Nikki Renée Daniels has been performing on Broadway for 22 years, but she’s never received a round of applause. That’s until Wednesday, when she became the first black actress to star in the Broadway musical “Company.”
“And then in the quiet, I sat down in a chair and someone shouted, ‘You get it, queen! daniels said Variety. “It was so great to know that so many people were by my side and cheering me on. It was really unexpected.”
Daniels, who usually stars as Jenny in the Marianne Elliott revival of the show, announced on Twitter that she would continue as a stunt double, which was immediately met with waves of support including fan art and pleads for a bootleg video of his performance of the final number “Being Alive”.
She accompanied her ad with the hashtag #FirstBlackBobbie, a reference to the title character’s name, which is usually a man named Bobby in traditional versions of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, which has been revived several times since it first opened in 1970. (Jennifer Saayeng was the first black woman to play Bobbie in the West End when she starred in the same production a few years ago, while Olivier Award winner Adrian Lester became the first black man to lead a show of Sondheim when he played Bobby in London in 1995.)
Daniels said she had a “unique challenge” understanding the lead role while simultaneously playing Jenny, the same role Saayeng played. But she’s described herself as “Type A,” which means she spends a day off the show, every Monday, going through Bobbie’s lines and music. So when she found out that lead actress Katrina Lenk had tested positive for COVID-19, she felt up to the challenge with just hours notice before a matinee performance on Wednesday. She said taking on the role was validation for the work she put into her Broadway career.
“The idea of leading a Sondheim show on Broadway as a black woman is just something I never imagined possible for myself,” Daniels said. “Even though I love Sondheim, I don’t think I’ve ever been able to get an audition for a Sondheim show on Broadway before this – I auditioned for ‘Sweeney Todd’, actually. I played my but I tried to get seen for ‘Sunday in the Park With George’ in 2008, and I couldn’t even audition.
From Ariel in ‘The Little Mermaid’ to the title character in ‘Mary Poppins’, Daniels said she was close to landing a lead role in a Broadway show, but repeatedly lost out to white actors. Even with “Company,” she said she auditioned for the role of Jenny after hearing about Saayeng being cast in the London production, but was surprised when asked to cover the role of Bobbie as well. , for which she didn’t even audition in the first place.
“The leader of a Sondheim show on Broadway usually has to be someone who’s a Tony winner or someone who’s famous in some other way to give it a chance to run,” Daniels said. “So I didn’t see that as a possibility for me. So to be able to play this role now has been really amazing.
Daniels said he’s seen the landscape change since the gargantuan success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton,” which tells the story of America’s Founding Fathers through a cast made up almost entirely of people of color. Other new musicals like “Six” and “Hadestown” also helped diversify the scene, but Daniels, a classically trained soprano, said it took her a while to realize she could also take on the roles traditionally played by white actors.
“After ‘Hamilton’ came along, I started getting more auditions and read offers for roles that weren’t usually played by black actors, and it took me a while. to realize, ‘Oh, they take me really seriously for these roles,'” Daniels said. “So I had to go out of my own way and say, you know, when you get an audition, you might really be up for that. So you have to give it your all. So I was happy to see those changes happen at Broadway, and I hope they continue.
The current production of “Company” has already broken down barriers, with Sondheim and Elliott revising George Furth’s screenplay to center the story around a single woman, rather than a man, turning 35. The show was originally scheduled to open in March. of 2020, but the pandemic forced production to wait until December 2021.
Around this time, Daniels said, the cast also began to explore the dimension of race on the show, namely her character Jenny’s marriage to Christopher Fitzgerald’s David, who is white. These conversations continued about Daniels’ portrayal of Bobbie, as well as the other stunt doubles.
“We talked about it a lot during stand-in rehearsals because the stand-in cast is also usually made up of more people of color than there are on stage,” Daniels said. “So when a one-liner continues, it tends to make it a bit more diverse, which is great. We certainly talked about all of that, just in my reactions to some lines in the show that might be different of Katrina. Little things that the audience probably wouldn’t even notice, but they’re already there because of how we look.
Lenk, a Tony winner, received critical acclaim for her role, and she was a mainstay in the production during the Broadway shutdown and as cast members, including Broadway legend Patti LuPone, fell sick. But at least for the next week, it’s Daniels’ time to shine, with the “five or six” other stunt doubles filling in for the other cast members.
Daniels played the role throughout the weekend and will also perform next Thursday and Friday, while the other understudy will play Bobbie on Tuesday and Wednesday. Her husband, Jeff Kready, is also a stunt double on the show, and she said the whole family was there to celebrate on Sunday when her daughters, aged four and eight, got to see him for the first time.
While she’s said she’d love to create a new role on Broadway or even star as Dot in “Sunday,” Daniels is basking in the current moment, which she thinks Sondheim would have been proud to witness. Before his death in November, Sondheim was able to attend a preview of “Company”, and Daniels revealed that Sondheim “said it was his favorite show he had ever seen”.
“I think he was happy to see his work evolve and endure,” Daniels said. “In a way, it probably made him happy to know that once he was gone, these shows would continue to be produced and would continue to be made in a way that would make them fresh for the world around us. now… It’s nice to know that he was very happy with the direction his legacy was taking.