Kyle Jean-Baptiste graduated from Baldwin Wallace University May 10. May 13, he tweeted: "Super excited to announce I'm joining Broadway's Les Misérables as Courfeyrac and also understudying Jean Valjean." On July 23, just 74 days out of college, he became the first African-American actor to perform the role of Jean Valjean on Broadway. When he passed away Aug. 29, he left an historic mark on the theatrical landscape, and his loss rocked the emotions of those far outside the people in the intimate Broadway community who he managed to touch and inspire in a short amount of time.
"Kyle was always the really young talent," says Chris McCarrell, who currently plays Marius in Les Misérables, and was a junior at Baldwin Wallace when Jean-Baptiste joined the program. "He was physically bigger than everyone else, and his voice was bigger than everyone else's — but he was always very young. He came into Baldwin Wallace not knowing a lot, but he had this huge voice."
"His status and presence in the audition room belied his youth, and his voice was sensational," says Tara Rubin, casting director of Les Misérables. Rubin was the assistant for the original company and has gone on to work on all Cameron Mackintosh productions in the U.S., including the 2012 "Les Misérables" film.
Jean-Baptiste's journey to Les Misérables began with Eric Woodall of Tara Rubin Casting, who first saw him during his annual master class at Baldwin Wallace. "I remember thinking, 'Oh boy, I can't wait for you to get to New York!'" recounts Woodall. "I was awestruck by the glorious, huge voice that came out of this sweet soul." The recent revival of Les Misérables was being cast around the time of one of Woodall's Baldwin Wallace visits. Ben Sands of Stone Manners encouraged a few of the Baldwin Wallace students to put themselves on tape to be considered for production.
"Kyle's tape was splendid," says Woodall. "So we asked him to fly in to audition for members of the associate team."
His tape was for the role of Enjolras, but when he auditioned for the directors, James Powell and Laurence Connor, they asked him if he knew the Jean Valjean material — which he had not been asked to prepare.
"Kyle said 'Yes,' without hesitation," says Woodall. "He proceeded to sing 'The Prologue' with confidence and fervor."
His ability to do such without preparation made it clear early on that he was a capable understudy, despite his youth.
"When he finished, there was silence," says Woodall. "We all knew we had witnessed something extraordinary."
Thus began the process of Kyle being considered for the show. He ended up having several different auditions and work sessions for a variety of roles and tracks. "The team knew immediately that they loved him," says Woodall. "We kept exploring all possibilities of where he could be the best fit."
During Jean-Baptiste's various attempts to land a role in Les Misérables, the casting and creative team always held onto the belief that he had the depth of character and emotional maturity to play Jean Valjean.
"Candidates for the role of Jean Valjean obviously need to be brilliant singers," says Rubin. "But they also need to be able to transform from the wild, animalistic convict at the beginning of the show to a man who is transformed by faith and experience to become a leader and a devoted father."
Even at Jean-Baptiste's young age, he was able to convey these qualities in the audition room so expertly, that it was only a matter of time before the right opportunity would open up — and when it did, it would lead to an historical moment for Broadway.
Les Misérables is no stranger to diversity. The 2014 revival included Nikki M. James and Kyle Scatliffe in its original cast, and currently features Montego Glover, Brennyn Lark and Wallace Smith. Norm Lewis played Javert in the 2006 revival with a multicultural cast that included Daphne Rubin-Vega as Fantine. Laurence Clayton played Jean Valjean on the U.S. tour in 2010, but Kyle was the first African-American to perform the role on Broadway.
"I am proud that Cameron Mackintosh and the creative teams of Les Miz have been committed to diversity," says Rubin. "I have considered it a real privilege to work on a show that speaks so powerfully to people of all races and ages."
Although Kyle had been making an impression on the Les Misérables team while he was still in college, his opportunity to join the company did not open up until shortly after his senior showcase.
"Kyle was the last performer at the Baldwin Wallace showcase," says McCarrell. "They usually save the last slot for their big guns. Everyone was excited when Kyle came out."
He played the guitar and sang a song from Once, followed by a rap version of "Glory" from "Selma."
"It was amazing," says McCarrell. "It's what Kyle came from. He came from deep Brooklyn. He could always beatbox and freestyle rap. It was cool to see him in his element." "We were nervous Hamilton would get to him first!" says Rubin.
McCarrell was so thrilled by Jean-Baptiste's performance that he went up to him afterward and said, "New York is just waiting for someone like you."
There was an opening for a Jean Valjean cover on Broadway, and Kyle was asked to audition. "He sang 'Bring Him Home' and ended up making history a few months later," recounts Rubin.
McCarrell had the same agent as Jean-Baptiste, so he was excited to get the call that another Baldwin Wallace alum would be joining the cast. When Jean-Baptiste came into the show, McCarrell joked that it was like being in college all over again.
"How he got integrated into Les Miz was very similar to how he got integrated into Baldwin Wallace," laughs Chris. "He kind of didn't know what was going on, but he had a big voice and he was huge — he owned whatever room he walked into."
When the time came for Jean-Baptiste to first perform the role of Jean Valjean, McCarrell didn't know what to expect.
"I wasn't at his put-in, so I had never heard him sing this. I had no information," remembers McCarrell. "I was on stage with him witnessing it the first time, with everyone. That was what was so exciting; I've never had a show where the excitement of an audience member was with me while I was performing. I was on stage and I was like, 'Go Kyle, GO!' I did all my costume changes ten times quicker so I could run up and sit in the wing and listen to his 'Prologue.' I was in disbelief and so proud. It was a crazy amount of pressure and material for anyone to just learn, let alone pull off. And he really did. It was a good day."
After the show, McCarrell threw a party on the roof deck of his building where Jean-Baptiste was given a bottle of champagne that he sprayed all over the place: "He was living his life that night," says McCarrell. "I told him, 'This night might be hard to beat, and you did it two months into your career.'"
Rubin remembers how "Everyone talks about Kyle's laugh. It was full of life and loud!"
Woodall remembers a student that "Had this enormous physical prowess and strength with deep, emotional vulnerability."
McCarrell remembers a friend and peer who was, "Authentically modern in his musicality, but his voice was so legit and trained. He could have been in Hamilton, or he could have been in an opera. He really could have done anything."