Conrad Ricamora

Conrad Ricamora is ready to join your quarantine.

Conrad RicamoraAs one of the stars of ABC’s hit television drama, How to Get Away With Murder, Ricamora can be invited into the comfort of your home every Thursday at 10pm EST. That is until May 14, at which point the Viola Davis-led primetime thriller will deliver what promises to be an explosive series finale after its six twisty seasons.

But if seeing Ricamora weekly on your TV isn’t enough, you can also now listen to his gorgeous singing voice on repeat as often as you’d like. Earlier this month, Ghostlight Records released the eagerly-anticipated cast recording of Soft Power, the acclaimed musical-within-a-play that had its off-Broadway premiere at The Public this past fall. Written by David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly, Yellow Face), the prolific production featured music and additional lyrics by Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home,Violet, Caroline Or Change), choreography by Tony nominee Sam Pinkleton (Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812), and was directed by Tony nominee Leigh Silverman (Violet, Yellow Face, Wild Goose Dreams).

Over the phone, I caught up with Ricamora about COVID-19’s devastating impact on the theater community, Soft Power and its new cast recording, wrapping up How to Get Away With Murder, his solo music, and more!

ALEX KELLEHER-NAGORSKI: Hi Conrad! How are you holding up right now?

CONRAD RICAMORA: I’m good! I’m healthy. I have everything I need. I’m going a little stir crazy but I think everybody is a little right now.

Congratulations on your Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel Award nominations for Soft Power! How did you celebrate when you found out that you were nominated?

It’s a tough time right now. I don’t know that I actually even celebrated. The hardest thing right now is knowing that I have so many friends that are suddenly out of work because they were in hit shows on Broadway, and now they’re unemployed. They don’t know when or where they will have a job.

Theater doesn’t mean anything if it’s not happening because it’s live. It’s not something that is recorded and archived like TV and films are. The whole point of it is communal. If we can’t do that, then it’s hard to celebrate. I celebrate the collaboration that I’ve had with Leigh Silverman, David Henry Hwang, Jeanine Tesori, Alyse Alan Louis, Francis Jue, and the entire cast and crew. But I’m definitely hurting with all of my friends in the theater community right now. I can’t think of an industry that’s been harder hit than the theater just because it’s such a communal thing.

What are some ways that people can help support and encourage live theater while still social distancing?

Donating to The Actors Fund if you can. That’s what I’m doing right now. I also joined this thing called Cameo where you can do shout-outs to people. One of the good things about being on a TV show and having some sort of notoriety is that you can help raise awareness for these kinds of things. They’re providing direct relief to actors right now. So I would say that’s my best advice.

One thing I saw that you did recently was record an inspirational video message for students at Kings River Union Elementary School (in Fresno, CA) who might be feeling scared or sad right now. You also sang “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman for them. What else have you been doing to pass the time and what’s the best advice someone has given you about how to handle feeling anxious during these uncertain times?

I think I learned a long time ago that you can only control what you can control. Paying attention to what you control is knowing what you control. You have to learn to let go of everything else because there are so many things that we can’t control. That’s kind of been serving me through all of this. I get up, I practice piano and sing. I’m working on some new stuff and writing with friends. Unfortunately, the timeline for when we can go back to work and go back to performing in the theater is not up to us.

I’m learning every single day that when anxiety comes up to just sit with it, recognize it and ask to let it go because we don’t have any control over what’s going on right now. I think it’s working on the things that you can control while we’re still in the middle of this pandemic that is crucial. In grad school and in actor training, you learn to work on your voice so that you will be ready when the time comes. Read new plays. Work on new material. Those are the things that you can control and that’s the only thing you can do right now.

That makes a lot of sense. While on this topic, how have you been entertaining yourself? Is there any media you’re consuming that you would recommend?

 I just watched the live production of Fleabag at the National Theatre and I was just blown away by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She is so charismatic and captivating. She’s not only a great writer but also a great performer. On that note, I’m also obsessed with Killing Eve and am happy that there are new episodes coming out every Sunday. The last episode of Little Fires Everywhere just came out too and that was also incredible.

Going back to Soft Power, I think it’s very interesting how the show takes on a musical-within-a-play format versus just being a traditional musical. What was it like emulating that experience in the studio when recording the cast album?

Soft PowerWell as with any cast recording, you’re not getting the full story of the show. You’re getting snippets of the strong themes within the show. Soft Power is not unlike every other show in that you have to see it on stage to get the full impact. Even though you can listen to the album and take a journey, there’s nothing that compares to seeing the stage production live and in person.

It’s always so weird to record these songs when they live in your body on stage with a group of people around you and then all of a sudden you’re in a tiny booth recording by yourself. You really have to remember who you’re talking to while you’re recording the songs. That kind of memory of everything that’s happening around you is super important. It’s tough to get that sense of space in a tiny recording booth. But it’s something that I’m getting better at. This is my third cast album. So it was easier this time around.

That’s really interesting. How else did your runs in Here Lies Love and The King and I prepare you for Soft Power?

Well, The King and I is referenced in Soft Power multiple times. Not only dialogue-wise, but we also specifically reference the production of The King and I that I was in and it’s just so weird! I remember when [The King and I co-star] Ashley Park came and saw the show. It was so strange to know that she was a few rows out there and we were talking about the song that we sang together.

It’s an interesting thing to think about stories that were written with the best intentions, but were written during a time where there wasn’t as much awareness about other cultures, racial sensitivity, and racial awareness – not only within our own society in America, but as it pertains to other countries and globally. It’s fascinating revisiting all of those things now that we loved but that are also problematic. I love The King and I though it is problematic and productions of it in the past have had white actors play Asian characters. Those are definitely things that we’ve grown from and gotten away from. But I’d say doing The King and I gave me an awareness of that history and of the material in general, which ultimately prepared me for Soft Power.

Your character, Xue Xing, interacts a great deal with Hillary Clinton throughout the show. As a performer, what were some of the biggest highlights and/or challenges of creating a fictional character that acts opposite a character based on someone real and who is so well known? 

We were very sensitive to how we were portraying Hillary because she’s such a strong public figure. It was so important for us to keep these characters grounded. I think that’s the toughest thing in so many musicals: how to keep a character grounded in truth when they burst out singing and dancing.

It becomes even more important when you’re dealing with someone like Hillary who triggers so many things for people. The 2016 election and also her history of public service are so fresh in everyone’s minds and people have very strong opinions about her. We really tried to balance the story that David wanted to tell while acknowledging that this is not a documentary with actual events that happened and we’re still taking a creative license. It was tricky! It was something that we were balancing up until the very end and the very last performance. If we ever do it again, it’ll be an another chance to achieve that balance. But I don’t think it ever stopped.

Soft Power

Jeanine Tesori is one of the most acclaimed and prolific contemporary musical theater composers working today. What does it mean to you to be able to introduce the world to these new songs of hers through this cast recording? What was the creative process like working with her?

People throw around the word “genius” a lot, but I truly believe she is a genius. Working with her on songs for the past two years has been such a dream. She carries the whole world of the show right under her skin and in her bones. The way she thinks is remarkable and she’s always ready to make changes on the fly. She’ll run over to the piano and be like, “No, let’s do this instead.”

She tailors the songs to you in a way that it feels like you’re putting on the best custom suit ever, like it was made for just your body. I feel like that’s the best analogy. She tailors it to you and to what’s going on in the moment with you and the other actor. It’s not like she’s just trying to turn out hits. She’s fully present in the rehearsal room and writing according to what is coming out in the rehearsal room. I feel so alive working with her. I love it.

Now that the show has played both coasts and released a cast album, what’s next for Soft Power? Are there plans for a Broadway transfer and/or any future productions?

I just hope that we can get back into theaters in general. It’s so hard to think past that right now. As soon as somebody gets a cough in the cast, are they going to have to get tested? And then if the test takes two or three days, are they going to have to shut down the whole production while we wait for the results? How are we going to sell tickets during a time when any show can be canceled at any minute? How are we going to keep audience members safe? Are we going to have to screen them when they come in the front door?

There are just so many questions right now. I know that theater is going to happen again but it feels like it could be a long time until it does. I think we should all face that fact and settle in and help the theater artists who need it because I don’t see you this being a short term problem.

It’s one thing to be pushing for your show that you’ve been a part of to go to Broadway during normal times. You’re like, “I hope that this happens and we can tell our story.” But I’m hurting for my friends that were telling their stories eight shows a week already and now don’t know when they’re going to be able to get back to those stories. My heart is just in a different place.

Although, I do think our show is very important – especially right now when talking about Chinese-US relations and the political landscape of our country. The problems that we have are really being highlighted right now. Our show asks huge and important questions like “is democracy the best form of government and if so, how do we preserve and save it?”

To that point, Soft Power was always a topical show, but I agree that it’s become even more urgent post COVID-19. In the US, hate crimes and racist attacks against Asian-Americans are on an astonishing rise, and both Trump and Biden have released ads that paint one other as being too soft and/or friendly with China. How does the show tackle how these two countries see one another and in your opinion, what should the leaders of both be doing to stop fanning the flames of tension?

I think the show tackles this through Hillary and Xue’s struggle to understand each other on a deep level. It highlights what happens when differences are used as weapons instead of things to be learned and grown from. It highlights when our differences with each other and with different countries are used against us for political purposes by people who are at the top. It shows that there’s no way forward when politicians use our differences against each other — whether that’s our differences with another country or our differences with each other as United States citizens.

It’s important we become aware of these things as a voting population and know when to detect it. We need to see it in a political ad and be able to identify, “Oh yeah, that’s bullshit.” They’re just trying to drive us apart so that they can get reelected. They’re not actually trying to protect us or move any progress forward in our country. That’s such a crucial thing for us as a population because we’re only as good as the leaders we elect. If we are blind to the tricks that they’re pulling on us, then we’re going to have some pretty crappy leadership.

Soft Power

When I interviewed your co-star Raymond J. Lee about the show a few months ago, he noted that Soft Power is “meant to stir that political intellectual spark in the audience.” Is there a primary takeaway that you hope audiences and/or listeners have after seeing and/or listening to the show?

As an Asian American and knowing the type of hate that I’ve experienced throughout my life—and since I was a kid who grew up in the South, I saw a lot of it—I always hope that anytime I’m a part of Asian-American cast and we do a show, that it lessens the sense of us being seen as the “other.” It’s important to get rid of this sense of being the “other” both in our perceptions of ourselves and also with how the rest of the population thinks of us. I always have that hope when I get on a stage with other Asian-Americans. I always hope that feeling of being the “other” is somehow reduced because that’s such a source of pain for so many of us in the Asian-American community.

I also feel like we’re all bombarded on so many sides with political messaging right now. I think that a lot of times, people have come to our show to grieve the division within our country. I’m not just talking about Asian-Americans, but also black Americans, Latinx Americans, white Americans, and everyone in our country that constantly feels this divide. I know so many people that have come to the show to just grieve for the country and grieve for the past, but who also get uplifted that we can come together for the future. Hope is the only thing we can do in craziness.

Soft Power


We have to talk about How To Get Away With Murder. First, I just want to say how grateful I am that you guys finished filming before everything shut down!

Me too! I know so many people that were like, “Well, I guess that episode was our season finale!”

What are some of your fondest memories from the show and what will you miss most about it?

Conrad Ricamora and Viola DavisI just watched the very final episode for the first time yesterday. I have to say that portraying a three-dimensional, sexual relationship between two men on TV that wasn’t just there to be comedic but was a real, complicated relationship, is something I’m going to miss. I was sobbing at the end of watching it!

People in the LGBTQ+ community have such a hard time becoming who they are. Then on top of that, learning how to have a relationship with somebody else is a whole different challenge. You come out of the closet and kind of feel like, “I did the hardest thing ever in my life!” But then you’ve got to learn how to be in a relationship with somebody else—and that includes dealing with all of the trauma that comes with being a person in the LGBTQ+ community in this culture. It also includes learning how to trust when a lot of us couldn’t even trust our own family members and friends.

To show this couple who took on all of those things has just been so meaningful to me personally. Then to get letters and learn how much Oliver and Connor’s relationship has meant to people across the world is a whole other thing. I’m forever grateful that I was able to show that journey because I needed to see that journey in my own life when I was a teenager and a young adult. So that’s the thing I’m going to take away the most.

While on that topic, you were recently featured in the Apple TV+ miniseries, Visible: Out on Television talking about the groundbreaking handling of the gay relationship (read my interview with co-star Jack Falahee here) in How to Get Away With Murder. What do you think the show’s legacy will be years from now?

The show was groundbreaking in showing sex between two men on network TV. I can’t remember a primetime network TV show—we’re talking ABC, CBS, NBC, etc.—where we’d ever seen sex scenes that were equivalent to straight sex scenes in their depictions of intimacy. I think that’s so important because Will & Grace and other TV shows have been great for representation, but they haven’t allowed us to be sexual beings in the way that How To Get Away With Murder has. I think we’re going to look back and this is going to be a big turning point. With this show, we’re being allowed to not just exist as funny people, but also as fully realized sexual human beings. It’s one thing to show it on HBO, but it’s another thing to show it across America on primetime TV.

With only three episodes of the series left, what can you tease about the series finale? Are you satisfied with Oliver’s fate and how do you think viewers will react to the ending?

I’ll just say that not everyone is going to survive and get away with murder! But you will learn everyone’s fate and that is what’s so satisfying. We’re not going to leave anything open-ended like some series finales do. You will learn what happens to everyone! But the degree to which those are happy endings is varying. Again, I was sobbing. It will definitely give people some cathartic moments.

Of all the characters, I think Oliver is probably the most different now than he was when the show first started. What’s something that playing him for the past six years has taught you about yourself?

Conrad RicamoraI would agree! It’s so funny because I can’t even honestly say if he’s changed for the better. He definitely has gotten a lot darker and gotten more secure with himself. I’d say that he’s gained confidence but some of that confidence has been used to be shady because all of the people and things that he’s been involved with. Oliver has taught me to be more comfortable in my own skin and speak up for myself. I think that from his journey I’ve learned how important it is to use your voice and use it wisely—although he himself has only used it wisely to varying degrees.

Purely as a fan, what are some of your favorite series finale episodes of other TV shows?

I have a love/hate relationship with series finales because you can see the line between the actor and the character just completely go away. The actor is also mourning their loss of this family that they’ve created for several years. They’re fascinating to me because in some ways it’s the best acting that you’ll ever see as they’re so in the moment. The Golden Girls finale is so heartbreaking because you see these women in a time in their lives that they didn’t expect any of this huge success, all saying goodbye to each other. I really loved that series finale. I also really loved the Friends series finale. Those are two that stand out for me.

In 2018, you released a handful of singles. Do you have plans to release any more songs or covers in the near future and/or a full solo album?

Yeah, I do! I just want it to be something that comes organically and not something that’s forced. I play piano every day. After I graduated undergrad and hadn’t started acting yet, I was waiting tables and writing every day. I have about 15 to 20 songs that I wrote during that time that I want to revisit. Some of them are put to music and some of them aren’t yet, but I feel really proud of those. Hopefully I’ll make my way into producing and fully fleshing them out, as well as doing covers of songs that I really love.

In particular, I really loved the cover of “My Funny Valentine” you released.

Oh, thank you! I love that song so much. I am such a huge Chet Baker fan. That song is so haunting and I also didn’t know it was from a musical! I knew it as a jazz standard.

What else are you working on at the moment?

I’m writing a new show with two of my friends, Kelvin Moon Loh and Jeigh Madjus. Kelvin was in Beetlejuice and Jeigh was in Moulin Rouge. We are very far along with major studios and are about to start pitching to streamers and networks! It’s called No Rice and it’s about three gay Asian men in New York City looking for love, sex and acceptance in a white man’s world. The three of us are creators, writers and the actors in the show. We’ve been working on it for the past five years and now that How to Get Away With Murder is ending, we finally have the space and the time to do it. I’m super excited!

I can’t wait to see it! Thanks so much, Conrad! It’s been such a pleasure talking to you.

So great to talk to you too, Alex! I hope that you’re staying safe and healthy.

CLICK HERE to download/stream the Soft Power official cast recording, now available via Ghostlight Records.

Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theater, and beyond. Alex lives in Western Massachusetts and can be found on Twitter at @AlexKNagorski.