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Meet Emilie Kouatchou, Broadway’s 1st Black Christine in “The Phantom of the Opera”

The groundbreaking Broadway musical “Phantom of the Opera” has once again made history.

The musical is Broadway’s longest-running show, celebrating its 34th anniversary last month. He marked the turning point by presenting his first Black Christine on Broadway, played by Emilie Kouatchou.

To celebrate black history, Kouatchou sat down with TODAY to discuss the disruption of an industry set in its ways and the importance of black representation on Broadway, especially in musicals and predominantly white rooms.

Become Christina

Kouatchou still remembers the first time she took the stage playing Christine as an understudy in October 2021. She felt the pressure to live up to the role, but also be supported at the same time.

“I remember feeling a lot of support from the public. They clapped when I first walked on stage,” the 25-year-old actor told TODAY via Zoom. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘OK, no matter what happens, the people over there have me and the people behind the scenes have me and support me.’ I remember it was a whirlwind and I was extremely tired at the end, ready to fall. But yes, it was a wonderful night.

Inspired by Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, “The Phantom of the Opera” tells the story of a love triangle that blossoms after two businessmen take possession of a haunted opera house. The Phantom, a mysterious character who lives in the rafters, sabotages the current opera to get what he wants from the new owners. Christine – a young soprano – begins 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 any way he can.

Christine is a beloved character from the iconic musical, known for her catchy 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 January 26, 2022. She said it can be difficult to take on a historic role that people know well, while giving the impression that it is his.

“It was a big conversation when I was rehearsing for the first time with our production supervisors. He really cared about Christine feeling like me and not having to put on airs like I thought an ingenuous character was to be or that a Christine was to be,” she said. “This Christine feels very close to me, and I identify with her a lot. I try to get as close to her as I can, even in the inflection of my voice, something as simple as that. The temptation might be to bend up…(but) it’s OK for her to have a lower, more grounded voice if that’s true for me.

“So things like that; simply reminding that even if I have to stay within the limits of the era and the dialect, I can be as expressive as I, Emilie.

Secrets “ghosts”

Known for its stellar music and stage production, “Phantom of the Opera” won seven Tony Awards – including Best Musical – and was made into a major movie starring Emmy Rossum as Christine in 2004. Year after year, it remains a staple in the musical theater canon, and Kouatchou credits the success of the musical to composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

“It really took me being in the show and learning the music and seeing other people doing all these other songs to realize how awesome it is,” she said. “Webber does an amazing job creating these specific characters, which as an actor you can also just portray them differently. Each ‘Phantom’ is different, each Christine is different. You won’t get the same cookie-cutter character and I think that’s the exciting part of “Phantom” as well. They scroll through new tracks and the audience can see a new version of this classic show. This is one of the reasons it has stood the test of time.

The vocals in the musical reach some of the highest octaves. The high notes — especially in the title track — can be difficult to sustain throughout the two-and-a-half-hour show. This combination has long left audiences wondering if any of the chants were pre-recorded.

“Oh crap. You’re trying to get me to reveal ‘Phantom’ secrets,” she replied shyly. “I mean, that’s me singing. I would say this.

Emilie Kouatchou (left) and Ben Crawford (right) performing the title song of “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway.Matthew Murphy

‘Feel the weight’

Kouatchou – a Chicago native and University of Michigan graduate – unsuccessfully auditioned for the musical twice before landing a stand-in role. But she is at peace with the way things have turned out.

“There’s probably a number of reasons that I’m not aware of and some things just aren’t supposed to be at the time and that’s okay,” Shew said. “I’m learning to take things as they come and realizing that my journey will happen when it has to. Honestly, it 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 played Christine. We are in a period of intense change in this industry, and I am just happy to be part of this change.

The entertainment industry as a whole has struggled with diversity and representation, especially on Broadway. A 2019 report by the Actor’s Equity Association found that only 8% of Broadway’s nearly 52,000 actors and stage managers are black. But the representation of black people on Broadway has recently increased. In October 2021, seven plays by black playwrights with predominantly black casts debuted.

Kouatchou said just thinking about all the trailblazing black women who were overlooked for the role but still allowed her to play Christine makes her emotional. She said what the pioneers 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 a full-time Christine (January 26), I remember doing “Think of Me”. I was really trying to center myself because I felt so emotional because I was thinking about all the women who came before me and allowed me to be in this place. People I admire in the industry. I just felt the weight, but also like I was covered by something bigger than me.

Keeping this in mind founds Kouatchou and informs his goal-oriented life and career.

“That’s how I try to approach this role. No matter what happens 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 I, being on stage is bigger than what is necessarily happening with me,” she said.

“I want to take care of myself, but it’s so important that people see someone who looks like me playing Christine.”

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