The first black actor to star as Christine in Phantom of the Opera in the West End is hopeful that playing the role will help transform the cast of women of color in the theater.
Lucy St Louis will give her first performance in the hugely successful musical later this month when the show resumes airing at Her Majesty’s Theater in London, where it opened 35 years ago. She has wanted to play the role ever since her mother and grandmother saw Sarah Brightman in the role; they presented St. Louis to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score as a child.
“To finally be in that position and open that door to so many other women of color is very special,” said St Louis, who added that it’s rare to see black women in roles that make them “look good,” power and grace “. and to be “desired on stage by two men”. In the musical, Christine is the beloved singer of her childhood friend, Raoul, and her tutor, the masked ghost who lives under the Paris Opera. She sings the popular duo All I Ask of You with Raoul, shares the track with the Phantom and has her own solo, Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again. The show, based on a novel by Gaston Leroux and produced by Cameron Mackintosh and the Really Useful Group, is one of the highest grossing musicals of all time and has a worldwide audience of over 140 million people.
At the start of St Louis, he was told that the roles offered to him would be that of Nala in The Lion King or black characters in Dreamgirls and The Color Purple. They are all great musicals, she admits, but “being put in this box has asked me a lot about the industry and what it stands for.” After playing Diana Ross in Motown the Musical, the idea persisted that her options were limited not only to certain characters, but also to particular types of shows such as jukebox musicals. “If you want to be seen so that you can do other types of vocals in this industry – whether it’s classical or jazz – you have to fight,” she said.
The trap of being cataloged led her to move away from the industry rather than audition for shows that would limit people’s perception of her abilities. “I had to say no and take a step back. And there is such fear inside of that because if you do that, are you going to come back into the industry? Will you have another job? After what she calls one of the most difficult years of her life away from the theater, she was chosen for the English National Opera’s Man of La Mancha at the London Coliseum in 2019. This allowed her to show a another voice quality that ultimately led to her being chosen. like Christine. She said the production “would dig deeper into the story and portray it with such strength and determination, but still have the compassion and kindness it shows the ghost.”
Her invitation to meet Lord Lloyd-Webber resulted in a surreal “to do list” scenario of performing Phantom songs in a room with their composer. Lloyd Webber said that when she sang for him between the first and second nationwide lockdown, he was “totally spellbound” by her performance. Uncertainties over the theaters reopening meant St Louis had to stay on the low side longer than usual, having been cast in the role last November, before its public announcement.
In 2016, Ali Ewoldt became the first Asian-American actor – and the first woman of color – to play Christine on Broadway. The news that St Louis would be the first black actor to play Christine on Broadway or in the West End has sparked a great reaction, St Louis said. However, like the casting of Noma Dumezweni as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Beverley Knight as Emmeline Pankhurst in Sylvia, this also led to her receiving abusive messages. It shows, she said, “that we need to move forward in our industry and in the world. I never want my position not to be a beacon of hope for people… We can all be in this space and all be celebrated.
Last summer, an open letter from the Black Theater Collective, signed by more than 400 theater personalities, called on British theaters to implement “concrete reform” to make the industry more inclusive and less hostile to people of color. He pointed out that black artists often feel helpless in the hair and wig department, where teams have not been trained in how to work with Afro hair, creating unnecessary tension. On Phantom, said St Louis, “being the first black woman to play this role in the West End, it was very important for me to portray correctly. And to show that there is beauty in black hair and afro-textured hair. I wanted to celebrate this on stage.
She provided her own notes on hair and makeup and there have been detailed conversations about her look as Christine “in the context and period style” of the musical. “We need to have a lot more diversity within shows in all departments – wigs, bands, wardrobe, stage management,” St Louis said. “When that representation is there, the understanding and recognition is there. There are people you can talk to who can help you. When I’ve worked on shows in the past, I haven’t necessarily had that.
The precariousness of self-employment means that actors often do not feel safe enough to speak out on a range of issues, she added. “Speaking out is not an act of defiance – it is an act to make the industry and this world a better place. The stigma must be taken away from it. The production worked closely with the company Applause for Thought, which was launched in 2019 by actor Raffaella Covino and facilitates mental health coaching and support for those in the entertainment industry. Part of the company’s mandate is to act as a mediator through which workers can give their opinion rather than approaching their employers directly.
Rehearsals for the musical, whose cast includes Killian Donnelly as the ghost and Rhys Whitfield as Raoul, are underway amid the uncertainty and disruption caused by the pandemic. It opens its doors to the full public from July 27. St Louis is preparing for the way a musical “consumes” the lives of its performers. Falling asleep after a show can be difficult, she said. “The energy of the audience and what you feel on stage is electric. Normally it takes a few hours for me to relax because I will be so high.