Hear the People Sing: African-American Les Misérables Stars Break Down Broadway Barriers

Tony Award winner Nikki M. James and newcomer Kyle Scatliffe chat with Playbill.com about the colorblind casting in the current Les Misérables revival.

Nikki M. James
Nikki M. James (Photo by Michael Le Poer Trench)

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Playing in various cities across the world for over a quarter of a century, Cameron Mackintosh's musical Les Misérables is a tried and true work of theatrical art. For the latest Broadway revival, which opened March 23, the acclaimed producer brought a splash of color to the production with the casting of Nikki M. James and Kyle Scatliffe.

This is the third time the sweeping musical — centering on a the trials and tribulations of a French man seeking redemption during 19th-century Paris — has bowed on Broadway and this time may be a charm as it features African-American actors in non-traditional leading roles. The show is attracting theatregoers who are flocking to the Imperial Theatre en masse to see the musical — which became a blockbuster movie in 2012 starring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe.

For James, who portrays Eponine in the new production, it's exciting to see the make up of the audience members who attend the show. "We get old and young from all over the world, non-English speaking, English speaking. It's pretty remarkable how much this piece have moved people," she told Playbill.com after a recent weekend performance. "And that can not be overstated. The show just touches people. They are the reason why, 30 years later, we can still sell out an audience on Broadway. It's not a gimmick. It's real. Whatever it is that these people leave feeling is real. This is not a fluke."

The actress first arrived on The Great White Way in the short-lived 2001 musical The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and later starred in the 2005 jukebox musical All Shook Up. She took home the 2011 Tony Award for Best Performance By An Actress In A Featured Role in A Musical for her critically acclaimed turn as Nabulungi in The Book of Mormon. The Summit, NJ native — who also played roles as diverse as Dorothy ( The Wiz), Cleopatra and Muhammad Ali's worldly wife (in Will Power's Fetch Clay, Make Man) — admits to thinking that the tragic role of Eponine was never quite within her reach.

"I'll be totally lying if I didn't say I wasn't a little girl singing 'On My Own' or 'I Dreamed A Dream' in my basement, in my closet, in my car or in the shower, but it wasn't something I really considered myself for until the audition came up."

Kyle Scatliffe
Photo by Matthew Murphy

"I don't know that I've ever dared to dream to play Eponine, certainly not on Broadway in a brand-new production but once the opportunity to explore it came up, I got really psyched about the idea. I got really excited," she shared.

Scatliffe, making his Broadway debut as the charismatic Enjolras, did a double take when he was called in for this new production. "When my agents told me that I got the auditions, I had this moment where my mind was going, 'Are you sure about this?' because the character isn't traditionally a black male. It's usually like a white blond male, so I was like, 'So is this the direction they want to go? Because it changes things when you do things like that.' And then they said, 'It's color-blind casting.' And I said, 'As long as they're going for it, I'll go for it.'"

The Washington, D.C. native said that Les Misérables is one of his favorite musicals and he often listened to its cast recording while growing up. "So it has a special place in my heart being my first Broadway show."

James had seen the show numerous times as a youth growing up near New York City and being exposed to Broadway early — and later attending New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and having friends who were in the show. "I saw it a bunch of times. And I loved it every time. I'm lucky to be a part of it."

She even got a chance to see Shanice Wilson, the R&B singer, play Eponine on Broadway in 1997. Tony Award winner Melba Moore played Fantine for a brief spell in 1995 for the same production, while Daphne Rubin-Vega and Norm Lewis starred as Fantine and Javert, respectively, in the 2006 reboot.

"I was really excited to see people who looked like me up on the stage," James shared. "And I hope that's what I do for some 14-year-old girl in the audience tonight and tomorrow and the next day after that."

Scatliffe and James backstage

Scatliffe, who recently returned to the show after being on vocal rest for nearly a month, grew up admiring the work of Broadway greats such as Paul Robeson, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Chuck Cooper. He said he still feels a rush of energy and excitement when the first three notes strike in the orchestra at the beginning of each show.

The American Musical and Dramatic Academy alum believes the casting of the current Les Misérables can move the colorblind trend forward. "If you do something like that on a scale this big, everybody else believes that they can do it as well. So it doesn't look like a strange casting, it's like 'Oh, well they did this on Broadway.' So to them, it changes things. It changes things whenever you change the casting of a show in such a way."

With Lewis taking over the title role and making history in The Phantom of The Opera in May, and Keke Palmer doing the same in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella this September, maybe Mackintosh and his colorblind casting of the new Les Misérables signals that a true change has finally come to The Great White Way as it pertains to epic musicals. That terrain has already been tread upon with Broadway plays: Tony Award winners such as Cicely Tyson ( The Trip to Bountiful), Phylicia Rashad ( Cat On A Hot Tin Roof), and James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams ( On Golden Pond) are a handful of veteran actors who starred in roles of productions traditionally meant for Caucasian actors. Regina Taylor and Condola Rashad both played the female leads in Broadway productions of Romeo and Juliet.

"You know it's a funny thing and it's a sensitive thing, but I do think history has shown that the people who make change in the world are artists," James added. "We are the people who challenge society. It's not our job but it's part of our job to challenge our audiences to see the world through our eyes... and by challenging them to think outside the box and not to be so bound by the rules of how they think things were, there's an opportunity to find lots of beautiful nuances in our performances.

"And I say that as an African-American actress who would like to play a variety of roles," she continued. "I don't want to be stuck only playing roles that are written for African American performers. I want to play Evita. I want to grow and change, and so obviously I am slightly self interested in the continuing of having non-traditional castings happen all over the world in theatre. I think that we're on our way."