First Black Actress to Play Christine in Broadway's Phantom of the Opera on Making History

Emilie Kouatchou
Emilie Kouatchou

Matthew Murphy Emilie Kouatchou in The Phantom of the Opera

Emilie Kouatchou is making history as the first Black actress to portray Christine Daaé in Broadway's production of The Phantom of the Opera.

Speaking to Sheinelle Jones on Thursday's episode of the Today show, Kouatchou said Phantom was the first show she ever saw on Broadway, which makes her role even more special.

At the time, it never occurred to her that she could play Christine in the Andrew Lloyd Webber-composed musical one day.

"I think my mindset was still that this role was not for me, which is just a sad reality. And it look a lot of unlearning just to be able to say, 'No, I can do this,' " Kouatchou recalled.

"I knew I could sing the heck out of Christine," she added.

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When asked by Jones about how she views the importance of "someone to see themselves on a stage sometimes in a show," the actress and singer, who graduated from the University of Michigan in 2019, said, "I think it makes all the difference."

"I grew up seeing people like Audra McDonald and Heather Headley onstage, being excellent," Kouatchou said. "They were the people that gave me hope that I could have a career in this."

"If they hadn't done what they had done, I probably wouldn't be here," she added.

Kouatchou stepped into the role of Christine full time in Broadway's longest-running musical last month after first performing as an understudy. She realized the role would be hers when she sang "Think of Me" with the orchestra for the first time.

"I just remember getting so choked up I couldn't finish the song," she said.

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Kouatchou made her debut on the Great White Way on Oct. 27, first performing as Christine three times a week at the Majestic Theatre.

In December, she told PEOPLE that she felt immense pressure in the days leading up to her debut: "There were a lot of nights just feeling like maybe I'm not good enough for this, or feeling like I have the weight of all these people who are looking up to me [on my shoulders], and I wanted to do the best that I could."

"I just think that Black women, especially in theater, have to be — and it shouldn't be this way — 10 times better and work 10 times harder," Kouatchou continued. "It took this long for any Black woman to play Christine, but there have been so many talented Black women who could have."

And while McDonald, 51, and Headley, 47, are heroes of hers, "I've had a lot of girls reach out, and say, 'Hey, this is a dream role of mine, and you're making it possible for me to achieve that goal.' At times when I'm just so in my head about what I'm doing in the show, it's a great reminder that this is something," Kouatchou told PEOPLE.

She added, "No matter what I do on stage, me in that costume and me wearing that wig and me singing those songs and just my face as a face of Phantom [is] so important."