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Exclusive: Nikki M. James talks playing Éponine in 'Les Miserables' on Broadway

Nikki M. James plays Éponine in 'Les Miserables' on Broadway
Nikki M. James plays Éponine in 'Les Miserables' on Broadway
Les Miserables

On March 28, 2014, had the opportunity to interview the super talented singer and actress Nikki M. James who has returned to Broadway for the revival of "Les Miserables." She plays Éponine in the show. James won a Tony Award for her work in "Book of Mormon."

Congrats on your new show. How did you get involved with "Les Miserables"?

Because I'm a super lucky girl! Someone called my agent and said we're holding auditions for the Broadway revival of Les Mis and they asked me to come in and audition. For a lot of people and a lot of times, these auditions can take months and you go in four or five times, you get to be seen and you get paired up with different people. I'm not bragging when I say this, but I went in one time on my own, did a few little parts of the show. At the time I was also being considered for Fantine, so I sang "I Dreamed a Dream" as well I chatted with the director and with Cameron Mackintosh and I did the songs again, and I walked out of the whole thing feeling good, and hoping for the callback. That's how it works in the acting world, you wait for the callback and the next callback and the next callback and hope for a job offer. It was just a few weeks later and they wanted me to come back for a callback, but our scheduling was complicated because most of the directors were in the UK … They told me that without a callback, we want to offer you this job, which was great … So this casting process went pretty quickly for me, from making a casting appointment to getting the job, and much more quickly than any of the processes that I've been a part of over the course of my career. So I have to chalk it up to the universe or good luck or good timing and leave it at that.

What do you love about playing Eponine?

I love that she is the most badass chick on Broadway right now. She's a pretty tough girl. You know she's in love with Marius and he's in love with someone else which sucks … I love that in this production we've allowed her to have a life and a personality aside from her connection with Marius and Cosette. I get to tap into a few little fight scenes, which is very fun to do every night.

Speak a bit about your research and preparation for the role?

I read the novel, which is no small feat, it's very long. But it's amazing, I couldn't put it down and I loved it. I didn't do a ton of listening to other people do the role because I wanted to find a way to create the role on my own without other people's interpretation in my head. Not that it was easy to avoid, I had already seen the show five or six times, and heard the cast albums millions of times as a child. I also took my mother on a six day trip to Paris, which one can argue is not technically research because Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. But I did do a lot of Les Mis type things. I visited the Victor Hugo Museum and I tried to find some of the places that he describes in the novel. My mother and I even did the Hugo Tour, which was amazing. So I did a lot of that kind of research, about the time period and such. Also, the music is so good most of the work is done for you, a musical like "Les Mis," with the property like Les Mis, there's so much out there to find and put your mind through and deepen your performance. I continue to do it because there's lots to learn and you never stop learning about the role you're doing, so keep growing.

Speak about the musical numbers on the show?

In the Second Act, I do a very famous ballad called "On My Own" which is one of the notable songs in the show. It's a very hard to sing ballad about how Eponine is fantasizing about the world she wishes she lived in, which is in a world where Marius loved her and instead of walking past a snowy river, the river is beautiful and she feels warm and safe. Which is the complete opposite of the life she lives day to day. It's the hardest thing I do all night long, not only is it a difficult song to sing, I know that the audiences love this and I know there are many people in the audience who have connections to this material already and I want to both do it justice and also I want to give people a performance that they can connect to. I'm the only one who is up there, so it's on my shoulders to make sure I'm doing my job. Then of course there's the epic "One Day More" at the end of Act One where we do the famous Les Mis march down to the center where we're on our way to build the barricade. The show is completely sung through, singing from 8:00 pm to 10:59 when the curtains come down. It is just one of the best songs I've ever heard and it was one of the best ones I have ever been able to sing. It's pretty incredible and not easy.

What is your favorite sequence to perform and why?

"On My Own" is my favorite sequence to perform. My little Second Act journey is probably the most exciting thing I get to do with my character, I get to do "On My Own,"and then my next entrance is *SPOILER ALERT* my death scene, which I die and at that time, Andy Mientus, my costar who plays Marius, and I sing a little duet called "Little Fall of Rain." It's a very intimate moment between him and I and it's wonderful to just look into his eyes. We still have a connection and we love each other very much, just as much off stage and on stage. These are two characters who care very much about each other and it's a very beautiful moment. It's about a 20 minute journey for me, from "On My Own" until my death, is probably the most exciting part of my evening. But the most fun thing to do is in the beginning part of the show is most of our principle cast performs as ensemble members in other parts, and I am one of the lovely ladies who are playing street walkers, and for me, that's the most fun thing I do because every night my lovely lady has another ailment or last week I was drunk, and it's just really fun to play and find all these different moments with the other actors on stage and just willing to be totally silly and I think it's just great fun.

Tell us about the costumes and set production.

My Eponine costume is pretty much the same as the Eponine's have been wearing since the show premiered. It's pretty iconic. Whenever I don't feel like Eponine, all I have to do is look in the mirror and put on the red hat and I know exactly who I am. It's really iconic in that way, it's a really amazing sense of tradition and a connection to all the actresses that have played this role over the past 20 or 30 years in many countries and whole bunch of other languages. So for me it's amazing to put on the Eponine costume, which involves this intense trench coat and I'm curled up against the wind and the rain, it's kind of amazing. Then my ensemble stuff, my lovely lady costume, all of this beautiful rich fabric is torn apart to make it look worn and used, because we're people who live on the street and don't have access to incredible dry cleaners. It's really beautiful, the costumes on this show are beautifully colored and really rich and they build them in a very traditional style. All of our corsets lace up the back, we don't have snaps, there are very few zippers. Our design team wants these to feel really authentic and that's an amazing touch especially since we're in a theater and the audience is so far away. The attention to detail and commitment to quality is just really amazing.

As far as our set design is concerned, for people who have seen the show before, is the big turntable, which is a very important part of the original production. Our designers and directors have found new and innovative ways to make the musical fresh and it's absolutely gorgeous. It's massive! There are so many set pieces and so many moving parts, but it's all seamless and beautiful. I feel really lucky to be able to perform on that stage every night.

Where did your passion for theater come from?

It started pretty early for me. I was five years old when I sang in front of people and it was also the same year I saw my first Broadway musical, which was "Cats" and I loved it. I became a huge fan of theater and started performing school productions and community theater productions. By the time I was in first or second grade, being and seeing theater was my single most favorite thing to do. Even today, it's what I like to do in my free time, to see theater and be apart of the community. I feel very blessed to be able to be doing what I love at the caliber I get to do it. I'm a really lucky girl and I know that. It's been my passion since I was a small child.

In general how do you choose your stage or film projects?

I wish I could say I get to choose all the time. I'm not yet a Tom Cruise, or Kristen Bell, or something … I just hope and pray that timing works out, and at this point in my career, it's time to make choices, but I also want to do what inspires me. After doing "Mormon" I wasn't sure I wanted to do another musical. Doing a musical is not an easy job, you worry about your voice all day every day, you worry about your body, and physical well-being and getting out there every night of the week regardless if you're feeling cold or sick or if your pet passed away, or something happened in your life. You have to go out there and it's not always easy. So after doing "Mormon" for as long as I did it, I thought it was time to take a break, but just when you know what you're going to do next, the world presents you with an amazing opportunity. When Les Mis came out, there was no way I couldn't be part of this. You just leave yourself open for what's going to happen, you can't plan that far in the future. You just hope and pray that you do work that means something to you. I'm knocking on wood, I've been really lucky for the things that have presented themselves to me.

Finally, what can attendees expect from "Les Miserables"?

Incredible singing, from every person performing, including myself. They will find a new Les Mis that is totally truthful to the original, while also adding a few extra sparks of creativity and I think one of the best casts of the show. I've never been luckier to be a part of. They can also expect to be in their seats for a little more than two and a half hours, it's not a short show, but it's worth every single second. Our audiences are on their feet every single night, so we must be doing something right.

Be sure to check out Nikki on Broadway!

Vivian Chen contributed reporting.

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