Nikki M. James, the Tony Award-winning actress and star of the acclaimed musical The Book of Mormon sits down with Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg to discuss her path to the stage, as well as her deep love of musical theater. James grew up listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber and admits she's seen Rent over 30 times. As a bonafide Renthead, it's no surprise that James is undaunted by our Ask Me Another Challenge, in which Jonathan Coulton performs parodies of classic songs from famous musicals. If Lent: The Musical ever hits Broadway, we have its showstopper ready to go.
About Nikki James
Nikki M. James won the 2011 Tony Award Winner for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Nabulungi in The Book of Mormon. The character is a young, optimistic Ugandan girl who sings about the land of Mormon utopia in Utah's capital.
James has performed in several Broadway roles, including All Shook Up and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, as well as in other theatre performances — from Romeo and Juliet, to Dorothy in The Wiz. She's also been on several TV shows: 30 Rock, Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Third Watch.
A graduate of the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, James holds a BFA in Drama from NYU. She got her start at age 5 singing at church.
Watch a clip from James' recording session of "All New", part of OVER THE MOON: The Broadway Lullaby Project.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Welcome back to ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour for people who speak puzzle. I'm your host, Ophira Eisenberg. And joining me is this week's mystery guest, so happy to have her, star of the Broadway smash hit and Tony Award winner from the "Book of Mormon." Nicky M. James everybody.
(SOUNDBITE OF NICKY M. JAMES SINGING)
NICKY M. JAMES: Oh it's me.
EISENBERG: It is.
JAMES: I wish I could take that to the theatre with me.
(SOUNDBITE OF NICKY M. JAMES SINGING)
JAMES: (Singing)... there was laughter instead of dying. I always thought that she made it up. To comfort me in times of pain. But now I know that place is real. Now I know it's name. Sal Tlay Ka Siti..
EISENBERG: Salt Lake City has Unicorns in it. Nicky welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER.
JAMES: Thank you for having me.
EISENBERG: Oh my pleasure. So the "Book of Mormon," obviously huge smash hit. I loved it. I thought it was the funniest thing I've ever seen on Broadway. And I am not alone, obviously. But the humor: irreverent, edgy. The language is dangerous, I think we can say dangerous about it.
JAMES: Yeah, it's dangerous.
EISENBERG: And the subject matter, obviously, we're dealing with Mormons in Africa, AIDS, it's an equal opportunity offender.
JAMES: Female genital - female genital mutilation.
JAMES: Big fat point.
EISENBERG: So when you first were given the script, what did you, what did you think when you read this?
JAMES: Well there not dummies, so they didn't give us a script.
JAMES: They said, so they're doing this musical and we can't tell you what it's called. We can't send you a script, we won't send you any music. And they said your character is an African girl and...
JAMES: And then they said we'll do like two weeks of rehearsal and we are just going to do this little reading. And then they asked - sent us a confidentiality agreement. It was like so top, top secret.
EISENBERG: And how did you feel in the process? Were you worried what you were getting into?
JAMES: No. Well I thought it's only two weeks of my life, and...
EISENBERG: That's hilarious.
JAMES: ... anyone in the audience who is an actor knows that the most important thing is collecting insurance weeks. So two insurance weeks down, which is great. And so I was like, sure yeah, I'm on board. And so the first day of rehearsals when we heard a demo recording of the first four or five songs, I loved it. It's so smart and really well done. And the guys are awesome and lovely to work with. So they had me at hello.
EISENBERG: And the first time you did a table reading did you - an audience there to...?
JAMES: We did. It was full light, you know. It was just a rehearsal room. So we were lit and they were lit, and our audience was very close to us and it was totally terrifying. And even at that performance which was just invited, people walked out. We're like I can't handle this.
EISENBERG: Really? People left?
JAMES: Yeah. Yeah!
EISENBERG: So did you think it would be the big smash hit it is?
JAMES: Well I knew it was going to make some kind of a splash. Listen I mean, I knew how good it was and I knew that I loved it, and that was the most important thing about committing my time and my energy and my talents, you know - of which I hope I have a few - to this project. And I thought, you know, if it bombs then we did you know, the greatest bomb in musical theatre history. You know, people are going to love it, or people are going to hate it. And I sort of liked the - anticipation was pretty awesome.
EISENBERG: The risk of it?
JAMES: Yeah it was really risky.
EISENBERG: Yeah and what a great pay off.
JAMES: We did a good job.
EISENBERG: What a great pay off.
JAMES: We did a good job.
EISENBERG: And then you get a Tony.
JAMES: I did.
EISENBERG: So I have to ask, because I teased about it, where do you keep it?
JAMES: I mean, I live in a New York City apartment. It's small, walk up in Chelsea. Like I don't have a lot of area, so it's just in my living room on a side table. It's the only thing on the table. Well there's a lamp, so it sort of has a spotlight. When I first got it, I moved it around with me, like weirdly, in the apartment. So when I went to sleep I would bring it into my bedroom.
JAMES: I didn't take it to the bathroom with me because I wasn't sure what kind of metal it was made of. I didn't want it to get like rusty from the sweat, you know. And I - you know I would take a lot of pictures of it. And it was really like - it's the best toy I've ever received. And I'm an actress right, a musical theatre performer, my whole life, so I didn't play sports, I never got a trophy, so this is my first trophy. And it's a good one.
EISENBERG: That is a good one.
JAMES: Yeah, it's a really good one.
EISENBERG: But now there's a smash hit, the reviews are out. You know, people call it like the funniest thing that's ever been on Broadway.
EISENBERG: You know, best musical ever. Are there still points in it that you're worried how the audience might react?
JAMES: Yeah. Well, you know, we did two shows on Easter Sunday, so - I mean let's be honest, if you're going to see the "Book of Mormon" on Easter instead of going to church, you're probably not like that good of a Christian.
JAMES: But still like, there is a fear that, you know, he might decide that this day to like sort of strike us dead. And...
JAMES: ... on, you know, our very first performance we had a sound issue right at the top. Like all of the mics went down, so we had to hold the performance. And we did, for a moment, you think, maybe he really is mad.
JAMES: He's not. He's gave us all these awards and stuff.
EISENBERG: Yeah, happy. Hear from Mormons?
JAMES: Yeah. We've heard from a few Mormons. Lot of former Mormons actually. The real Mormons don't necessarily come up and say, hey at the stage door.
JAMES: But we have gotten some - like we have gotten a few letters and there's a couple - a guy on YouTube, he and his wife who go through the "Book of Mormon," the musical and tell us what is or is not true about the musical, based on the, the Mormon faith. Which is really long. It's like 25 minutes, I sat through the whole thing.
EISENBERG: They go through the musical and go this is true about Mormonism, but this isn't?
JAMES: Yeah. Yeah. They'll say, oh well they say in the musical that the guys become mission partners for the whole two years, but that's not really true. You know, you have a few different mission partners over your two years.
EISENBERG: Wow. Mormons got a lot of time.
JAMES: It's like really nit-picky.
JAMES: And the truth of the matter of is, Trey and Matt and Bobby did an amazing job researching. So we don't actually say anything that's not true. There is some artistic license, but anything we say is a Mormon belief, is a Mormon belief. They did a really good job of that, I mean, I don't want to pass judgment, but a lot of it is just really funny, just, you know, the way it is. You don't have to -
JAMES: Do not have to dress it up at all. It's just like, wow that's a weird thing to believe. OK.
EISENBERG: Truth is funnier than fiction.
JAMES: Absolutely. Absolutely.
EISENBERG: Now you are a musical super fan?
JAMES: Absolutely huge.
EISENBERG: As a super fan and a musical theatre celebrity, is there anyone that you idolize that has paid you a complement or respect that you went, oh my god this person!
JAMES: Yeah. Big, big, big, big. I beat Patti LuPone for a Tony Award. Which is, was huge for me because she is my idol in a lot of ways. And after the Tony's and stuff she did a two person show with Mandy Patinkin, called Patti and Mandy, so clever. And...
JAMES: ... I went to see it and I was invited backstage and she paid me huge complements. And she mentioned, when she was doing Evita, which was her big Broadway debut and she won a Tony Award for it, and she said you don't get to have this time twice. And I'm happy it happened for you in this way and - And you should, you know, hold on to it for as long as you can. And so I did. I'm going to try to, anyway, remember the last year.
EISENBERG: That just sent chills up my spine. I'm not even kidding. I got a little tingly. That is amazing. OK, now is the time I ask you Nicky, are you ready to take an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge? Are you ready to be put in the puzzle hot seat?
JAMES: Totally ready.
EISENBERG: Are you read? All right. Let's do it. How about another hand...?
EISENBERG: ... for Nicky M. James.
Very excited about this. Let's bring back John Chaneski.
JOHN CHANESKI: Hi. Hi Nicky. Nice to meet you.
EISENBERG: Will Hines.
WILL HINES: Hello. Hello.
EISENBERG: And of course Jonathan Coulton.
JONATHAN COULTON: Hi.
EISENBERG: Who will be helping us in our next game. Now Nicky believe it or not, we actually found a worthy opponent for you for this game.
JAMES: I'm scared.
EISENBERG: Someone that was willing to take you on. So let's welcome your challenger, this is Lisa Lambert everybody.
JAMES: Hi Lisa. His Lisa.
EISENBERG: Now I know a little something about Lisa that you have in common with Nicky. Lisa also has a Tony as it turns out. Yes. You can - yeah - go ahead in your words Lisa.
LISA LAMBERT: I do indeed. I am one of the writers of the "Drowsy Chaperone."
JAMES: Oh yeah.
LAMBERT: The show, and turns out we had the same director, Casey Nicholaw. Directed "Book of Mormon," and "Drowsy Chaperone" so - it's the battle of the Casey's.
JAMES: See how it ends.
EISENBERG: This is what we have to do to find a worthy contestant.
JAMES: I love it.
EISENBERG: So we're going to do - play a game about famous songs from musicals but what we've done is that we've changed the lyrics to be clues for various mystery items and people. The big hint is that the name of the thing we're looking for rhymes with the musical from which the song comes from. Sound confusing? Don't worry. Let's do an example, Jonathan.
COULTON: (Singing) To Jethro, to Jethro, she's kinfolk to Jethro, the lady who's old and gray.
EISENBERG: So obviously the melody is "Tomorrow" from the musical "Annie," and the answer we're looking for is Granny.
EISENBERG: Yes, granny because granny rhymes with Annie, the lady who's old and grey from the Beverly Hillbillies. OK. Got it?
JAMES: We got it.
EISENBERG: All right. So ring in when you think you know the answer.
COULTON: (Singing) Don't cry for Brie or Fontina. The truth is there not as yummy, as processed cheese food.
EISENBERG: Nice! You got that right.
EISENBERG: Velveeta is correct Lisa.
LAMBERT: All right, all right.
EISENBERG: She's quick that one.
COULTON: (Singing) Three million, forty five thousand seconds of fasting. Three million forty five thousand seconds of prayer. Three million, forty five thousand seconds 'til Easter. What is this called all you Catholics out there? A season called what?
EISENBERG: Sorry have to recover from geek mania. Lisa.
NICKY M JAMES: Lent.
LAMBERT: That's right.
EISENBERG: Lent. Lent.
COULTON: That's not even the geekiest thing we've done in the last ten minutes.
EISENBERG: I know. I know. That's why I love it.
(Singing) Once a short Italian was her spouse. Her costume seemed to be from Mars.
COULTON: (Singing) Believing then turn back time and name her. She's one of music's biggest stars. Her plastic surgeries are many and various. Many and various. And various!
EISENBERG: Cher is correct.
COULTON: (Singing) Bottoms up. Swill some gin, till you feel your head starting to spin. Visions blurred just a bit. Speech is slurred now you're lit. You're giggling and your brain has turned to mush. Honey every one's calling you stinko and staggering...
EISENBERG: Yes tipsy.
EISENBERG: Gypsy, tipsy. That sounds like a fun musical does it not?
JAMES: I love it.
EISENBERG: And starring Tallulah Bankhead, tipsy, all right. Are we close? Wow! It's a tie right now between Nicky and Lisa. OK.
JAMES: Feeling highly competitive.
COULTON: That's because you're in a competition.
COULTON: Each of you, bet your Tony.
EISENBERG: Maybe just trade them.
COULTON: (Singing) Kids fight, they enjoy misbehavement. They might moon passing strangers, they might flip you the bird. Little monsters, so crude, and rude, ill-mannered and mean. Spoiled rotten, they're this word. Lisa.
EISENBERG: Bratz is correct.
COULTON: She pulls it out. Lisa.
EISENBERG: Lisa Lambert is our winner by one point. Nicky, we would love to give you a ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.
EISENBERG: And Lisa, an NPR music bag and ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's cube inside. Congratulations.
LAMBERT: Thank you so much.
EISENBERG: Lisa Lambert. Nicky M. James. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.