GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Nikki Renee Daniels of 'Les Misérables'
All performers want to be recognized for their own unique talents, appreciated on their own merit. Nonetheless, if someone were to describe Nikki Renee Daniels as "a younger Audra McDonald," Daniels says she "would not mind at all."
Like her idol McDonald, Daniels is a pretty African-American soprano who has played principal roles traditionally given to white actresses. She just completed a two-week run as Fantine in Les Misérables, filling in between Daphne Rubin-Vega and Lea Salonga (she continues to understudy the part). Last summer she costarred as Hope in Cole Porter's Anything Goes at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and the year before she was Belle in Beauty and the Beast at Sacramento Music Circus. Like McDonald, she also has portrayed Sarah in Ragtime and sung "Summertime" for classical-music audiences.
Now back in her ensemble roles in Les Miz, Daniels says, "I've always been pretty proactive with my agents about going in for things that I feel like I'm right for even if it's not traditionally an 'ethnic' part." She initially auditioned for Eponine and Cosette. "I usually play ingenues," she says. "Fantine is so much more gutsy, with becoming a prostitute and everything."
Daniels has been inspired from the start by Audra McDonald, whom she first became aware of when she listened to the Carousel CD in high school—and heard someone who sounded more like herself than Carrie Pipperidge usually does. When she was in college, Daniels flew to New York on two different occasions to see Ragtime, but McDonald was out both times. Daniels came back for McDonald's next Broadway show, Marie Christine, and did see her perform; she later caught her in A Raisin in the Sun as well.
Then, in late 2004, she got to work with McDonald when Roundabout did its first workshop of 110 in the Shade in anticipation of a Broadway revival (which opens this spring). "The whole time I was trying to play it cool," confesses Daniels. "I didn't tell her how much she's influenced me, 'cause I thought if I started talking I'd never stop and I'd embarrass myself. I didn't trust myself to talk to her; I thought I'd cry."
A few months later, when Daniels was in The Apple Tree at City Center Encores!, Michael Cerveris—who starred in Tree and had done the 110 workshop—casually mentioned to her: "Oh, Audra wanted me to tell you hi." Daniels' response to Cerveris: "I was like [gasps in amazement]. 'I can tell you now, I was dying that whole time we were doing that workshop!'"
Daniels' fan base isn't as big as McDonald's, but it's been growing thanks to her concert and special-event appearances as well as her six Broadway credits. At "BroadwayWorld.com on Ice" last December, she diversified the evening of mostly holiday songs with "Home" from The Wiz. In January she gave a mini-concert at Splash, and in February she performed at a Black History Month celebration honoring African-American recipients of the gypsy robe (she'd received it for Les Miz). She's also performed in benefits for Toys for Tots, Young Playwrights Inc., the Matthew Shepard Foundation and, most recently, the Drama League (where she did a number from Dreamgirls). She's sung from Aida and Phantom of the Opera in a pops concert by the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra and last year participated in a "Monday Nights, New Voices" program at the Duplex and a concert of songs by Scott Alan at the Laurie Beechman Theater.
She's returning to the Beechman—which is located inside the West Bank Café on 42nd Street—on April 9 and will have the stage all to herself, for her first solo concert. Well, she won't be entirely by herself: She's bringing on Tyler Maynard (of Altar Boyz and currently Mary Poppins) and her Les Miz castmate Megan McGinnis as guests.
Maynard was a classmate of Daniels' at the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music. Also attending CCM at the same time were at least four of her fellow Misérables, including Justin Bohon, Daniel Bogart, Blake Ginther and Aaron "Enjolras" Lazar, who was Don Quixote to Daniels' Aldonza in a school production of Man of La Mancha.
Daniels graduated from CCM in the spring of 2001 and spent that summer with Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, performing in the ensemble alongside another newcomer named Alexander Gemignani, who's now Les Miz's Jean Valjean. Her CLO shows included Bells Are Ringing, starring Victoria Clark; South Pacific, starring Sutton Foster; and Company, starring Malcolm Gets—who was her fiancee Sir Evelyn Oakleigh in Anything Goes last summer.
She was cast in her first Broadway show, Aida, only a month after she moved to New York. But it was a bittersweet moment: She got the news on Sept. 12, 2001, a few hours after her callback—a callback that had originally been scheduled for the day before. "I was walking up my stairs—I can picture it now, I was in a fifth-floor walkup—after coming back from rehearsal," Daniels recalls about getting the Aida job. "I didn't think I'd gotten it because they didn't ask me to sing a solo that they asked another girl to sing. Then I got the call, and I just collapsed in the stairway and started crying. Probably from the emotion of the day before, but also it's my Broadway debut!"
She dropped out of the show she'd been rehearsing, Lady in the Dark for Philadelphia's Prince Music Theater, for Aida, where she played Nehebka and understudied the title role (she would later do the same on the tour). Her next role—only her second in New York—was Clara in New York City Opera's early-2002 production of Porgy and Bess. For about three weeks, she performed in Aida while rehearsing Porgy and Bess—"a huge challenge vocally," but it became "one of my proudest accomplishments," she says. "There I was, like 22, right out of school, singing 'Summertime' at Lincoln Center."
Later that year she did Ragtime at Massachusetts' North Shore Music Theatre and Dorian, a jazz musical adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray set in 1980s New Orleans, at the Denver Center. The following spring she was back on Broadway in the Bacharach revue The Look of Love—oh so briefly, as the critically lambasted jukebox musical ran for only a month and a half. But she did get to cover for Liz Callaway at several performances, soloing on "Alfie," "Knowing When to Leave" and "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself."
In the fall of 2003, Daniels went into the Nine ensemble when John Stamos and other replacements joined the cast. In 2004, she was a vacation swing for the Little Shop of Horrors Urchins on Broadway (and later on tour) and reprised her Dorian role—Celia, based on the novel's Sybil character—in a new production of the show, featuring Max Von Essen, at NoHo Arts Center in Los Angeles. That summer she starred as Belle in Beauty and the Beast at North Shore, and she did Beauty with the same principal cast and creative team again the following year in Sacramento. During that run, Daniels sang the national anthem at a special event at the California Museum for History, Women and the Arts attended by Governor Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver. She met them and afterward received a thank-you note from Shriver's office.
By the end of 2005, she was again performing in Northern California, in the San Francisco tryout of Lestat. The Elton John vampire musical bowed on Broadway last spring—and, like Look of Love, closed within weeks. It hurt a little more this time, since Lestat was an original musical and she'd been with it much longer, through cast changes and rewrites. "When you're in a show, it's hard for you to look at it objectively," she says. "You're a part of it and you start to brush aside the things that are maybe problems, because you have to believe in your projects." She chalks it up as "a good learning experience."
She was able to rebound quickly from the Lestat failure, because she'd been cast in Anything Goes before its closing notice was posted. As Goes' Hope Harcourt, Daniels had a happily-ever-after, albeit not with the man to whom she's engaged at the beginning of the play. That hasn't been the case with many of her other roles: Fantine, Clara, Nehebka, Sarah in Ragtime, Dorian's Celia all die. Daniels even died in her first speaking part, Ti Moune in Once on This Island in high school. It was also in that role that Daniels started to refashion her theretofore classically trained voice. "I didn't learn to belt, musical theater-style, till high school," she says.
After moving from Louisville, Ky. (where she was born) to the Nashville area to Rochester, N.Y., Daniels' family had settled in Atlanta as she was starting high school. They lived in suburban DeKalb County, and she attended its public performing arts magnet school, Avondale. Daniels had only just discovered theater; since age 5, she'd been concentrating on instrumental music, first piano and then flute. She gave up those instruments, plus basketball, track and cheerleading, after seeing her junior high's production of The Wizard of Oz. "Oh, that looks like fun," Daniels remembers thinking. "I was really inspired by the girl who was Dorothy—'I want to be good like her.'"
Among her fans, Daniels has become identified with a Dorothy song—not from The Wizard of Oz but The Wiz. She first sang "Home" at her high school senior showcase for prospective agents in NYC and often sings it, sometimes by request, in concerts and auditions. "It's definitely a part I would like to play before I'm too old," says Daniels, who auditioned for last fall's highly lauded revisal of The Wiz at La Jolla Playhouse that has stirred speculation about a Broadway production.
She has already scored a television credit. Daniels filmed a musical sketch for Chappelle's Show, a spoof of the Virgin Mobile commercials where people sang their phone conversations to each other. The series was canceled, due to Dave Chappelle's mental health hiatus, before her piece aired, but it's among the bonus features on the Chappelle's Show: The Lost Episodes (Uncensored) DVD. In it, Daniels informs her boyfriend (Chappelle) in song that she's pregnant and even drops a melismatic "motherf---er" when he tries to bolt.
She hopes more TV parts are in her future—and maybe a return to the opera house. Doing Porgy and Bess took some adjusting for someone used to the theater world. "The conductor seemed to be more in charge than the director. It was much more about the music and the singing of the music," says Daniels, who was in the "C" cast, which mostly did matinees. "We never had a run-through on stage, we were just expected to know it by watching the 'A' cast in rehearsals." Among other differences from the theater: "Stage management was not as involved in the running of those things as they would be in an Equity show. Also, when I went on as Clara, a makeup artist did my makeup. Normally, in a Broadway show, unless you take special makeup, you do your own."
She may wait to give opera another shot. "With opera singers, your voice doesn't really mature until you're older," says Daniels, who admits that most operas don't grip her the way musicals do. "I could never get through a whole opera [watching on TV]; I would get bored. If it's not keeping my attention, maybe it's not what I need to be doing. But I do feel like, since I have the ability to sing like that I shouldn't waste it and not use it at all. So it's something I'll maybe look into in ten years or so."
Photos of Nikki in performance, from top: as one of the "lovely ladies" in Les Miz; with her future costar on Broadway, Aaron Lazar, and Joe Levesque (kneeling) in CCM's Man of La Mancha; with Kurt Domoney (left) and Byron St. Cyr in Beauty and the Beast at North Shore Music Theatre; with Matt Cavenaugh in Anything Goes at Williamstown. [Photo credits: Michael Le Poer Trench; Mark Lyons; Paul Lyden; Allison Leger]