Almost 20 years ago, Ruthie Ann Miles was a young actor trying to make it in New York City. But she had a special edge that other actors didn’t have: she played several musical instruments, including the piano and flute (her mom was a music teacher). It was those skills that got Miles cast in the second national tour of the John Doyle-directed revival of Sweeney Todd. There, she played the flamboyant barber Pirelli. In that production, the cast also doubled as the show’s musicians, so Miles played the piano and flute, but also learned how to play the accordion for the part. She admits that it contributed to her performance anxiety.
“It was the hardest thing I had ever done, memorizing 250-some-odd pages of Sondheim’s music on multiple instruments, not to mention walking and singing and acting,” Miles tells Playbill, though hard seems like a mild word for it. “To play his music, without papers to read, was very challenging.” She then pauses, as most actors do when they’re talking about the madness and the glory of performing Sondheim. “It was so fulfilling. I was very proud of that, more than anything I had done since then.”
That’s a big statement, considering what Miles has done since then: she’s played Imelda Marcos in the world premiere of the David Byrne-Fatboy Slim musical Here Lies Love, and won a Tony Award for playing Lady Thiang in the 2015 revival of The King of I, making her only the first Asian actress to win a Tony in that category. Now, Miles is back again in Sondheim’s macabre version of London—she is currently playing the Beggar Woman in the current Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd. Miles says that the Beggar Woman “may actually go above Pirelli” as the role she’s proudest of, remarking with pride, “I'm very proud of the Beggar Woman.” For good reason, Miles’ work has earned her a second Tony nomination.
But the echoes of that 2008 Sweeney Todd tour still reverberate. While backstage at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Miles admits whenever she hears the orchestra, her fingers start to twitch. “I hear ‘Epiphany’ and my heart drops to my stomach because that was a big number on accordion and I’m afraid I’m missing my cue,” she says. "Whether I'm doing puzzles backstage in Annaleigh [Ashford]’s dressing room, or I'm upstairs running lines for Light in the Piazza, or eating snacks in the orchestra pit—wherever I am, my hands start to play. Sometimes it feels like I’m doing both shows simultaneously.”
It’s a full-circle moment for Miles, and also a triumphant one. The actor has spent the last few years living in Los Angeles and working in television (she’s a regular cast member in the legal series All Rise). Sweeney Todd marks Miles’ return to Broadway since the 2017 revival of Sunday in the Park With George. And she’s making the most of her time in New York City—while she’s in Sweeney Todd, she will take some time off to also play Margaret Johnson in The Light in the Piazza for a limited engagement at New York City Center. There was also the opportunity to again lead the cast of Here Lies Love for its Broadway bow, but June’s scheduling prevented Miles from reprising her award-winning turn as Imelda Marcos.
All the same, it’s a busy six months, and two grueling roles, with Miles admitting, “Sometimes I think I'm a superhero, which, I assure you, I'm not,” she says, smiling. “It's been so long since I've been on Broadway and these opportunities just happened to present back-to-back.”
Talking to Miles, while she is lounging on her couch in her home in Brooklyn, is like being wrapped in a comforting blanket. She speaks softly but warmly, without any pretense (you can see her slowly working through her thoughts as she’s speaking). As someone working on two shows simultaneously, with a three-year-old toddler at home, you would expect her to be rightly stressed and frazzled. But she is relaxed, not nervous, considering this is her first at-length interview in many years.
Miles is eager to talk about craft. She’s been involved with this revival of Sweeney Todd since the workshop in 2021, also with the show’s leads Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford. The reading was a bittersweet one because it occurred just days after Sondheim’s passing. Miles had been in the rehearsal room many times with the maestro—prior to his death, she had acted in a workshop of Sondheim’s final musical, Here We Are, which she teases “it's a very different piece.” For her, his death hit hard.
“How do we talk about this subject of loss and grief and death and vengeance and heartache without him?” Miles had recalled wondering prior to that 2021 Sweeney workshop. But the reading was “cathartic because we got to mourn together that whole week. It was not lost on us how very, very special that group was. But the timing was surreal. He may not have been with us, but his presence was certainly alive with us then, even as he is now, with every show.”
Miles admitted that without Sondheim’s guidance, it took her over a year (from the 2021 workshop to the show’s Broadway run in 2023), to unlock the Beggar Woman. Because the character does not get to sing her own full song, and she exists on the periphery before she upends the entire show—it is easy to underestimate the role of the Beggar Woman, and anyone playing her. But in this new version, Miles is giving a raw, remarkably physical and disturbing portrayal of a woman who is utterly broken.
To find a way in, Miles dissected and color-coded the Sweeney Todd script, and took it to a professional. She wanted to see if there was a specific condition for whatever the Beggar Woman was suffering with. The Beggar Woman is manic one moment, morose the next, yet is the most perceptive in the room. While Miles wouldn’t share what that mental health crisis is, there seem to be many individuals sharing space within one body. The answer “landed closer to me than I thought it would.”
As someone with her own struggles and who empathizes with the character she’s playing, it pains Miles to hear people laugh nightly, she says, “because this woman is so terribly traumatized, so terribly desperate, and is also grieving on top of that, and is also homeless, and is also starving. She has so many ‘and is alsos’—I can’t help but be extremely protective. I have to be, who else will? It’s a really easy dark hole for me to fall into on any given night.”
It’s easy to understand why. Because even though this return to NYC has been a triumphant one for Miles on a career level, it’s also been bittersweet—the reason Miles left NYC is too tragic to even name. In 2018, while walking in Brooklyn, Miles’ five-year-old daughter Abigail was killed by a driver who ran a red light. Miles herself, who was pregnant with their second child, Sophia, was also injured. Two months later they lost her, too. It’s a nightmare scenario for any parent. Looking at the last few years for the actor, it is natural to want to speak of her in terms of victimhood—to wonder if she is even OK. But that would diminish Miles’ formidable strength.
It’s hard not to find parallels between what Miles has gone through and the characters she’s currently choosing to play. The Beggar Woman is a person who is severely traumatized. Then there’s Margaret Johnson in The Light in the Piazza—on the surface she may seem like a genteel Southern woman, but she is hiding a deeply damaged core, due to her own guilt over not sufficiently protecting her daughter, Clara.
And in this new production at New York City Center, playing June 21-25, director Chay Yew is leaning into the ethnicity of his leading lady. Without changing a word, Margaret is now a Korean immigrant, like Miles is—who was raised in Korea until the age of five. “Because of the age I immigrated to the States and the classes I had to take to catch up over the subsequent years, I have no accent,” explains Miles of her thinking around this new production. “I’ve assimilated perfectly because of the erasure that I put against my immigrant self, and that’s not something I am now proud of. It’s quite complicated.”
So for Miles, it's not a stretch to understand why Margaret would want to build walls around herself and her child, and to show a happy face to the world even when she’s suffering inside. That’s how she would have been able to survive as an Asian immigrant in the early 20th century. As Miles explains: “She’s proving herself, and proving her worth, and showing outwardly that she’s not so different, that she and her daughter belong. Maybe that’s something most people think about, but certainly somebody with an immigrant mentality such as our Margaret Johnson.”
Miles admits that this isn’t the first time she’s been asked why she’s doing these two roles back-to-back that, on the surface, seem incredibly personal. And she’s hesitant to answer that question publicly. “I think I have a unique lens to embody a character who is coping, a person who's grieving,” she says, looking off into the distance. “Is it hard? Yes. Hard isn't quite a big enough word. But maybe they’ll help me. And it's important for me to try to untap, maybe unlock something for myself. Art is healing, and I’m trying.”
Miles also thinks back to something a professor told her in grad school, telling her not to be afraid to “be ugly” on the stage. “Don't be afraid to let people watch a version of themselves,” explains Miles. That has informed her artistic ethos ever since, in wanting to show multi-faceted, flawed characters on the stage. Imelda Marcos was not just an Evita-like diva. She was also a dictator, who could be charming yet ruthless at the same time. Lady Thiang may have been silent in the face of the King, but she was also powerful and the wisest person in the room. And the Beggar Woman is not comic relief—she is a person crying out for help. They are people in their full humanity. Some of them are struggling with their mental health, but that doesn't mean they're not worthy of empathy.
“I think our professor was challenging us to be a mirror. I really took that to heart. As somebody who has struggled with my own demons, I want to see versions of myself on stage,” explains Miles, more resolutely this time. “I think we are struggling as a society, and as a country. We use umbrella terms like ‘weird’ or ‘crazy’ or ‘bad guy,’ or we laugh because we’re uncomfortable—there are so many ways that we brush each other aside.” And with these roles Miles is playing now, she wants the audience to see those characters fully and in turn, to see one other. As she puts it, “It's maybe the hardest thing for us to do—just to see a person and do our best to hold them without an interpretation or judgment, or opinion, or a fix. Theatre is a safe space to do that.”
And these roles are something she can leave for her children, to see that Miles was helping make the world a little bit better. “If this is a story that will teach Hope something, if our children can one day learn from this performance, if it's something that they can see when they're in school and be proud of Mom—that's the project I want to chew on.”
Though in Sweeney Todd, there may not seem to be much light for any of the characters, in The Light in the Piazza, hope and love eventually cut through all the pain and trauma. Such is the same for Miles, who has her husband, their daughter Hope, as well as the support from family, friends, and the cast members of the show. Miles also considers herself something like a mom for the cast. She’s been regularly feeding everyone backstage, cheese boards in particular, so they could have sustenance during the long days. And every night, after she takes her bows in Sweeney Todd, Miles gives herself time to put the Beggar Woman away.
“After every show, I take a shower. I wash away the blood, I wash away the dirt and tears, and I wash away the show. I wash away the Beggar Woman so Ruthie can come out and see the sun again. That whole pilgrimage, from my pre-show prep until I turn off the shower water, is a very long process, but a journey I choose to take. As long as I remain curious, I believe I remain qualified to take it, and I'm honored to carry all of her. I love my job but I think that's also why it's so hard.” Here, Miles switches from the quiet tone she was using before to one that’s more ferocious, more powerful. “But it’s why I'm so proud of it.”