The first black actor to star as Christine in The Phantom of the Opera in the West End hopes that playing the role will help to transform casting for women of colour in theatre.
Lucy St Louis will give her first performance in the phenomenally successful musical later this month when the show resumes its run at Her Majesty’s theatre in London, where it opened 35 years ago. She has wanted to play the part since her mother and grandmother saw Sarah Brightman in the role; they introduced St Louis to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score as a child.
“To finally be in this position and to open that door to so many other women of colour is very special,” said St Louis, who added that it is rare to see black women in roles that give them “beauty, power and grace” and to be “desired on stage by two men”. In the musical, Christine is the singer loved by her childhood friend, Raoul, and by her tutor, the masked phantom who lives beneath the Paris Opera House. She sings the popular duet All I Ask of You with Raoul, shares the title number with the Phantom, and has her own solo, Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again. The show, based on a novel by Gaston Leroux, is one of the highest-grossing musicals ever and has had a worldwide total audience of more than 140 million.
When St Louis was starting out, she was told that the roles available to her would be as Nala in The Lion King or black characters in Dreamgirls and The Color Purple. All of them are great musicals, she acknowledges, but “being put in that box made me question a lot about the industry and what it represents”. After she played Diana Ross in Motown the Musical, the idea persisted that her options were limited not just to certain characters but also particular types of show such as jukebox musicals. “If you want to be seen to be able to do other types of vocals in this industry – whether classical or jazz – you have to fight,” she said.
The trap of being typecast led her to take time away from the industry rather than audition for shows that would limit people’s perceptions of her abilities. “I had to say no and step back. And there is such a fear within that because if you do that, are you going to come back to the industry? Will you get another job?” After what she calls one of the hardest years of her life, away from theatre, she was cast in English National Opera’s Man of La Mancha at the London Coliseum in 2019. It allowed her to show another vocal quality that ultimately led to her being cast as Christine. She said the production will “dig deeper into the story and portray her with such strength and determination but still have the compassion and kindness that she shows the Phantom”.
Her invitation to meet with Lord Lloyd-Webber resulted in the surreal, “bucket-list” scenario of performing Phantom’s songs in a room with their composer. Lloyd Webber said that when she sang for him in between the first and second national lockdowns, he was “utterly bewitched” by her performance. Uncertainties about theatres reopening meant that St Louis was required to remain tightlipped for longer than usual, after being cast in the role last November, before its public announcement.
In 2016, Ali Ewoldt became the first Asian American actor – and the first woman of colour – to play Christine on Broadway. The news that St Louis would be the first black actor to play Christine on either Broadway or in the West End brought an overwhelmingly beautiful response, said St Louis. However, like the casting of Noma Dumezweni as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and of Beverley Knight as Emmeline Pankhurst in Sylvia, it also led to her receiving abusive messages. It shows, she said, “that we need to move forward within our industry and within the world. I never want my position to not feel like a beacon of hope for people … We can all be in this space and all be celebrated.”
Last summer, an open letter from the Black Theatre Collective, signed by more than 400 theatre figures, called on British theatres to implement “actionable reform” to make the industry more inclusive and less hostile to people of colour. It highlighted that black performers often feel unsupported in the hair and wig department, where teams have not been trained in how to work with afro hair, creating unnecessary tension. On Phantom, said St Louis, “being the first black woman to play this role in the West End, it was very important for me to represent right. And to show that there is beauty in black hair and afro-textured hair. I wanted to celebrate that on stage.”
She provided her own notes on hair and makeup and there have been detailed conversations about her look as Christine “within the context and period style” of the musical. “We need to have a lot more diversity within shows in all departments – wigs, orchestras, wardrobe, stage management,” said St Louis. “When that representation is there, the understanding and the acknowledgment is there. There are people you can go to who will be able to help you. When I’ve worked on shows in the past I haven’t necessarily had that.”
The precariousness of freelancing means actors often don’t feel safe enough to speak out on a range of issues, she added. “Speaking out isn’t an act of defiance – it’s an act of making the industry and this world a better place. It’s got to have the stigma taken away from it.” The production has been working closely with the company Applause for Thought, which was launched in 2019 by the actor Raffaella Covino and facilitates mental health guidance and support for those in the entertainment industry. Part of the company’s remit is to serve as a mediator through which workers can give feedback rather than approach their employers directly.
Rehearsals for the musical, whose cast includes Killian Donnelly as the Phantom and Rhys Whitfield as Raoul, are under way amid the uncertainty and disruption caused by the pandemic. It opens to full-capacity audiences from 27 July. St Louis is gearing up for how a musical “consumes” its performers’ lives. Getting to sleep after a show can be tricky, she said. “The energy from the audience and that you feel on stage is electric. Normally it takes me a couple of hours to wind down because I’ll be on such a high.”