Phantom of the Opera: Breaking Race Records–Christine is for the First Time played by Black Actress Emilie Kouatchou

Broadway’s groundbreaking Phantom of the Opera is again making history.

It marked the milestone by debuting its first Black Christine on Broadway, played by Emilie Kouatchou.

The musical is now the longest-running show on Broadway, celebrating 34 years last month.

In celebration of Black History Month, Emilie Kouatchou discussed with TODAY how her casting has disrupte an industry set in its ways and the significance of Black representation on Broadway, especially in predominately white musicals and plays.

Becoming Christine

Kouatchou still remembers the first time she hit the stage playing Christine as an understudy in October 2021. She felt pressure to live up to the role, yet also taken care of at the same time.

“I remember feeling a lot of support from the audience. They cheered when I first came on stage,” the 25-year-old actor told TODAY via Zoom. “I remember feeling like, ‘OK, no matter what happens, the people out there have me and the people backstage have me and are supporting me.’ I remember it being a whirlwind and being extremely tired by the end, ready to drop. But yeah, it was a wonderful night.”

Based on Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, “Phantom of the Opera” tells the story of a love triangle that blossoms after two businessmen take ownership of a haunted opera house. The Phantom, a mysterious character who inhabits the rafters, sabotages the ongoing opera to get what he wants from the new owners. Christine — a young soprano — starts 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 by any means possible.

Christine is a beloved character in the iconic musical, known for her sweeping 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 Jan 26, 2022.

She said it can be difficult to assume a historic role people are familiar with, while still making it feel like it’s hers.

“It was a big conversation when I was rehearsing first with our production supervisors. He was really adamant about making sure that Christine felt like me, and that I didn’t have to put on any sort of airs that I thought an ingenue character had to be or a Christine had to be,” she said. “This Christine feels very much close to me, and I relate a lot to her. I try and bring myself to her as much as I can even in just the inflection of my voice, something as simple as that. The temptation might be to inflect up … (but) it’s OK for her to have a more grounded lower voice if that’s true to me.

“Just remembering that although I do have to stay in the confines of the time period and in dialect, I can be as expressive as myself, Emilie.”

Known for its stellar music and stage production, “Phantom of the Opera” has won seven Tony Awards — including best musical — and was made into a major motion picture starring Emmy Rossum as Christine in 2004. Year after year, it remains a staple in the musical theatre canon, and Kouatchou attributes the musical’s success to composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

“It really took me being in the show and learning the music and seeing other people do all these other songs to realize how genius it is,” she said. “Webber does an amazing job of creating these specific characters, who, as an actor, you can also just embody them differently.

Every ‘Phantom’ is different, every Christine is different. You’re not going to get the same cookie-cutter character and I think that’s the exciting part of ‘Phantom,’ too. They cycle in new leads and audiences get to see a new take on this classic show. That’s one of the reasons why it’s stood the test of time.”

The singing in the musical reaches some of the highest octaves. The high notes — particularly in the title song — can be hard to sustain throughout the long show. This combination has long left audiences wondering if any of the singing is prerecorded.

“Oh, gosh. You’re trying to get me to spill some ‘Phantom’ secrets,” she coyly responded. “I mean, it is me singing. I will say that.

Emilie Kouatchou (left) and Ben Crawford (right) performing the title song in
Emilie Kouatchou (left) and Ben Crawford (right) performing the title song in