Broadway's groundbreaking musical "Phantom of the Opera" has once again made history.
The musical is the longest-running show on Broadway, celebrating 34 years last month. It marked the milestone by debuting its first Black Christine on Broadway, played by Emilie Kouatchou.
In celebration of Black history, Kouatchou sat down with TODAY to discuss disrupting an industry set in its ways and the significance of Black representation on Broadway, especially in predominately white musicals and plays.
Kouatchou still remembers the first time she hit the stage playing Christine as an understudy in October 2021. She felt pressure to live up to the role, yet also taken care of at the same time.
"I remember feeling a lot of support from the audience. They cheered when I first came on stage," the 25-year-old actor told TODAY via Zoom. "I remember feeling like, 'OK, no matter what happens, the people out there have me and the people backstage have me and are supporting me.' I remember it being a whirlwind and being extremely tired by the end, ready to drop. But yeah, it was a wonderful night.”
Based on Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, "Phantom of the Opera" tells the story of a love triangle that blossoms after two businessmen take ownership of a haunted opera house. The Phantom, a mysterious character who inhabits the rafters, sabotages the ongoing opera to get what he wants from the new owners. Christine — a young soprano — starts the musical with a small role in the show within the show, but becomes the Phantom's love interest and he uses his influence to get her the lead role by any means possible.
Christine is a beloved character in the iconic musical, known for her sweeping ballads "Think of Me," "All I Ask of You" and "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again." No longer an understudy, Kouatchou stepped into the role full-time for the show's anniversary on Jan 26, 2022. She said it can be difficult to assume a historic role people are familiar with, while still making it feel like it's hers.
Every Phantom is different, every Christine is different. You're not going to get the same cookie-cutter character and I think that's the exciting part of 'Phantom,' too.
"It was a big conversation when I was rehearsing first with our production supervisors. He was really adamant about making sure that Christine felt like me, and that I didn't have to put on any sort of airs that I thought an ingenue character had to be or a Christine had to be," she said. "This Christine feels very much close to me, and I relate a lot to her. I try and bring myself to her as much as I can even in just the inflection of my voice, something as simple as that. The temptation might be to inflect up ... (but) it's OK for her to have a more grounded lower voice if that's true to me.
"So things like that; just remembering that although I do have to stay in the confines of the time period and in dialect, I can be as expressive as myself, Emilie."
Known for its stellar music and stage production, “Phantom of the Opera” has won seven Tony Awards — including best musical — and was made into a major motion picture starring Emmy Rossum as Christine in 2004. Year after year, it remains a staple in the musical theatre canon, and Kouatchou attributes the musical's success to composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.
"It really took me being in the show and learning the music and seeing other people do all these other songs to realize how genius it is," she said. "Webber does an amazing job of creating these specific characters, who, as an actor, you can also just embody them differently. Every 'Phantom' is different, every Christine is different. You're not going to get the same cookie-cutter character and I think that's the exciting part of 'Phantom,' too. They cycle in new leads and audiences get to see a new take on this classic show. That's one of the reasons why it's stood the test of time."
The singing in the musical reaches some of the highest octaves. The high notes — particularly in the title song — can be hard to sustain throughout the two and a half hour long show. This combination has long left audiences wondering if any of the singing is prerecorded.
"Oh, gosh. You're trying to get me to spill some 'Phantom' secrets," she coyly responded. "I mean, it is me singing. I will say that."
'Feeling the weight'
Kouatchou — a Chicago native and University of Michigan graduate — unsuccessfully auditioned for the musical twice before landing a role as the understudy. But she's at peace with how things unfolded.
"There's probably a number of reasons that I'm not privy to and some things just are not meant to be at that time and that's OK," shew said. "I'm learning to take things as they come and realize that my journey is going to happen when it needs to happen. Honestly, this was the perfect time for something like this to happen, even though it had been quite a long time. There have been so many different Black women that could have played Christine. We're in a period of intense change in this industry, and I'm just happy that I could be a part of that change."
"It’s so important that audiences see someone who looks like me playing Christine.”
The entertainment industry at large has struggled with diversity and representation, especially live theater. A 2019 report by the Actor's Equity Association found that just 8% of the organization's nearly 52,000 actors and stage managers nationwide are Black. But Black representation, specifically on Broadway, has recently increased. In October 2021, seven plays by Black playwrights with predominately Black casts debuted.
Kouatchou said just thinking of all the trailblazing Black women that were overlooked for the role but who nonetheless made it possible for her to play Christine makes her emotional. She said what trailblazers have sacrificed for her makes her want to pay it forward by always doing her best.
"I think about it every day. Even when I did my first show as the full time Christine (Jan. 26), I remember doing 'Think of Me.' I was really trying to center myself because I was feeling so emotional because I was thinking about all the women who have come before me who made it possible for me to be in this spot. People I look up to in the industry. Just feeling the weight, but also like I was covered by something bigger than myself."
Keeping this in mind grounds Kouatchou and informs her purpose-driven life and career.
"That's how I'm trying to approach this role. No matter what's going on during my day — if I had a bad day or if I feel like I'm not doing my best on stage or whatever — I just know that me being on stage is bigger than what is necessarily going on with me," she said.
"I want to take care of myself, but it's so important that audiences see someone who looks like me playing Christine."
CORRECTION (Feb. 18, 2022, 1:33 p.m.): An earlier version of this article stated an incorrect statistic cited from the Actor’s Equity Association. Eight percent of the organization’s actors and stage managers are Black nationwide, not 8% of the organization’s Broadway members.