A Chat with Norm Lewis
With 18 years of Broadway, Off-Broadway shows and numerous concerts, this is one actor that has captured the attention of many directors and producers. Just as importantly, he has won over the theater crowds as one of the most glorious Broadway voices of the last decade.
Norm, a native Floridian, basically possessed a hidden vocal treasure that wasn't discovered until a talent scout caught up with him in his mid 20's, in the middle of an advertising/ sales job. Today, among his long list of Broadway and regional credits is Miss Saigon, Side Show, Chicago, Ragtime, Dessa Rose, Baby, The Wild Party, Amour, Sweeney Todd, Company, The Fantasticks, as well as several Broadway and fund-raising concerts. His powerhouse vocals and acting have kept him in the limelight and continue to place him in solid, sought-after roles. His latest role is in one of Broadway's most popular shows to date, Les Miserables, where he will be starring as Javert in the return of Les Miserables, a limited tribute engagement to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Broadway run which previews on October 21st and opens in November 2006 at the Broadhurst Theater.
I caught up with Norm just returning from LA and on the brink of Les Miz rehearsals.
Pati Buehler: Are you excited about this?
Norm Lewis: Oh, very excited! It's always been one of my favorite shows--the music, the story, the songs, which I love. I'm just really glad they decided to bring me in for this, and at last.
PB: How did this Les Miz role come about?
NL: Well, it's been a while in coming. I auditioned for the show years ago. Interestingly enough, they were considering me for the role of Enjolras back in about '94. I held off on doing that because they were interested in me for Miss Saigon, which I ended up doing. Then other things came about, and they brought me in again to audition for Javert and after I sang, they were interested in me for Valjean. So I'm thinking, I can't do Valjean. I'm a baritone and Valjean, well that's pretty high for me, so I didn't want to mess up my career that way. They wanted to hire me to do a tour after Colm Wilkinson back in '99, but I was doing Captain Courageous and I just couldn't do it at the time. Honestly, I really just didn't see myself as Valjean. So after all this time, this year they called me to come in for Javert. So its been a long time coming.
PB: Who is Javert and how will you portray him?
NL: Well, to many people he is "ooooh the bad guy, the antagonist." But I think he's a man that believes in major principles. People view principles very differently. But Javert is very strict as to how he wants his life to go and how he sees others. I don't want people to necessarily like me, but I want them to understand what this character is all about while he's trying to find Valjean.
PB: Not unlike Sweeney Todd, right?
NL: Absolutely! It's funny, because you know me, in my personal life Norm is the goofy guy with a lot of friends and people kind of like me and blah, blah blah (laughing). So it's hard for some people to see me as mad or... whatever. When I told friends I was doing Sweeney Todd, they were saying "that's great, but I don't know. I don't see you as the mad, disturbed guy." But when they saw me as Sweeney, they were all saying "Oh My God you really scared me. (laughing) Dude, you really went there! You were mad! You showed us a different side." So it was nice to get that sort of feedback. My brother, to this day, says that was his favorite role that I did. So, I just want to bring truth to whatever character I portray. I want to show you why he is the way he is.
PB: How long are you contracted with Les Miz?
NL: Right now we are just doing a 6 month run. So my contract is up in April, right? It is commemorating the 20th Anniversary of its run on Broadway. That's all I know.
PB: Question from BWW readers: what are some highlights of special shows, special moments, special people?
NL: Wow! Well ..the first thing popping into my head is Side Show, which most people know me from. Working with Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, Hugh Panaro, Jeff McCarthy, really; that whole cast was just an amazing time in my life. Working with LaChanze, Rachel York in Dessa Rose last year, being nominated--as that was my first NY nomination. I was like "Woo hoo! That's cool." And I won an Adulco Award. Do you know what that is?
PB: Um, sorry, no.
NL: It's an ethnic or African-American Award that goes out to actors that portray roles of African-Americans in certain settings. I ended up winning Best Actor in a Musical, which I thought was fantastic. Ok... back to more memories...working with George Wolfe...Gosh there's just so many, many.
PB: We'll take that for now and come back. I know that you mentioned in a previous BWW interview that you came into this business later beyond your schooling, so my question would be how have you honed your skills, vocal or acting coaches?
NL: Yeah, my acting coach Allen Savich has really, really whipped me into shape, made me understand what a character is all about, finding out what's important in the script that needs to be brought out. Vocal coaches--I've worked with a couple of them and I've kind of taken their different techniques to use and go forward.
PB: Norm, what are you doing or what do you see yourself doing in between and beyond Broadway?
NL: Well, I'm actually working on doing an album this year with obviously some Broadway and standards and maybe contemporize a few things a little bit. I'm too old to be the next pop star and I'm not really into that genre. I think that I will probably pursue the recording world and try to fit a nitch right now that needs to be filled, a mature singer somewhere between Josh Groban and Luther Vandross. Hopefully I can work with some producers like David Foster, if he reads this..."David Foster, if you hear me" (laughing). I would love to do a concert and go beyond Broadway, you know, some jazz, some big band things maybe some contemporary things as well.
PB: Sounds adventurous and a step outside of Broadway...which leads to my next question. Broadway has taken an interesting turn over the past few years. Any opinions about this or what you've enjoyed?
NL: Well, certainly it's the changing of the times from when we first came to Broadway. I think it's good. If it still portrays a message and if people are still training themselves to work in this industry. If you can sing a song and dance a dance and give a message out to people, as long as you find yourself having an audience for it, that's great. I think it can be a bit limiting, say, for someone with a legit voice or opera trained voice to jump into any role today, but they can enjoy sitting back and enjoying it. You know I've been away for about year, but I really liked Wicked and I want to see Jersey Boys, so I'm glad to be back in New York, then I can give you more opinions about that.
PB: The last time we talked about this, you hadn't been bitten by the director bug. I assume performing is still your passion?
NL: Of course you know my favorite, favorite thing is being a live performer. But I have done a few master classes and it's kind of given me the bug a little. But I would probably need to school myself to even consider directing. That's a whole other art form that I definitely respect.
PB: What can you tell us about your CD?
NL: Well, I've got a few concerts semi-scheduled for next year and I will want to have some material for people to buy and take it with them. Because every time I do a live performance, people ask me if I have a CD, and I don't. I sort of feel bad about that, so I'm definitely going to do one this year.
PB: We'll be looking forward to that. A few questions from BWW readers if you will? Someone asked where to send fan mail?
NL: Oh, that's sweet. I'm working on my website, as we speak. Once that gets going you can e-mail me. I will check them frequently.
PB: Next up; favorite song to sing?
NL: Well my favorite song ever to sing is "We Live on Borrowed Time" by David Friedman, which I will want to record. I also love "In Lily's Eyes" and so many more. We'll have to see.
PB: Next, anyone who you admired musically as a young person?
NL: It's funny, Pati, when I look back on this, yes, I loved Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstein, Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra because we had those albums playing in our home. I didn't sing when I was younger, as you know, but I admired their abilities. It wasn't until years later when I was told I could sing (laughing) that I realize that, yes, they were my inspiration because I sound like their era and style of singing. So I guess I could say they were my inspiration, the crooners. In fact, one of the notes I get when I'm in a show is that I croon songs. So I have to be careful about that when I'm singing, especially with this role coming up. In fact I was coaching the other day and the guy said "OK, you're crooning it". (Laughing). So Javert's not a crooner.
PB: A crooning Javert. At least that would tend to make the audience like you.
NL: Oh yeah! exactly. That would be a whole different show then wouldn't it (laughing).
PB: Now that you are into this role, someone asked if you have a favorite Javert actor?
NL: Oh God, you would do that to me. OK, I've seen different people play this role and I've loved pretty much all of them. I will have to give props to Terrance Mann because he was on the original album and he's a really good friend so I will mention him as a standout. How's that?
PB: Good enough. Another BWW request--your Wild Party experience, please?
NL: Wow! Wild Party! That was one of my highlights that I forgot to mention to you. I got to work with George Wolfe, one of my favorite directors. He and Michael John LaChiusa working together were amazing. When we needed to change something or cut something, and the way they tied it in together, I just thought it was incredible. I also had a chance to work with some wonderfully talented people such as Eartha Kitt and Mandy Patinkin and Toni Collette. Toni Collette just blew my mind. I would watch her on stage and just see her become this character Queenie and see how easily she just got her emotions off of her sleeve. She was amazing! Working with my friend Michael McElroy and Nathan Lee Graham, Leah Hocking...wow..I could mention everyone. I'm sorry that we didn't last longer or get the best reviews, but my experience with this artistically made it one of my favorite shows.
PB: How about Chess in Concert with Josh Groban?
NL: Again a great cast. Working with a celebrity such as Josh Groban, and seeing how down-to-earth he is as well, was another thing I just admired in this young man. Seeing how he handled all the attention surrounding him and being so cool about it and then he being nervous around us was kind of a cool thing too. His wanting to perform like we do, trying to ingrain himself with us. I hope that he comes to Broadway soon because I think he would do very, very well. Julia Murney! What can you say about her. She's just a powerhouse. I would work with her again and again, and again; just an amazing woman. There's a lot of great singers out there, but she has the ability to act the heck out of a song. Once at a concert, she took the song "People," which is a very difficult song and sang it so simply and beautifully.
PB: Julia certainly did a fantastic job with Elphaba in Wicked.
NL: Really? I would have loved to have seen her. I've "heard", not from her, that there is a "possibility" that she will be back in New York. I hear things too you know. (laughing).
PB: Norm, I've finally ran out of questions for you. Aren't you glad?
NL: No, I'm flattered that you and BWW are still interested in what I am doing and appreciate all the support that the theater community gives back to us.
PB: Thank you for this time and we will all look forward to seeing you chase 24601 around the stage. Enjoy!
#4--Norm Lewis concert at Joe's Pub