NEW YORK — Rising stage star Emilie Kouatchou came close to quitting musical theater during the pandemic shutdown, worried about the future. She stuck with it and has now made Broadway history.
The soprano late last month made her Broadway debut as Christine in “The Phantom of the Opera,” becoming the first Black woman in the role in the show’s 33-year history in New York.
“I put so much pressure on myself up until then that that day I was like, ‘You know what? I’m just going to forget about it and live my best life up there,'” she says. “That night was like the most fun I’ve had in a long time.”
A beaming Kouatchou at the curtain call on Oct. 27 virtually sprinted back onto the stage as the audience and her castmates cheered and hooted, holding her arms in the sky like a marathon runner snapping the finish-line tape.
“I think in New York, on Broadway, at this time in the world, Emilie’s performance just resonates that much more,” says Seth Sklar-Heyn, the show’s production supervisor and an executive producer who helped select her for the role.
Kouatchou was raised outside Chicago in Palatine, Illinois. She started performing at age 9 in community theater, once landing a role as a farm girl in “Oklahoma!”
“I initially started doing theater because I was really shy, and we had just moved to this town, Palatine. My mom wanted to get me out of my shell. And I did it and I loved it,” she says.
She graduated from the University of Michigan’s musical theater program in 2019 and landed a gig in “Oklahoma!” at Broadway At Music Circus in Sacramento, California, and a Christmas show in Indiana. She made her off-Broadway debut just before the pandemic hit in 2020 as part of the ensemble of the musical “Unknown Soldier.”
The coronavirus pandemic brought to a halt all live theater for 18 months. The closure was especially difficult for young musical stars like Kouatchou, who didn’t have the connections or savings of stage veterans. “It was really hard, and I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” she says.
Kouatchou considered going to business school or getting certified as a yoga instructor. “I just didn’t know when I would be able to perform again and make money off of that. So I was definitely looking at other options.”
She had auditioned for “Phantom of the Opera” before — for a world tour in 2019 and right before the pandemic — but this time was her time. She auditioned in May, did callbacks through the summer and found out in August that she had landed the alternate Christine role.
Sklar-Heyn says the pandemic and the calls for racial justice gave the producers and creators — including composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and producer Cameron Mackintosh — a chance to turn calls for diversity and inclusion into action. One way was to expand the definition of Christine.
Leaning on Tara Rubin Casting, “Phantom” put out a casting notice on Instagram and other social media to create a virtual open call for Christines. From 4,000 videos submitted, they whittled it down to Kouatchou.
She shares the role with Meghan Picerno and takes the stage three times weekly in Broadway’s longest running musical. She follows the West End production’s leading lady, Lucy St. Louis, who became the first Black actor to play the role when the show reopened in London this summer.
“One of the things that we set out to do in both productions was consciously, intentionally expand how we’ve approached the casting process,” Sklar-Heyn says. “It goes without saying that the past year — from a civic standpoint, from a political standpoint, from an emotional standpoint — has had a huge influence over Broadway as an industry coming back online.”
When she stepped on the stage, Kouatchou completed a full-circle. “The Phantom of the Opera” was the first Broadway show she ever saw, the prize during a high school drama club trip to New York. Now the role is hers.
“Singing the way that Christine sings was something that came naturally to me. I think it does sit well with my voice, it feels really good to sing. It feels natural, it feels easy,” she says.
Based on a novel by Gaston Leroux, “Phantom” tells the story of a deformed composer who haunts the Paris Opera House and falls madly in love with an innocent young soprano, Christine. Lloyd Webber’s lavish songs include “Masquerade,” “Angel of Music,” “All I Ask of You” and “The Music of the Night.”
Kouatchou follows in the footsteps of such esteemed Christines as Sarah Brightman, Emmy Rossum and Sierra Boggess. But it’s important for Kouatchou that she not mimic anyone: “I really wanted to be Emilie as Christine.”
“It’s really liberating to be in a period piece where I don’t have to put on an air or raise my voice and sound like a young, distressed girl. I can just sound like me.”
Kouatchou’s Christine is the last of the three principal parts in Broadway’s “Phantom” to break the color barrier. In 2014, Norm Lewis became the first African American to slip behind the famous mask and two years later Jordan Donica did it for the role of Raoul.
“I feel bad it’s taken us this long,” says Sklar-Heyn. “At this point, I’m just embracing the fact that we are able to do it and looking forward to continuing to intentionally expand how and who people see on stage within our building.”
Since her historic step, Kouatchou’s Instagram account has been buzzing with messages from young people saying that she has inspired them.
“I love seeing those messages because it just makes it feel like even when I’m really nervous about the show, I’m doing something for a higher purpose.”