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."