NEW YORK (AP) — Dozens of friends, colleagues and former classmates of a rising Broadway actor who had already made history at just 21 years old gathered in Central Park on Monday to mourn his accidental death.
Clutching flowers at Bethesda Fountain, the tearful group honored Kyle Jean-Baptiste, the first African-American and youngest person to play the role of Jean Valjean in "Les Miserables" on Broadway.
They hugged and told stories of the young man, concluding the memorial by singing the rousing "The People's Song" from that musical, some perched on the edge of the fountain as if standing atop a barricade.
"Kyle always knew what to say to strangers. He taught me how to speak to people. He taught me how to love people," said his best friend, Brandyn Day, currently in "Saturday Night Live" at The Gateway Playhouse on Long Island.
Jean-Baptiste was an ensemble member of the company and an understudy for Valjean, going onstage as the ex-convict in a history-making appearance on July 23. His last performance in the role was Thursday.
He was sitting on a fourth-floor fire escape of an apartment in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn with a 23-year-old woman on Friday night when he stood up, slipped and fell backward to the ground.
The Imperial Theatre, the current home of "Les Miserables," will dim its lights in his honor Tuesday night after the evening performance. "His spirit was infinite and his voice from God — we are all so sad not to have spent more time with him, for he truly was a rare talent and a special person. Our loss is heaven's gain and our prayers are with his family and friends," said producer Cameron Mackintosh in statement.
Jean-Baptiste was born in New York and graduated from Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio. The 6-foot-2-inch tenor had recently landed two musical roles at Playhouse Square in Cleveland, in "Murder Ballad" and "Love Story." He next had a role in the upcoming revival of "The Color Purple."
He also had played Enjolras last year in a production of "Les Miserables" at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. He had been in "Les Miserables" in three productions altogether. A scholarship in his name at his alma mater raised more than $25,000 in a day.
Jenny Fernandez, who spent her freshman year with Jean-Baptiste at Baldwin Wallace University, said there was something clearly special about him.
"It was just very clear that he would go far," she said. "Death is really hard to understand and comprehend, and the best thing that we can do is be together."
Jean-Baptiste was known to make up his own lyrics to rap songs. He read Playbill religiously and dreamed of being on Broadway one day. He got word he landed the gig in "Les Miserables" in New York the day after graduating and cried in Day's arms.
"When he did something he did it in the biggest possible way," Day said. "Everyone who met Kyle loved him. I loved him. And he will never be forgotten."