According to The New York Times, several hundred people gathered at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park on Monday afternoon to celebrate the life of Kyle Jean-Baptiste, the 21-year old actor who died last week in a fall from a fire escape in Brooklyn. Mr. Jean-Baptiste was the first African-American to play the role of Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables” on Broadway, as well as the youngest.
Bethesda Fountain was one of his favorite spots, especially to bring a date, said Hannah-Jo Weisberg, a friend. The crowd ended the memorial by surrounding the fountain and singing the “Les Misérables” anthem “Do You Hear the People Sing?” Friends gave out flowers to those attending and left by the fountain programs from shows in which Mr. Jean-Baptiste appeared. Every student in the theater program from Mr. Jean-Baptiste’s graduating class of 2015 at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio, was present, as well as former classmates from LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan and fellow cast members from theater productions.
The memorial was relatively short. Brandyn Day, Mr. Jean-Baptiste’s best friend, gave the only speech. “He taught me how to love people,” Mr. Day said. Mr. Day reminisced about Mr. Jean-Baptiste’s quest to make it to Broadway. “He followed Playbill like it was his job,” he said. “When he found out ‘Les Miz’ was coming back to Broadway, he kept saying, ‘I’m going to be in it,’ ” Mr. Day recalled. Mr. Jean-Baptiste was cast as an ensemble member in the musical and as an understudy for the role of Valjean a day after graduating.
“Les Misérables” was one of Mr. Jean-Baptiste’s favorite musicals: He played the police inspector Javert two summers ago at the New London Barn Playhouse for the New Hampshire Summer Stock series, and the student rebel Enjolras last year at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival.
Victoria Bussert, the director of the music theater program at Baldwin Wallace, recalled Mr. Jean-Baptiste’s prowess from his very first audition. “He came to us without a lot of experience, but with the most immense raw talent I’ve ever encountered,” she said in a telephone interview from Boise, Idaho. “He was certainly at the center of the Baldwin Wallace music theater family.”
Mr. Jean-Baptiste auditioned for “Les Misérables” first by tape during his senior year at Baldwin Wallace, then flew to New York to audition in person. “Everyone was blown away by his voice, his strength, his heart,” said Eric Woodall, a casting director for Tara Rubin Casting who handled the show. Interviewed by phone, Mr. Woodall recalled others in the audition room expressing skepticism about Mr. Jean-Baptiste’s ability because he arrived in a T-shirt. However, when he changed into a collared shirt, “suddenly he had the regalness,” Mr. Woodall said.
The actor was remembered for his love of video games and pranks, and his tendency to sing wherever he went. “If I ever got irritated with him, it’s because we’re on the train, and he’s singing out loud,” said Josue Sinvil, a classmate from LaGuardia. “But I’ve never met a kinder person.”
Sidebar: RIP Kyle Jean-Baptise