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Broadway's "The Phantom of the Opera" will get its first Asian-American Christine when its new principle cast takes stage on June 13.
Ali Ewoldt, whose mother is from the Philippines, will play the female lead in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Ewoldt previously starred in Broadway's "Les Miserables," and in national tours of "The King And I" and "West Side Story."
"Phantom," the longest-running musical on Broadway, will also see its first African-American Raoul: actor Jordan Donica, who will also begin performing on the 13.
NBC News spoke with Ewoldt about getting her psychology degree at Yale, her dream roles, and Lea Salonga.
Congratulations on the role! When did you find out that you were cast in "Phantom" and what have you been up to since?
I’m in the second week of rehearsal right now. Today we’re going to be onstage for the first time, so that’s exciting. I had been in the first year of “The King and I” revival. I was in the midst of taking the leave of absence from that “King and I” to play Tuptim at “The King and I” at The Lyric in Chicago when I was cast in “Phantom.” So I basically went from closing “The King and I” at The Lyric in Chicago to rehearsals for “Phantom” the next day.
You're the first Asian-American to play Christine. This production will also have the first African-American Raoul on Broadway. It seems like Broadway especially in the wake of "Hamilton" and its incredible success with a fully diverse cast.
Absolutely. "Hamilton" is incredible because it’s the story of real people who mostly happened to be Caucasian in real life, but it’s this incredible hit and the story is told so well with this cast of all different ethnicities. I think that that really has proved to people that it doesn’t matter anymore. Storytellers are storytellers, and great actors can tell all sorts of stories, so I think it’s really exciting for the Broadway community to have all these opportunities.
You also were in a production of "Les Miserables" a few years ago that was notable for its diverse cast.
When I did the first revival of “Les Mis” in 2006, I played Cosette. And that cast was very intentionally diverse, which was amazing. What’s interesting is I actually remember watching Lea Salonga play Eponine, when she did “Les Mis,” and I might be mistaken but I think she was the first person of color to really breakthrough in that production.
For me, that was the first Filipina that I had seen on the Broadway stage, playing a non-traditional role. It really influenced me and inspired me to be able to do that in the future. So I think “Les Mis” has been pretty remarkable in kind of being ahead of the curve for a long time.
You graduated from Yale with a degree in psychology. How did you go from that to Broadway?
I’d always performed growing up, and was pretty solidly in love with musical theater, but I knew that it was a very challenging business, to be a musical theater actress. I wanted to go to school in a place where I knew I could perform a lot, and continue to study singing and theater, but also to “have something to fall back on.”
Yale was a liberal arts education, and psychology was really interesting to me. I think it has a lot in common with acting for sure, and I really enjoyed my classes there. But ultimately, once I graduated, I decided at least I had to give it a go in theater, for a little bit. It’s a nice degree to have.
How did you break into the industry after graduation?
I was really fortunate. While I was at Yale, the Graduate Music Program, their Opera Program, was doing a production of The Marriage of Figaro, and they needed an extra soprano to play a smaller role. They needed to showcase their students, so they didn’t want to give them the small roles. I auditioned and I was cast.
I played Barbarina, who has a small song, and one of the singers’ friends had come to see the show. She happened to be a New York agent, and afterwards was talking to him and said, “You know that girl Ali sounds like she could do musical theater.” He said, “Actually that’s what she’s interested in.” So just by amazing happenstance, I came to New York to audition for the agency, ended up being with them for a long time, and they helped me get auditions for other shows.
Within a few months I was working in California at Disney’s California Adventure doing the Aladdin stage show. It was so much fun. I was the Jasmine body double, and I flew on the magic carpet, which was like a little personal roller coaster. I was a Disney kid, I grew up watching the Disney movies, and so to play a Disney princess, actually flying around the theater on a magic carpet, that was pretty awesome.
What’s your dream role and what’s your favorite role that you've played to date?
I’ve been very fortunate that I have to keep revising this question, because had you asked me as a child, I would have said I want to do “Les Mis, I want to do “West Side Story,” I want to do “King and I,” and I want to play Christine in “Phantom of the Opera.”
Thankfully, now I’m getting the opportunity to play one of the roles on my list. And so I think maybe now what I want to do is originate something new, a new musical. To get to create a character from the ground up that way, I think, would be amazing.
I’ve gotten to play a lot of amazing, complicated, smart, strong, women, and Christine definitely falls into that category, so I was really excited to get to really delve into her. She has a lot of layers, and makes a lot of choices throughout the course of the show. She really comes from a place of not knowing much and not having a lot of power, to a place where she really takes a hold of her destiny. I think she’s going to be really exciting to play.
"Phantom" is well-known and well-loved musical that has seen a variety of really memorable stars in the lead roles. Will you try to make your Christine different, and if so, how?
I think that everybody has their own take on characters, even by just what they bring to it personally, the experiences that they’ve had in their life will always influence how a character is portrayed. Our resident director and everybody at “Phantom” has been really wonderful about letting us tell our version of the story and our version of these characters, not just copying what somebody has done before, which is really wonderful. It’s always within the confines of telling the story that the entire company will tell together, so I hope I can bring something special to it.
You're like the Lea Salonga of “Phantom!”
I’ll take it, that’s an amazing compliment.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.