Broadway actor with Cleveland ties is dead at 21

Playhouse Square, Cleveland. Oct. 26, 2014
FILE - Playhouse Square in Cleveland. Actor Kyle Jean-Baptiste had signed on to do two shows here when he died in New York at the age of 21. (File photo, Oct. 26, 2014, WKBN)

NEW YORK (AP) – Kyle Jean-Baptiste, the first African-American and youngest person to ever play the role of Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables” on Broadway has died after falling from a fire escape, according to a show spokesman. He was 21.

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.”

Jean-Baptiste died Friday night following the show’s evening performance at the Imperial Theatre, said representative Marc Thibodeau, who called it a “tragic accident.”

“The entire ‘Les Misérables’ family is shocked and devastated by the sudden and tragic loss of Kyle, a remarkable young talent and tremendous person who made magic – and history – in his Broadway debut. We send our deepest condolences to his family and ask that you respect their privacy in this unimaginably difficult time,” a statement from the production reads.

The actor was an ensemble member of the company and an understudy for Valjean, going onstage as the ex-convict in a history-making appearance July 23. His last performance in the role was Thursday.

The Broadway community took to Twitter on Saturday to mourn the loss of a young talent.

“Shocked and saddened to have lost one of Broadway’s youngest treasures,” tweeted Tony Award-nominee Joshua Henry. Former “Glee” star Matthew Morrison, starring in “Finding Neverland,” called him “such a pure voice. Heartbreaking.” Patina Miller, a Tony winner for “Pippin,” said: “My heart goes out to all who knew and loved this incredibly talented young man.”

A spokeswoman for the New York Police Department said investigators believe Jean-Baptiste’s death was accidental.

According to police, Jean-Baptiste was sitting on a fourth-floor fire escape of an apartment in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn with a 23-year-old woman Friday night when he stood up, slipped and then fell backward to the ground.

The city’s medical examiner will determine his official cause of death, police said. A spokeswoman for the medical examiner’s office did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment late Saturday.

After making stage history as the first black Valjean, he told Playbill: “I did not immediately think of it as 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.”

In one of his last tweets, sent Tuesday, Jean-Baptiste showed gratitude for his friends and fans: “I thank everyone who supported me and still does. I will never forget this experience. Onwards and upwards,” he wrote. “Nothing but love.”

The current “Les Misérables” on Broadway is the second revival of the hit show. It debuted in 1987 with Colm Wilkinson in the role of Valjean and lasted until 2003. A revival in 2006 lasted just a few years and the latest reimagined version landed on Broadway last year. In a few days, British opera star Alfie Boe is due to take over Valjean.

Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.

Reach Mark Kennedy on Twitter

(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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