12 Broadway Breakout Stars of 2015

5:30 AM 12/21/2015

by Ashley Lee

THR salutes a dozen show-stopping scene-stealers who turned heads in some of the year's most adventurous and exciting productions.

Plays Split - H 2015
Courtesy of Matthew Murphy; Joan Marcus

There are any number of ways to break out on Broadway, as shown by this year’s new and noteworthy names, who include a stand-up comic, a ballet dancer, a virtuoso rapper and a sign language interpreter. Ranging in age from 11 to 52, this exemplary dozen proved themselves nightly to be in full command of the stage, whether putting their unique stamps on well-known roles or introducing carefully crafted characters for the first time. 

The Hollywood Reporter salutes the 12 Broadway breakout stars of 2015 (listed in no particular order):

  • Daveed Diggs

    Making his Broadway debut, the rapid-fire rapper breathes boisterous life into both the flamboyant Marquis de Lafayette (his declaration, "Immigrants …we get the job done!" scores big laughs), and the haughty Thomas Jefferson (his “cabinet meeting” rap battles are among the second act’s highlights), bringing terrific distinction and charm to each role.

  • Sydney Lucas

    Lucas – the sister of The King and I’s Jake Lucas – joined the groundbreaking dysfunctional family musical off-Broadway at age 9. Two years later, she nabbed a Tony nomination for playing the youngest version of Alison: a girl who squirms when forced into a party dress, repeatedly removing her barrettes while quietly suggesting that a crew cut would keep her hair out of her eyes more efficiently. She makes the sexual discovery song “Ring of Keys” a knockout, performed with aching tenderness.

  • Austin P. McKenzie

    The speaking actor who stars as radical heartthrob student Melchior wasn’t even eyeing a role onstage when he applied to Los Angeles’ Deaf West Theatre for a job as an interpreter. But with his Broadway debut in the breakthrough show, performed simultaneously in American Sign Language, McKenzie earns his place in the spotlight.

  • Cynthia Erivo

    As downtrodden Celie, the British newcomer is transcendent in this deeply satisfying reinvention. Her finely calibrated performance supplies the production's direct hit to the heart, mind and gut, from her first appearance as a pregnant teen to her show-stopping anthem “I’m Here.” Erivo's lucid, unflinching and rigorously honest characterization, along with the clarity and force of her voice, make Celie's emancipation more profoundly moving than ever before.

  • Alex Brightman

    In this musical adaptation of the hit 2003 film, Brightman makes the leap from ensemble parts to the lead with a hilarious, star-making performance that genuflects to Jack Black in the movie while putting his own anarchic stamp on the role of Dewey Finn. With his indefatigable comic energy and explosive physicality, he is bracingly in the moment at all times, engaging with the kids playing Dewey's preteen students in ways that indicate genuine mutual affection.

  • Ana Villafane

    The Gloria Estefan bio-musical features a star-making lead performance from this radiant, perfectly cast newcomer. She's a natural, not only bearing a more-than-passing resemblance to the young Estefan, but also producing a fine facsimile of the original's vocal power. Balancing softness with a feisty side, Villafane provides a captivating human center to this enjoyable show, helping to elevate it above the more workmanlike aspects of its assembly.

  • Steven Boyer

    The stand-up comic-turned-Tony nominee delivers a virtuoso performance in Robert Askins' dark comedy about a confused Christian teenager in Texas. Whether trembling with fear as the deeply unhappy, reedy-voiced Jason or with power-crazed tyranny, wild irreverence and thundering rage as his out-of-control sock puppet Tyrone, Boyer creates two entirely distinct characters that give the illusion of existing independently of one another. Together, they somehow add up to one messed-up but affectingly real kid. 

  • Ruthie Ann Miles

    The Broadway newcomer won the 2015 Tony for her featured role as the wise and serene senior royal wife Lady Thiang in The King and I. Fresh off an acclaimed off-Broadway run as Imelda Marcos in David Byrne's Here Lies Love, Miles shows a different side of her range with a performance of tremendous dignity and soulfulness, making Lady Thiang's song, "Something Wonderful," a majestic hymn of devotion.

  • Leslie Odom Jr.

    As the scheming Aaron Burr, he's the self-described "villain in your history," who gives fellow orphan Alexander Hamilton a run for his money in the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical. Doing simultaneous duty as narrator and conflicted antagonist, the co-lead stops the show when he sings the rousing number, "The Room Where It Happens,” and he enters audiences’ hearts with the ballads “Wait for It” and "Dear Theodosia." 

  • Robert Fairchild

    In this stage version of the 1951 MGM movie-musical, the New York City Ballet principal makes his Broadway debut as U.S. soldier Jerry Mulligan, proving himself a triple-threat revelation who's more than capable of following in the suave footsteps of Gene Kelly. Fairchild's dreamily elegant form as a dancer — his jetés and pirouettes seem as natural to him as walking — is matched by charisma, understated masculinity and matinee-idol looks. Simultaneously sportive and sincere, he's ideal romantic-lead material.

  • Danielle Brooks

    Hell, yes! The Juilliard graduate best known as Taystee on Orange Is the New Black bites with relish into the fiercely independent Sofia, letting the humor and sensuality come naturally from this gutsy woman with her outsize presence. While seeing this titanic character brought low by white brutality is soul-crushing, sharing in her reawakening, as she shakes off her physical ills with a salty chuckle, is cause for rejoicing. And her two numbers are among the show's highlights.

  • Nathaniel Parker

    As King Henry VIII, Parker paints a portrait of a prickly but oddly endearing narcissist, elevated by the machinations of Ben Miles' Cromwell to be one step from God, which gives him more power than any English monarch before him. It's a very human characterization, wily but also at times like a petulant child who wants instant gratification and seems on the verge of a tantrum if he doesn't get it.