Atlanta native shines on Broadway
In about two hours, Nikki Renee Daniels will slip through the stage door of the Broadway Theatre just off of 53rd Street, climb several floors to the dressing room she shares with members of the female ensemble, step into one of several costumes, apply her makeup and prepare for Thursday evening’s performance of the hit revival of “Promises, Promises.”
Daniels is no stranger to The Great White Way. “Promises, Promises” marks her seventh Broadway show since moving to the city nearly 10 years ago.
An Atlanta native, she received her bachelor’s degree in musical theater from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. After having her senior showcase in New York City, she secured an agent and moved. Shortly thereafter, she successfully auditioned for a role in the Broadway musical “Aida” in 2001.
“That show sort of started me off,” Daniels said. “I mean, I think the first Broadway show is sort of the hardest one to get.”
Although the names and faces have changed since she made her Broadway debut, Daniels readily admits that some of the challenges remain the same.
She maintains a grueling schedule. The cast performs eight shows per week, which includes two shows on both Wednesday and Saturday. Time off for holidays is non-existent — she must perform on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day.
“You don’t have any of your weekends or holidays to yourself really,” she said. “It makes it harder to get home and see family and have that personal time.”
Daniel’s husband Jeff, whom she met while performing in the revival of “Les Miserables” in 2006, departed recently to begin performing throughout the country in the national tour of “Billy Elliot.”
“Promises, Promises” is a slight departure from shows Daniels has previously been affiliated with. Drawing on the star power of Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth, this is the first time that she’s been in a show with wildly popular celebrities.
“The response, the ovation that they get — entrance applause,” Daniels said, referring to the enthusiastic reception the two receive in the show each night. “It’s different being in a show with big stars — they’re both so great and nice and gracious.”
The two stars are just as popular offstage as they are on.
“The stage door has been crazier than any other Broadway show I’ve done,” she said. “People are lined up halfway down the block, five-deep behind the barricade waiting outside for Sean Hayes to sign their program or to meet Kristin at the stage door.”
In addition to being in a show with popular stars, “Promises, Promises” also presents a physical challenge to Daniels, who is put through her paces at each performance thanks to Rob Ashford’s rigorous choreography.
“I would not consider myself a dancer at all — I’m the worst dancer on that stage,” she said jokingly. “ ‘Promises’ has by far the hardest dancing I’ve done in a show.”
Although admittedly not the strongest of dancers, Daniels is able to shine in other unique ways. In addition to playing the ensemble role of Barbara, she is also billed as an orchestra voice. For certain portions of the performance, she is tucked away offstage right in a booth with three other women who lend their robust voices to complement Burt Bacharach’s score.
“My track is a really hard track to sing, and they needed someone who could sing very high, very consistently,” Daniels said. “It takes a lot of technique to do what the four of us do in our little booth.”
All good things — even highly popular Broadway revivals — must come to an end. In September, producers announced that “Promises, Promises” would close in January 2011, the time period at which Hayes and Chenoweth were slated to depart the production.
“I think that our producers — they were looking for people to replace them and they couldn’t find stars of that caliber to come in and replace,” Daniels said.
Audiences have become familiar with seeing big names glittering triumphantly in lights above Broadway theater marquees, and sales practically depend on these headliners and their luster to draw audiences to the seats. “Promise, Promises” has regularly produced weekly sales of more than $1 million since opening in April 2010, according to figures from The Broadway League, a national trade association for the Broadway industry.
“Unfortunately in this economy, and where we are, it’s tough to sell a Broadway show if there’s not one or two or three names that people know and celebrities that they want to come see on stage,” Daniels said.
Daniels had hoped to grace the stage this season in a new musical, “Unchain My Heart: The Ray Charles Musical,” in the role of Charles’s wife Della, which she originated at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2007. Unfortunately, those plans fell through.
“We were announced, we had a theater and we had done a group sales event. Then about six weeks before we were supposed to start rehearsals, we found out we were postponed until the spring,” Daniels said.
Maria Somma, spokeswoman for Actor’s Equity Association, the labor union that represents nearly 50,000 actors and stage managers in the theater community, reiterated the dynamics of working in the theater.
“Good times or bad, it can be a very difficult business to sustain a living in — although it can be done,” Somma said. “It’s a business of determination and talent as well as single-mindedness and creativity. Actors audition, audition, audition, and not every audition is going to yield a job.”
Despite the closings, delays and the continuing daily challenges of working on Broadway, Daniels remains spirited and optimistic — two necessary attributes that are wise to have in a fiercely competitive business.
“You’re getting to do what you love, and millions of people would love to be doing what we’re doing,” she said. “Sometimes it’s easy to forget that.”