DIVA TALK: Chatting with Book of Mormon's Nikki M. James

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Book of Mormon's Nikki M. James
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Nikki M. James
Nikki M. James

Nikki M. James, who made her Broadway debut in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, plays the role of Nabalungi in the eagerly awaited new musical Book of Mormon, which began previews earlier this week at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. Penned by "South Park" co-creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker and Avenue Q Tony winner Robert Lopez, the production — co-directed by Parker and The Drowsy Chaperone's Casey Nicholaw, who also choreographs — will officially open March 24. James, who has also been seen on Broadway in All Shook Up, has also drawn acclaim for her work in non-musical productions, including two at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival: Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and Cleopatra opposite Christopher Plummer in Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra. Earlier this week I had the chance to chat with the multi-talented performer, who spoke about her current and earlier stage roles; that interview follows.

Question: Since we have never spoken before, why don't we go back a bit? Where were you born and raised?
James: I was born in New Jersey, and I've lived there my whole life. Just maybe 25 miles from here — a town called Livingston, New Jersey, which is one town away from the Paper Mill Playhouse, so I grew up seeing all the shows at the Paper Mill.

Question: When did you start performing?
James: The first time I performed for people was at my kindergarten graduation … and I sang "The Greatest Love of All" at my kindergarten graduation all by myself, all the way through. I don't know if people get a performing bug at five years old, but soon after that, I was always doing school plays, from that moment on, and seeing lots of musicals. My parents really indulged me — I was able to come into the city, so I knew I was going to be a performer pretty young.

Question: Were there any actors or singers that you particularly admired growing up in New Jersey?
James:  It's funny — my best friend in childhood, from second grade until today, is a woman named Shannon Joslyn, and Shannon is the [niece] of an actress named Betsy Joslyn, who is not really performing anymore, but when I was … in third or fourth grade, she'd done a million Broadway shows. She did Johanna in the national tour of Sweeney Todd, so if you ever watch the video of Sweeney Todd, … she's the one that sang Johanna. She stood by for Bernadette [Peters] in Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods and The Goodbye Girl. So I got to see Betsy perform all the time, but also, I knew her. She would come and hang out and have dinner with us, and she was my hero. This woman who was a star but also sort of my friend, so early on, she was the ultimate person, the coolest person I knew. … And, then, obviously, all of the big Broadway ladies around that time. There was Susan Egan, who was doing Beauty and the Beast at the time, and then Audra McDonald — I got to see her in Carousel. I had many heroes. You should see my walls growing up. I would write letters to Beth Leavel and Jodi Benson and Marin Mazzie, and I have all of them, signed headshots [that they sent to me]. I had them framed in a shrine in my room, probably 50 or so headshots. [Laughs.] So, I'm a big fan, big theatre nerd. So, it's weird. I didn't have one actress who I was obsessed with. I was obsessed with a whole lot of them! [Laughs.]

Matt Stone and Trey Parker

Question: Was there ever a point where performing changed from a hobby to when you knew it would be your career? Or did you always know it would be your career?
James: Growing up close to the city and knowing really well a professional actress, it never seemed like something I wasn't going to do. For me, being on Broadway or being in a Broadway show or being an actress always seemed like a major possibility, and because I grew up close to the city, I was able to do lots of training programs... But I was 13 years old — 12 or 13 — when this girl that was in my school had an agent, and she would go to the city, to New York, to do real auditions, auditions for professional things. And, I came home and told my parents. I was like, "Listen, Anne is a professional actress. She has an agent and headshots and she goes to auditions. I think that I should be doing that." My parents were like, "Okay. Sure." [Laughs.] They sent me to the library and they were like, "Just do some research on it." They sent me to the library, and I made a presentation. I basically did a presentation to my parents. I said, "This is how you do it. You get headshots. You do mailings, and you go on auditions, and the auditions for young actors are usually after school, and if Mommy's willing to take me in and out of the city to go on my auditions, I could probably do it." And, my parents indulged me, which they had a tendency to do about these things, and also probably because they had no idea what they were getting into. I saved babysitting money ... and got my first set of headshots at 12. I have [my first headshot] on my refrigerator, which is hilarious, here in my apartment. I think it's really funny. [Laughs.] It's a bad headshot. They were $75, and [the photos] were all grainy and black and white, and I have these enormous teeth. [Laughs.] … And I did a mailing, and I got an agent! It's hysterical! [Laughs.] … And I'm sure my parents were like, "Holy s*it!" So, I started doing commercials and little things. My parents were very supportive, but not supportive to the point that I was going to be someone who was missing school and stuff. So I didn't audition during school hours, and I didn't audition for things that would take me out of school for long periods of time. So, little commercials and local [programs], little soap opera things. I did a little walk-on on a few soap operas. So, that's when I knew that it was what I wanted to do for real. I think I got my Equity card in 1995, which is a million years ago. So, I felt like I was a professional, even though I wasn't working all the time. I wasn't like the big Broadway kids who were doing Broadway shows and having tutors and stuff like that.  Question: When or how did your first Broadway show come about?
James: I was in college. I went to NYU, studied musical theatre there. I was in Tisch, and I got an audition for a show over the summer, so I went, not thinking that much of it. It's a weird thing — you go on auditions with the intention of getting the job. I guess that's why you show up at the auditions, but there [are] a lot of times where it doesn't occur to you that [getting the job is] an actual possibility. So, I went to this audition in the summer for a musical called The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and they were going to be doing a little workshop of the show, a little two-week reading, and that was the summer of 2000, and in January of 2001, I went to rehearsals for my first Broadway show. It was short-lived. [Laughs.] I took a semester off school. I call The Adventures of Tom Sawyer my semester abroad because, literally, we started rehearsals around January, which would have been the beginning of my second term of my second semester, and we were closed by May, so it was exactly like a semester. [Laughs.] It was a really interesting experience because, for all intents and purposes, it was a flop, a big flop. And so, that was a hard lesson to learn. I was 19 years old, and I thought I was going to be in this big Broadway show, and we closed two-and-a-half weeks after we opened. Then, I went back to school. I was like, "Okay. Go back to school!" I was always juggling a million things at that point in my life. I can't imagine how I did it. I graduated on time with my class even though I took a full semester off. And, NYU's training program is not easy. It's pretty intense.

Question: Even though the show didn't run long, what was the feeling of finally getting onto a Broadway stage? Did that live up to your expectations?
James: By the time the show had opened, my father had passed away. I was a senior in high school, and my father was one of those people who told me I was the greatest thing since sliced bread, [and] I was so talented. And so, it was bittersweet. … I remember after our very first preview in New York, I went up to my dressing room, and literally, I was crying. I couldn't really articulate what it was. It felt like we'd accomplished this amazing thing, and then at the same time, it was sad for me that my dad couldn't be there. You'll see in my bio — I dedicate all my performances to the memory of my dad. He's definitely the driving force in my belief in myself as an actor and performer. Even just the idea that this is a responsible thing to do with your life — that this is even just something that people should consider [doing as a career]. But also, [Tom Sawyer] was so exciting — I had costumes, and my name was on the call board and I signed in. I was youngish, so it was super-thrilling, exciting. A bunch of my friends, [including] Shannon — my friend that I grew up seeing Broadway shows and sleeping on the Rent line [with] — came with me to my opening night of this Broadway show, and I was working with people that I had admired [and] I'd seen in other productions. Tommy Hollis was in our show — he was in Ragtime. … And then there was the other part of it, which was the grown-up part, which is, you have to show up at half-hour, on time. You have to make sure you get yourself on that train. I remember being late to half-hour one day and getting yelled at by the stage manager. Not yelled at, but reprimanded. It occurred to me, "This is not high school. This is not a college show. There are people that are waiting on you, your responsibility." So, it was both this super-dreamy thing, but then also, this down-for-reality thing, that this is, in addition to being this amazing experience, it's also a job that you have to take seriously. That you have to take care of yourself — there are all these other things that go into it. You don't just walk in the stage door and walk out the stage door and that's it. You prepare yourself for it. So, it was really this amazing lesson, and also, this amazing, big dream come true, and then I got to do that and then go back to school with a newfound focus about what I needed and what I knew I was going to need in those next two years to carry me for the rest of my professional life.

James and Christopher Plummer in Caesar and Cleopatra at Stratford.
photo by David Hou

Question: Skipping ahead a few years, how did Book of Mormon come about?
James: Well, I had done All Shook Up with Stephen Oremus, who's our musical director, and at the time, I was in Canada doing Shakespeare, taking myself seriously as an actress up there, doing amazing classical work, and I got a call from my agent who said, "Stephen Oremus is working on this reading of this musical. It's being directed by Jason Moore of Avenue Q fame," and all this kind of stuff. I didn't even know who Jason Moore was. "It is a musical written by the guys from 'South Park' along with Bobby Lopez, who also is, obviously, the composer of Avenue Q. We can't tell you anything about it, what it's called. …  And we can't give you a script, and we can't really tell you that much about it, but do you want to do it?" And it was just a reading, a short little reading.  I didn't audition, and probably what had happened is we were doing this little reading, and Jason Moore had seen All Shook Up and some of the other things I'd done and Stephen suggested me for this role, and it was a two-week staged reading at the Vineyard. Very low-paying for those things. They're the things you do because you want to work on new projects, not because you're going to be able to pay your bills. [Laughs.] And I would be just coming home from a year of [being] out of the country and not ... doing a musical, so I was like, "Sure! I'm totally on board with that. That'd be great." And the first day of rehearsal, we weren't even handed scripts. It's so funny to think back on it now. I think that they were trying to be protective of their material and not get it out, but also, I think that they weren't sure what they had …  at this point in the reading. And so, they had the music, so for the first few days, we learned music, and some of the things we say in some of the songs are pretty shocking, [laughs], especially out of context of what's happening in the plot. And I remember thinking, "This is crazy! These guys are crazy! People don't say these things or do these things in musicals."

And then we got the script, and it sort of all comes together. It's so funny, the script is so funny and so smart, really fresh, but at this point, [I had] no idea what it's going to turn into. I've done readings for all sorts of shows that never turned into anything, or readings for shows that, by the time the show came around, I was no longer able to participate. So, you sort of take those things for what they are. You put a pin in it and put it on your bulletin board in your brain and then you move onto other projects. The Book of Mormon just kept on popping up. They did another little reading, and I happened to be available, and then there was a workshop and they asked me to be a part of that as well, and I happened to be available. So, it just sort of continued on over a two-and-a-half-year period, and then all of a sudden, they had [Broadway] dates and a Broadway house, and I kept my fingers crossed that I would still get the call. Obviously, that's a big part of it, too. They could have wanted to use someone else, or see what else was out there. I never officially auditioned for the show, although every reading I did was, basically, my audition for the next job. So, this show is one of those things that, as the show developed, I continued to develop along with the piece, which makes you feel like you have a sense of ownership of it, you know?

Question: Tell me about the character you play.
James: I play a young African girl named Nabalungi, and she is this dreamy girl who lives in this really difficult part of the world, and two Mormon boys sweep into town with their message of hope and salvation, and Nabalungi takes that a little literally. She takes the idea of salvation … literally, and I get very involved in the Mormon boys' story and "what they're selling," which is their faith. And, hilarity ensues. There may or may not be a romantic connection   … [She] really is a sweet character. And I'm the only chick, really, in the show. There are other women in the show, and they're in the ensemble, but I'm really the only girl [in a lead role]. It's funny. It's a little bit of a boys club, [laughs], so I get to be the sole female voice. She's this sweet, ingénue-y role, but with a little bit of a twist.

Bobby Lopez
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Question: I know you're still in rehearsal, but do you have a favorite moment yet for the character?
James: Yeah! I have a favorite moment for the character, and also the actor playing that character. [Laughs.] I sing a ballad in the first act, and I won't give away a lot. It's hard talking about this show because so much of the humor comes from the element of surprise, which we would love to maintain and also, it's the part that makes it fun, so the audience cannot know what's happening, which is the benefit of doing a brand-new show — there's no source material. Nobody has heard the story or any of the music, and that's a nice thing. Anyway, so we try not to give a lot away, so I won't tell you the name of the song, but it's a ballad in the second act, and I get to stand alone on the stage, and it's a really sweet moment, in the craziness that our show is. It's a really sweet, heartfelt, honest moment, and I get to do a down-center ballad — [it's] every five-year-old girl who sings "The Greatest Love of All" at her kindergarten graduation's dream to get to do this.  We had our sitzprobe on Friday. A sitzprobe, which you know but other people may not, is when you sit down with a band and you get to hear the orchestrations, fully, for the first time. The whole cast gets together, and the band gets together, the creative team. It's this really awesome moment, and you're just sort of singing it to hear it, and everybody's getting used to each other. I'm singing my song. I started crying towards the end, I couldn't finish. [Laughs.] And, I felt sort of embarrassed about it, and then I looked up and a lot of people were crying because it's really exciting. It's really thrilling, and in that moment, I felt immense gratitude for this opportunity but also for all the opportunities that I've had in my career that have led to this moment. It felt really special, and I hope I always get to feel like this. … I hope I get opportunities like this for the rest of my career, for as long as I'm healthy and able to do this, and also, I hope that I always get to have that feeling, too, that that doesn't go away, either, where I can remember to stay connected to where I come from. I'm a big fan of theatre, a big, nerdy fan [laughs], and I don't want to become jaded. I don't want that to be taken out of the aspect of performing, because it's pretty much the best part. I'm a really lucky girl, and I don't ever want to forget that.

Question: Would you say the musical is more like "South Park" or more like Avenue Q? What can people expect?
James: It's its own thing... Because Avenue Q and "South Park" are very similar — that satire — I think that their point of views blend a lot. And I would say it's more like Avenue Q … I don't know what people are expecting. I have no idea, but I would imagine that people think it will just be sort of raunchy or whatever their idea is about "South Park," and it's not. It's really smart, and it's also just a really good musical, standing on its own. If Trey Parker and Matt Stone hadn't written this musical and it wasn't connected to "South Park," it would still be a friggin' good musical. [Laughs.] If Trey and Matt had ghost-written this and nobody ever knew that it was them, I don't think anybody would say, "Oh, this is written by [the] 'South Park' [writers]!" It's this great, funny, silly musical that's going to make you think and then also might shock you a little bit. We say and do things that other people haven't done on stages before. [Laughs.] Question: What's it been like working with two directors, since Casey Nicholaw's directing with Trey.
James: Yeah, they're co-directing... I can't speak for what their relationship is like, but it feels seamless for us, as performers. What Casey brings to the page is this true understanding of how to stage a musical and how to connect a through-line and how to tell a story and paint pictures in that theatrical way. And, obviously, Casey has this comedy background, coming from Spamalot... But what Trey brings to the stage is a total understanding of how to land this kind of comedy, and also, he knows these characters because all of this stuff came out of his head. And, so Trey is pretty quiet in the process. It's not like we're listening to two talking heads at all times, but he's always watching, and when he is contributing, he's helping us make sure that the tone is exactly right at all times. He's got great insight — Trey and Matt do all the voices on "South Park," so they have really good insight on how to perform their own material. ... What Trey's really done throughout this process is really key into us. And, being a director and being in the room with us, you can feel him start to write for our voices, and so it's been this really cool collaboration along the way, and some things have been added that are totally right for the actors who are performing them, and he's been really open to suggestions, even little plot twists and stuff that happen. He's been really open to filling in those gaps, and it's been a really cool process. I think Trey is totally excited and nervous about it, and also really great at it. I hope he does more theatre in the future. [Laughs.] And, obviously, Casey is Casey. He's brilliant, and his staging is amazing. He's a great leader to have. For this show, it really works, having two directors. Sometimes, when you're in the room with a writer who doesn't feel that he has the leeway to communicate with the actors without having to go through the director, [that] can be sometimes a complicated relationship [Laughs.] So, this works for us, and it definitely hasn't caused any issues. There's no confusion as far as where the hierarchy is, and they're really great collaborators. It's been seamless, actually. It's really great.

Casey Nicholaw
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Question: Do you think the show will be offensive to Mormons? What's the feeling of the cast and creative team?
James: Do I think the show will be offensive? To people who are offended — yes. You know what I mean? I think if you come with an open heart and step back a minute to see the forest through the trees, then you're going to see that none of this stuff is meant in a mean-spirited way. It's sort of poking fun in a nice way, if that makes any sense. It's not about lambasting these groups and pointing fingers and laughing at them. It's really a celebration of faith, and particularly in this case of the Mormon faith.... We make a point of saying it in the show … is that the Mormon faith is a truly American religion, and we're Americans. We live in a country where something like this, a faith that can spring up from nowhere, a religion that can spring up from seemingly nowhere in the 1800s, can become a fast-growing religion in our country. It's because we're Americans that that can even happen, and that's the juxtaposition about what's happening. In the show, we go to Africa, the missionaries go to Africa. In America, we have freedom of speech, we have freedom of religion, we have freedom of press. You can tell these stories without fear of being jailed. What happens in other countries is, people aren't allowed to express their religion freely, where people are fighting wars between sects of different faiths, and that doesn't happen in our nation. We live in a unique world [where] this can happen, and so it's sort of a celebration of that, and also poking fun at the silliness … which is silliness in a lot of faiths. That's what faith is — it's a belief in something that is sort of unbelievable. [Laughs.] And, that's what the show is about. So, are people going to be offended by some of the things we say? Maybe. Are they going to be offended in the ways in which we say things? Maybe. Do I think that the show is offensive? Absolutely not. In fact, I think the show is really hopeful and beautiful, and it's a story about community. It's a story about coming together, and it's a story about the power of people to change the world in a way that makes it seem like we're doing Chekhov or Brecht or Shakespeare. We're not, but what we are doing is creating [something] hopeful.

Question: Do you think the show has a message or does it say something particularly to you?
James: I'm in love with my show. I can't say enough about it. I'm in love with the fact that it's a new musical. I'm in love with the fact that it's a new voice on Broadway. I'm in love with the fact that we're telling this subversive story with a message of hope. I think that, particularly in musical theatre, you can get away with this a lot more than a lot of other [mediums]. Kander and Ebb do that best – the razzle-dazzle. It's Cabaret, it's that history of theatre, where you're telling one story but you're also telling another story. And I think that you can get away with that in musical theatre, and I think that's what this show does. It's going to get people in the seats for whatever reason that people are going to come, and if you come with one thing, you're going to go away with another thing, and if you come for that other thing... If you're coming because you think you're going to be shocked, you will be, but then you're also going to tell this beautiful story. If you're coming because you want to be offended, you might be, but then you also might find that you're tearing up about the beautiful story that they're telling about hope. So, I think that's the thing that's the most exciting thing about being a part of a musical like this. And I think people are going to be – I don't want to use the word pleasantly surprised. It's weird because … people don't know what to expect and because people have all these ideas that we're using in this world, I don't want to feel like I'm trying to pre-defend the show. It's really just this beautiful, great piece of musical theatre, American musical theatre, brand-new show, and we're doing things a little bit differently than other people have done it before, but we're doing it very well.

[For tickets, $59-$137, phone (212) 239-6200 or visit Telecharge. The Eugene O'Neill Theatre is located at 230 West 49th Street. ]

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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