Ask Nikki M. James to name her favorite musicals, and she lights up, talking a mile a minute about Cats, Phantom, Miss Saigon and Les Miz. The little girl who used to wait at the stage door for autographs has transformed into a bona fide Broadway star—not to mention a Tony Award winner for her unforgettable performance as Nabulungi in The Book of Mormon. Now, the All Shook Up and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer alum is storming the barricades as street-smart and lovestruck Eponine in the new revival of Les Miserables, starring Ramin Karimloo, Will Swenson and Caissie Levy. Below, the self-proclaimed “theater geek” reveals the role in Les Miz she always wanted to play (hint: it wasn’t Eponine), why she can never be just friends with Audra McDonald and more.
You were a big musical theater fan growing up—were you a Les Miz kid?
Yes, I was a big fan of the British import musicals, and I had all the cassette tapes! My friend Shannon and I would act out scenes from all kinds of shows, but she's the only person I know who can boss me around, so I never got to play the choice roles for a fourth grader. So in The Secret Garden I always had to play the dead mother, and in Miss Saigon I had to be Ellen. [Laughs.] She wanted to play Eponine, so I ended up playing Fantine all the time. I was dreaming my dream and dying that kind of whorish death.
What are your memories of seeing the show for the first time?
In 1995, I saw Shanice play Eponine. She was a pop singer who was really popular at the time and she was the first African-American actress to play the role. I sat in the second to last row, house right, in the mezzanine, and I made my mom buy me $40 opera glasses. It was so amazing and heartbreaking. When the auditions came up, I went on my iTunes and I realized I own three or four separate cast recordings of Les Miz, and I listened to all of them. Now you’ll find me walking down the street in New York City listening not to Beyonce, but the original London cast recording or the 10th anniversary dream cast, or the symphonic recording.
Was Eponine the character you identified with?
There weren’t that many actresses of color playing those kinds of roles, and that meant something to me, but I was still a Fantine girl. Even when this revival came out I remember calling my agent and saying, “I want to play Fantine.” I was so dead set on it. It was [producer] Cameron Mackintosh who said, “I think you’re an Eponine,” and it took me a minute to realize he was right. Once I started singing through it and delved into the character, it made perfect sense to me. Cameron is almost always right, so you should listen to him when he says something.
On Show People, you mentioned a childhood memory of getting a signed photo of Audra McDonald. What's it like being friends with her and starring in a show with her husband, Will Swenson?
I don’t think I will ever be able to say I’m friends with Audra McDonald—not because we’re not friends, but because my hero worship for her is so deep that it feels somehow wrong. There are people that will never not make me feel starstruck and she is one of those people. Audra and Oprah. When she hangs out at the theater or I run into her on the street, I act normal and then as soon as she walks away I geek out. I hope she doesn’t read this and think I’m some kind of stalker. Maybe this will be the end of whatever friendship we have. [Laughs.]
The stage door at Les Miz is nuts! What do the fans say to you?
The Les Miz fans are so intense in the best possible way. Les Miz is the Star Trek of musical theater—there are people who fly halfway across the country solely to come and see us do this show, which is awe-inspiring and insane. But because the show is so huge, I’ve had fans feel the need to tell me that I am not quite as good as their favorite Eponine.
Yeah, they’re not trying to be mean about it, it’s just, “I love you—I mean, I love Samantha Barks more, but…” So whenever you’re feeling really great about yourself, “I’m in Les Miz, I’m playing Eponine, aren’t I cool?” There will be someone to remind you that you’re just one in a long line of incredible women who have gotten to play this brilliant, tough character.
What has life been like since winning the Tony? Is it what you expected it would be?
It completely rocked my world. I imagine it’s what it’s like getting married, you’ve had this boyfriend that you love so much and you decide to create a life together, and then you make this vow and wake up the next morning and nothing has really changed, and yet everything has changed. You win the award on a Sunday night and Tuesday night you go back to work. I didn’t rise up to the Heaviside Layer or anything. But there's an added level of expectation for myself, of the quality of work that I do. I work a little bit harder and I feel like I have to prove to myself that I’m worthy of that kind of recognition every day. It also means that I stayed in Mormon longer than some actors would have. I was so connected to the show and it changed my life in so many ways that it was really difficult for me to say goodbye.
There’s been talk of The Book of Mormon movie, would you be interested in reprising your role if it happened?
Oh, absolutely, although I think I’m a little too old to play a 16-year-old on camera. So hopefully they’ll do it animated. I can be the Idina Menzel of The Book of Mormon movie!
See Nikki M. James in Les Miserables at the Imperial Theatre.