Who is that Masked Man? Why, it’s Norm Lewis, making his debut at NJPAC on May 3, then taking on Phantom.
With his suave, dimpled looks, Broadway baritone Norm Lewis is known for being a heartbreaker in many of his favorite roles – even if those characters carry a whiff of villainy. He’s played the tormented Javert in Les Miserables, Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime and the bloodthirsty Mr. Todd. And following a recurring part on TV’s Scandal, arms of women across America shot in the air when his Sen. Edison Davis was given the heave-ho by Olivia Pope.
Winking at a Les Miz lyric and a multiple-personality career, Norm Lewis: Who Am I? is the title of Lewis’ debut appearance on May 3 in NJPAC’s Chase Room. During his two solo sets, audiences can expect to hear plummy interpretations of songs from his roll call of characters, including the latest: The Phantom of the Opera. On May 12, the born-and-bred Floridian becomes the first African-American actor to star in Broadway’s longest-running show.
Lewis just flew in from Orlando, where he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of his alma mater, Edgewater High School. Apparently the hallways there percolate with Glee-fulness because the school also produced Davis Gaines, another Broadway Phantom. “Edgewater now holds the record for having the most Phantoms graduate from their high school,” he quips.
A 2012 Tony nominee for another heartfelt portrayal – the lead in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess opposite Audra McDonald – Lewis is gearing back up for a grueling performance schedule, but is thankful for the proximity of his Manhattan residence to the Majestic Theatre. He chatted briefly with NJPAC straight out of rehearsal and into the dressing room, where he and a friend – the current longtime Phantom, Hugh Panaro – were kicking back in the few weeks left before the passing of the cape.
NJPAC: You’re making your NJPAC premiere! What are you bringing?
Norm Lewis: I’m very excited about that. It’s a lot of Broadway, but a mix of contemporary performers as well as some R&B, a little bit of gospel, and just kind of giving the story of my life. Sondheim, Stevie Wonder, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Gershwin – it’s going to be a mix of people. … (NJPAC) is going to be my last public performance (before Phantom). I have a couple of little things that I’m doing, but nothing on the magnitude of NJPAC.
Your career could have taken an entirely different turn. You worked for a while in production and marketing at The Orlando Sentinel.
I ended up leaving to pursue this acting thing. … I went to my supervisor at work and she said, ‘You don’t want to be 85 years old and saying coulda-woulda-shoulda, so go for it. Try it.’ And because of her encouragement that’s what happened.
Some of the contests that I would enter down in Florida in these bars would involve a lot of different genres, anything from “For Once in My Life” to “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” which are Stevie Wonder-slash-Sammy Davis, Jr. … or even Frank Sinatra. I sang a couple of gospel tunes in a bar to win a contest. One contest, I sang “I Got Rhythm,” believe it or not, and I won. That’s where this producer from a cruise ship saw me and that’s how I got a job.
What’s your daily routine become lately?
Right now it’s definitely the 10-to-6 routine for rehearsal, but now that I’m at home more than traveling so much doing concerts, I have time to focus on me as far as health, working out, finding the right foods to eat, juicing, things like that. Just trying to take care of myself to be 100 percent for each show.
Phantom’s biggest challenge …?
The physicality. It’s easy to sing some of these songs in concert, that’s one thing. But to now do a song with a whole different sort of gravitas, with the intent of getting a reaction from Christine or whoever’s in that scene. There are certain movements that are choreographed and there are certain intentions – that I didn’t know before – that go with certain phrases of the songs. That’s the challenge and it’s the great part about doing it. And getting to act these songs instead of just performing them.
Speaking of the Phantom’s muse, Christine Daaé, she’s going to be played by your former castmate from The Little Mermaid, Sierra Boggess.
We had so much fun at The Little Mermaid and through the years just being friends. We’re excited to be working together again and there’s going to be a lot of antics happening backstage. It’s very homey … There’s a few people I’ve worked with before – one in particular, Heather Hill, she and I did Porgy and Bess together and she covers for (Christine’s operatic rival) Carlotta, so it’s nice to see a familiar face. For the most part everybody’s young and spritely and I can’t wait to meet them all.