience, compassion and simplicity, explaining, “I can’t imagine what a knucklehead I would have been without them.”
Along with the love and pride that abounds in this family, it’s clear humility also abounds in the Cooper household.
When asked if Lilli ever used performing in a Tony-winning production as an excuse not to do the dishes, Chuck replied without a pause, “That wouldn’t work. Not in our house.”