Nikki Renée Daniels ‘Never Dreamed’ She’d Become the First Black Actor to Lead ‘Company’ on Broadway
Nikki Renée Daniels has been performing on Broadway for 22 years, but she’s never received entrance applause. That is until Wednesday, when she became the first Black actor to play the lead role in the musical “Company” on Broadway.
“And then in the quiet, I sat down in a chair and someone yelled, ‘You got this, queen!” Daniels told Variety. “It just felt so great to know that so many people out there were on my side and cheering me on. It was truly unexpected.”
Daniels, who usually plays the role of Jenny in Marianne Elliott’s gender-flipped revival of the show, announced on Twitter that she would going on as the understudy, which was immediately met with waves of support, including fan art and pleas for a bootleg video of her performance of the finale number “Being Alive.”
She accompanied her announcement with the hashtag #FirstBlackBobbie, a reference to the lead 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 on the West End when she went on in the same production a few years ago, while Olivier Award winner Adrian Lester became the first Black man to lead a Sondheim show when he played Bobby in London in 1995.)
Daniels said she has a “unique challenge” in understudying the lead role while simultaneously playing Jenny, the same role Saayeng played. But she described herself as “Type A,” which means she spends her one day off from the show, every Monday, running through Bobbie’s lines and music. So, when she found out that lead actress Katrina Lenk had tested positive for COVID-19, she felt prepared to take on the challenge with only a few hours notice before a Wednesday matinee performance. She said taking on the role felt like validation for the work she’s put into her Broadway career.
“The idea of leading a Sondheim show on Broadway as a Black woman is just something that I never dreamed possible for myself,” Daniels said. “As much as I love Sondheim, I don’t think I’d ever even been able to get an audition for a Sondheim show on Broadway before this — I did audition for ‘Sweeney Todd,’ actually. I played my flute. But I tried to get seen for ‘Sunday in the Park With George’ in 2008, and I couldn’t even get an audition.”
From Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” to the titular character in “Mary Poppins,” Daniels said she has come close to snagging a lead role in a Broadway show, but has lost out to white actors numerous times. Even with “Company,” she said she auditioned for the role of Jenny after hearing about Saayeng’s casting in the London production, but she was surprised when she was asked to also cover the role of Bobbie, which she didn’t even audition for in the first place.
“The lead of a Sondheim show on Broadway usually has to be someone who is a Tony winner or someone who’s famous in some other kind of way to give it a shot at running,” Daniels said. “So I didn’t see that as a possibility for myself. So to get to do this role now has been really amazing.”
Daniels said she’s seen the landscape shift 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” have also helped diversify the scene, but Daniels, a classically trained soprano, said it took her a while to realize that she could also take on the roles traditionally played by white actors.
“After ‘Hamilton’ came, I started getting more auditions and offers for reading for roles that were not typically played by Black actors, and it took me a while to realize, ‘Oh, they’re actually taking me seriously for these parts,’” Daniels said. “So I had to kind of get out of my own way and say, you know, when you get an audition, you really could be up for this. So you have to give it your all. So I’ve been glad to see those changes happening on Broadway, and I hope they continue.”
The current production of “Company” has already broken barriers, with Sondheim and Elliott revising George Furth’s script in order to center the story around an unmarried woman, rather than a man, who is turning 35. The show was originally set to open in March of 2020, but the pandemic forced the production to wait until December of 2021.
In that time, Daniels said, the cast also began exploring the dimension of race in the show, namely her character Jenny’s marriage to Christopher Fitzgerald’s David, who is white. Those conversations carried over to Daniels’ portrayal of Bobbie, as well as the other understudies.
“We talked a lot about it in understudy rehearsal, because also the understudy cast is generally more people of color than are on stage,” Daniels said. “So when an understudy goes on, it tends to make it a little bit more diverse, which is great. We certainly talked about all of it, just in my reactions to certain lines in the show that would be different than maybe Katrina’s would be. Small things that the audience probably wouldn’t even notice, but it’s already there because of how we look.”
Lenk, a Tony winner, has received critical acclaim for her take on the role, and she has been a mainstay of the production through the Broadway shutdown and as cast members, including Broadway legend Patti LuPone, fell ill. But at least for the next week, it’s Daniels’ time to shine, along with the “five or six” other understudies who are filling in for cast members who have COVID.
Daniels played the role through the weekend and will also perform next Thursday and Friday, while the other understudy plays Bobbie on Tuesday and Wednesday. Her husband, Jeff Kready, is also an understudy in the show, and she said the whole family was in attendance to celebrate on Sunday when her daughters, ages four and eight, got to see it for the first time.
While she said she’d love to originate a new role on Broadway or even play the lead role of Dot in “Sunday,” Daniels is basking in the current moment, one she believes Sondheim would have been proud to witness. Before his death in November, Sondheim was able to attend a preview of “Company,” and Daniels revealed Sondheim “said it’s his favorite show he’s ever seen.”
“I think he was happy to see his work evolving and living on,” Daniels said. “In a way, it probably thrilled him to know that once he was gone, that these shows would keep being produced and keep being done in ways that make them fresh for the world around us now … It’s nice to know that he was very pleased with the direction his legacy was taking.”
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