Kyle Jean-Baptiste made history when he was cast as the Jean Valjean understudy in Les Misérables. The decision made him both the youngest man, at 21, and the first African-American to take on the role on Broadway. And on Thursday, he gave his last performance.
Jean-Baptiste was leaving to take on a new role, which started in a week, in the Broadway production of The Color Purple. The job began on September 6, the New York Times reported.
But in the early morning hours of August 29, the Friday after that last performance, Kyle was sitting on the fire escape with a female friend at his mother’s apartment in Brooklyn, when he stood up, slipped, and fell four stories to the street below, Entertainment Tonight and Playbill both recounted.
At only 21, the rising star was killed; his death has been ruled accidental. His premature passing has stunned the Broadway community, with an outpouring of grief, prayers, shock, and accolades about Jean-Baptiste’s talent.
The actor who Kyle understudied, Jean Valjean himself — played by Ramin Karimloo — said the young man was charismatic and had “a zest for life and the industry.”
“He had a lot of ambition and the confidence to achieve those ambitions. When I heard him sing, his voice was ridiculous for a guy his age … He was a good buddy of mine and…he was already headed towards his second Broadway show, and this kid was going to be a star. He was a one-man band. He had a lot of moxie, and he wanted to sprint before he could crawl. But I tell you what, his stride could keep it.”
Jean-Baptiste joined the cast of Les Misérables earlier this summer, starting with small roles in June until he was cast as the understudy for Karimloo. Kyle took the stage as the musical’s tragic and heroic protagonist several times before his last performance.
Kyle attended Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School and Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio. He was a fixture in regional theater in Cleveland and played another role in Les Miz — Enjolras — last year at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival.
When he assumed the understudy role, Kyle told Playbill that he didn’t think about how he was making history.
“This was my dream since I was a little boy. This incredible team of creatives presented an opportunity to play a part I have dreamed of playing since I was introduced to theatre, and I am forever grateful. I felt a huge amount of responsibility to do right by them and to honor this iconic material.”
Now, Jean-Baptiste’s friends are planning a memorial for their lost friend, which is scheduled for Monday in Central Park.
Meanwhile, his family has expressed their grief in an official statement, saying, “Yesterday, a young man who was kind, thoughtful, respectful, confident and vulnerable, left our world. He was a son, a brother, a grandson, a nephew, a cousin, and a friend. With a smile ‘yay wide,’ a heart worn on his sleeve, and a song always on his lips, he walked with us for 21 years. To say he will be missed would be an understatement. Our pain has no boundaries.”
[Photo Courtesy Twitter]