InDepth InterView: Norm Lewis Talks THE TEMPEST, LES MIZ, SCANDAL, Broadway Memories, Future Plans & More
Today we are talking a phenomenally talented performer known for his decades treading the boards in a number of featured and lead roles, most recently wowing crowds with his turn as one of the title characters in THE GERSHWINS' PORGY & BESS - the engaging and golden-voiced Norm Lewis. Discussing many of his most celebrated roles as well as some more obscure, Lewis paints a vivid picture of his career trajectory thus far and shares compelling and candid stories of working on productions as varied and diverse as the original Broadway productions of THE WHO'S TOMMY, SIDE SHOW, THE WILD PARTY, AMOUR, THE LITTLE MERMAID and SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM as well as his sensational work Off-Broadway and regionally in projects such as his recent essaying of Javert in LES MISERABLES at The Muny (to say nothing of the 25th Anniversary live at the 02) as well as roles in RAGTIME, Dessa Rose, SWEENEY TODD and THE WIZARD & I: THE MUSIC OF Stephen Schwartz among many others. Additionally, Lewis sheds some light on his recent onscreen work, clueing us in on how he became involved with hit nighttime soap SCANDAL and how he enjoys working with co-stars Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn on it - and, if we will possibly see him in Season Three (perhaps!). Plus, Lewis opens up about his upcoming solo gigs and performing plans - including first news on his starring part in the upcoming Public Theater special musical version of THE TEMPEST - as well as touches upon a host of topics ranging from his appearances at spectacular special events - DREAMGIRLS: IN CONCERT, HAIR: IN CONCERT, TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA in the Park - to his appearance in SEX & THE CITY 2 (opposite Liza Minnelli) and the upcoming film WINTER'S TALE to recording studio work, dream projects, future goals, favorite workshop/reading experiences and much, much more!
That's The First Reason They Call Him The Champ
PC: THE WILD PARTY is still discussed as one of the most daring and original musicals to hit Broadway this century and I was curious if you could tell me about playing Eddie in that?
NL: Oh, well, first of all, it was a great experience, doing that show. [Pause. Sighs.] Wow. There are so many layers to this - to work for the Public, who I have always admired - their work - and I always wanted to be a part of that family at The Public Theater. Then, to work with George Wolfe and just embrace and try to embody all that he had to offer and would suggest - I would love to work with him again just because he is so smart and so great with actors. And, then, to work with somebody like Mandy Patinkin, who you have admired for so long, and to be in his presence. And, of course - Toni Collette.
PC: And her name says it all - unforgettable.
NL: She was incredible - the list goes on and on! There were so many incredible people in the show. Nathan Lee Graham, Michael McElroy, Tonya Pinkins, Eartha Kitt... [Laughs.] Eartha Kitt!
NL: Seriously, though - Eartha Kitt? Wow. Yeah, man - legend. Then, there was Michael John [LaChiusa]'s music... [Pause.] so eclectic and so hard to learn, but once you got it - got it in the pocket - you were just on cloud nine as a performer; everything he had written made so much sense once you were in it and doing it onstage. He was so particular, too, about staying true to the time and incorporating the jazz influence and all of that. Aww, I'm gonna starting going off on a tangent now, Pat, you gotta stop me. [Laughs.]
PC: The show is a masterpiece. By the way, the key change in "Eddie & Mae" is so spine-tingling - you just nail that crazy key-change.
NL: Oh, yeah, oh, yeah - I know exactly what part you're talking about. Thanks for saying that - that was a great song to do every night. A great character song.
PC: Is it true you got into shape to be a boxer in the show basically by working out a lot whenever you did shows out of town?
NL: Yeah - that's kind of true. That happened when I did LES MIZ in London, at least, actually - and, basically, it was because there was no excuse not to go; the gym was two doors down! [Laughs.]
PC: Convenient - and inconvenient, too!
NL: I had a trainer, too, so I basically said, "I am your canvas. Show me what to do," so I got on this really great training regimen then. I need to get back on it, actually - I've been gaining weight recently!
PC: How did you specifically train to play a boxer, particularly balancing it with eight shows a week?
NL: What I did to play Eddie in THE WILD PARTY was basically do a regimen that allowed me to have enough energy to do my routine and then still be able to do the show eight times a week or rehearse or whatever we were doing at the time. That show was back in 2000 and I remember reading this book called BODY FOR LIFE and I basically followed that regimen; it was basically four hours a week if you did it right, so I followed it to the T. I remember that someone in the show was an amazing cook and he would make these pies and cakes and cookies and bring them to the show and have them for us backstage and I remember saying to him, you know, "Adrian, just stay away from me, man! You are evil!" I had a goal in mind and I wanted to make sure I looked the part - and, I stuck to the plan and I had enough time to get in shape and it all worked out. Actually, one of the greatest compliments I ever got when I was doing that show was not about my singing or my acting or anything, it was when someone said to me, "Man, I was sitting in the back row of the balcony and I could still count all six of your abs!" [Laughs.]
PC: Well, you have to be a commanding presence to pull off lines like "I'll kill every last one of you motherf*ckers!"
NL: That's true! That's true. Good memory - that definitely was one of my lines; right before I was going to kill Jackie [Marc Kudisch]... [Laughs.]
PC: Of course, much of the show still lives on via YouTube - what do you think of audience recordings and their existence in general?
NL: I'll tell you what, when I first moved to New York, people would buy video and audio cassettes of performances. So, it'd be like, you know, "Oh, did you hear Jennifer Holliday on that bootleg from out of town where she sings a completely different song in the place of 'I Am Changing'?" Stuff like that. But, I think that for the most part people aren't selling these things and nobody is making money off of them, so - and I know I will probably get in trouble for this - I am kind of addicted to YouTube, so I am guilty of it, too. I will go and look up people's performances on YouTube - I do it all the time! [Big Laugh.]
PC: What are your favorites? Do you ever watch yourself?
NL: I refuse to answer that question! [Laughs.]
PC: I'll take that as a yes!
NL: Yes, yes - since you asked, I have gone back and looked up a song because I forgot the lyrics, so I went back and watched it to see what I did and how I did the song. But, no, I'm not the kind of self-indulgent guy to spend hours and hours watching myself on YouTube - I promise!
PC: Another short-running but fascinating musical you did during that period was AMOUR. How did you become involved with that project? Did James Lapine ask you to come in?
NL: Yeah. Actually, I had worked with James Lapine before that - years and years ago - on a workshop of this William Finn musical called MUSCLE. We did a six-week workshop of it. The cast was just phenomenal - Jarrod Emick, Brenda Braxton, Karen Ziemba, Chuck Cooper, Christopher Sieber, Brooks Ashmanskas.
PC: What a cast, indeed! A virtual who's who of a certain place and time.
NL: Yeah - it was incredible. It was an intense six weeks. So, I guess he remembered me from that and kept me in mind until he thought I was right for this new project - it was based on a French musical by Michel Legrand called LE PASSE MURAILLE. It was a big hit in Paris, so, what they did was translate it verbatim for the English version. So, then, we did the workshop and it didn't quite work, but, you know, one of the amazing things about James Lapine is that he is a genius book writer - and, so, that's what he did after that; work on the book. The whole time, we could just see the wheels turning and turning. So, he switched some songs around and added some dialogue here and there and it turned out being what I think was a really great show. By the time we brought it to Broadway the next year it was a really, really cute, sort of effervescent type show.
PC: A frippery - musical whipped cream, more or less.
NL: Exactly. But, you know, when we moved it to Broadway, the main problem was that it was just too small for this big stage - I think it would have been a great Off-Broadway piece, thinking about it now.
PC: It was too small-scale for Broadway.
NL: Yeah. There were no high Cs being hit or anything like that, you know? It was a small story with a small cast - but, a great story. So, I got to sing one of my favorite songs in the show and I got to meet Michel Legrand working on it, too, which was such a thrill. His personality was so bubbly and alive - you could see why the show worked so great. As a side note, I got to go to Paris a couple of years ago and I got the see the monument - the statue - that this story - the fable - that AMOUR was based on.
PC: MUSCLE also led to your work with Lapine and Finn on A NEW BRAIN, as well, I assume. Was MUSCLE a good experience for you?
NL: Yeah - it was a cool show. It was based on a true story, too. I think they found some problems with how to make the story work onstage - things have changed a lot now, though.
PC: What was the main problem? Aspects of the physical transformation?
NL: Yeah - maybe there is some way to technically do it now, but Jarrod Emick had to go from this really skinny guy to this big muscle guy who competed in bodybuilding competitions over the course of the show. So, they really couldn't figure out how to make the prosthetics and everything really work, I don't think. Maybe they could now.
PC: When you eventually did SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM, did you ever discuss singing material Sondheim wrote for the first version of MUSCLE before he abandoned it and Finn took over given your relationship to the source?
NL: No, we didn't. Honestly, I think that most people don't even know about it - except for people like you who are scholars of musical theatre. But, no, we didn't discuss it. I think that they wanted to stay on the hits or the things that could have been hits and that kind of thing for SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM.
PC: Did you have any input into what specifically you would sing? Your "Being Alive" was the emotional centerpiece of the evening, after all.
NL: No, I didn't. And, since you mention it, I did the workshop of the show and my track in that version didn't even have "Being Alive" in it! [Laughs.]
PC: No way! That would have been such a loss.
NL: Yeah, another character had that song in the workshop.
PC: What changed?
NL: Well, I think when they decided to hire the people that they decided to hire for the Broadway version, it was decided that I would get "Being Alive". And, so... thank God it worked out in my favor! [Laughs.]
PC: Given the nature of the piece, was the cast very close?
NL: Oh, yeah - it was a very close cast, actually, and we did a lot of stuff together outside of the show, too, just because we liked hanging out and stuff. But, you know, to sing Sondheim's music like we got to do in that? C'mon! I mean, I call him the Shakespeare of musical theatre...
PC: You can say that again.
NL: And, then, to learn all this stuff about him, too - like we got to do by working on this show - gave us that extra boost. Hearing him speak about a song or describe how it came about really reinforced and emphasized things to the audience that made the songs really stand out, I think.
PC: An insightful point.
NL: To be honest, I feel like PBS and the producers made a big mistake by not filming the show - it was such a unique sort of amalgam of different things; it was a master class and a history lesson and a miniseries. It was such a great insight into who Sondheim was and is - it's a shame more people couldn't see if, like they could if they filmed it.
PC: Speaking of Sondheim, your recording of "Who Could Be Blue?" is one of my favorite Sondheim recordings, actually.
NL: Oh, wow - thanks so much for saying that. I can't even find that album myself anymore, actually - I really liked doing that and I think it turned out really great, too, so I appreciate you mentioning it.
PC: Are there any particular Sondheim roles you are dying to play? You've played Sweeney Todd before, have you not?
NL: Yes - I did it twice, actually. I did it first in 1999 at the Signature Theatre and then I did it again ten years later.
PC: Was that experience something special, returning to a role such as that?
NL: Well, I think that Sweeney is one of those great roles - like, you can be 55 and still be playing 17 or whatever, you know? Like in opera.
PC: Of course.
NL: It's such a dream role - I would do anything to do that role again. I actually said to Philip Boykin when we were doing PORGY & BESS that, you know, "Man, you really need to do this role someday," because of his voice and his gravitas. He would be an amazing Sweeney, I think.
PC: Was Sweeney a particularly rewarding part to play for you as a performer? Also, has your vocal range expanded since you first did it?
NL: Oh, yeah. Sweeney Todd is one of those dream roles for a baritone - it's just the best. And, I'll tell you, I have been very lucky with my voice - there have been a couple of shows where I wasn't sure if I could do it because I am a baritone and it's that special place where you are not quite low enough to do the bass roles but you really can't do the tenor roles, either, but, for some reason, I have been able to hit certain notes to make it work for myself, even if it isn't a baritone role. And, let's be honest, the way that people write roles these days is all over the place!
PC: Particularly in a lot of the tricky contemporary scores you have sung.
NL: Yeah, it's more about just going with the flow than being a specific type, I think, these days. I remember that when I did MISS SAIGON, the big song for John in that is "Bui Doi" and in that song you go from a low A-flat to a high B-flat, so you kind of just have to be ready for anything and always be exercising those muscles as much as you can. Hopefully I can continue on that path - it's been particularly that way the last few years.
PC: What about Hapgood in "Anyone Can Whistle" someday? Your "With So Little To Be Sure Of" is so exquisite.
NL: Oh, yeah, oh, yeah - I'd love to do that. For sure. I loved recording that.
PC: Also, having played an artist already in AMOUR, what about George in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE?
NL: Oh, I'd love to do that, too - that would be absolutely amazing. Oh, yeah! I mean, I don't know if I have aged out of that by now or not, but I'd love to have the chance to do that. Definitely.
PC: Since you mentioned Shakespeare earlier, what can you tell me about the special production of THE TEMPEST in Central Park coming up?
NL: Yes, I will be doing some Shakespeare very soon, won't I? We start THE TEMPEST in a few weeks - well, we are doing it in a few weeks, too, basically.
PC: Who will you play?
NL: I play Prospero. It's a special performance - it's a really special musicalized version they have come up with for The Public Theater. I wish I could tell you more about it. What I can say, though, is that it is going to be really exciting and really unique - I am really looking forward to doing it.
PC: Is there a compelling concept in place for how you will be playing Prospero? Any particularly magical aspects?
NL: Oh, yeah - there are going to be lots more meetings about what direction all of that will go, but it's shaping up to be something really special so far. There is going to be a lot of music in the show, though, so I am going to have a couple of songs.
PC: Is the music contemporary?
NL: Yes. Very contemporary. And, there are organizations around the different boroughs of New York that they are going to pull from to make the ensemble for the show, too, which is cool.
PC: What a fascinating TEMPEST it will surely be.
NL: Yeah, yeah - you'll be finding out a lot more about it soon. I am not doing a very good job talking about it today. People should go to the Public website (here) for all the updates! [Laughs.]
PC: On the topic of your work with the Public and Shakespeare, TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA was another career highlight of sorts for you - your "Night Letter" especially.
NL: Oh, yeah - that was a lot of fun to do. I mean, I hadn't done Shakespeare in forever before I did that, to be honest - I didn't even know that a musical version of TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA existed!
PC: Let alone a Tony Award-winning Best Musical version!
NL: Right! Right. But, then, they offered me the role and I checked it out - and, what an honor doing that show ended up being. Not only are you performing Shakespeare with an amazing cast, but you are doing it with The Public Theater in the Park. I never thought that would happen to me - so, when I got that chance I was so thrilled. Then, to work with that cast - Rosario Dawson and Oscar Isaac and Renee Goldsberry. Oh, Renee [Sighs.] - I fell in love with her, even though she is married! We are still good friends. I'm even friends with her husband! We're all friends.
PC: So, no shades of SCANDAL then?
NL: [Big Laugh.] No, no - no SCANDAL or scandals! For two hours every night, though, I fell in love with her, I can tell you that.
PC: You had done the HAIR benefit prior to that, so you had done a Galt MacDermott score already. Was that a thrill to do, too? That live recording is absolutely exceptional - arguably the best recording of the score to date.
NL: Yeah, HAIR was a lot of fun. Now, I didn't get to do a lot of the rehearsal process for that one, though - Julia Murney and I were both away doing RAGTIME in North Carolina. So, the day before the benefit is when we got back - we had just finished in North Carolina and then we came right in.
PC: You two had done CHESS together right before that, right?
NL: Oh, yeah - I loved doing that. I love CHESS.
PC: Another sensational benefit. That score fits your voice so well - whatever role you happen to be playing in it.
NL: Yeah, I have done it a couple of times now! I remember at that one - with Josh [Groban] and Adam [Pascal] and Julia [Murney] - that I played, as I called him, the Black Russian.
PC: How apt!
NL: [Laughs.] Yeah - Walter; this guy who just sort of watches over Josh's character of the The Russian. Then, there was another production of CHESS I did - years before that; another concert version - at the Helen Hayes Theater in Nyack. I forgot what the exact circumstances were, but Terrence Mann was supposed to play the Narrator - I think he had done a performance or two - but then someone in his family became ill or passed away and he had to tend to that, so they needed someone to come right away to fill in for him. So, they asked me and I said, "Sure, I'll do it." I mean, all I had to do was read from a piece of paper - I really only had to sing a few little snippets of songs. So, it was fine and a lot of fun.
PC: Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty spoke so favorably of the Dessa Rose experience to me and working with you on it. Was that a special show for you, getting to create a major original role yet again?
NL: Oh, yeah - and, just the chance to work with Ahrens & Flaherty would have been enough. They are such good people - amazing friends to have - and I have admired their work for so long - their amazing music - so, to work with them on Dessa Rose was just beyond. Beyond.
PC: The score fit you like a glove, needless to say.
NL: Well, they wrote you things to specifically fir your voice - it was incredible. [Pause. Sighs.] I'm getting chills right now just thinking about that time, in talking to you about it...
PC: It was a special moment for you in your career, clearly.
NL: Absolutely. And, to get to work with LaChanze and Kecia Lewis-Evans and the amazing people we had in that show - including a good friend of mine who has since passed on, James Stovall - was just such a great time and a great experience to have. And, that story - that was so great for all of us to play, too.
PC: Why, in particular?
NL: Well, it's not just a story about slavery but about much more than that - it talked about a different side of slavery; I had never heard of it before, myself. It was so interesting to me, this story - how people tricked other people; this scheme. I remember I actually had a song in Dessa Rose called "The Scheme" and it was about how they would sell us to the buyers and then we would escape and meet up and do it again - moving from town to town to town - until we collected enough money that we could get to a part of the country that was free and live there in freedom. So, it was a brilliant story to begin with - a brilliant story.
PC: Was there a moment you especially enjoyed performing every night or was the experience as a whole the real reward, looking back?
NL: Oh, I think it was the whole experience - I loved doing that show a lot. Since you asked, though, I remember standing in the wings and just watching LaChanze perform this amazing soliloquy that she had - she was talking about being one of thirteen children and listing their names and she had just birthed her own child and so she was telling the baby the story of how she came about. It was incredible - and, LaChanze was amazing doing it.
PC: Your role in Dessa Rose was quite a juxtaposition to that of Coalhouse in RAGTIME, then, no? Even though the themes link up, and, of course, both shows are by Ahrens & Flaherty.
NL: Oh, yeah - that is an interesting comparison, actually. I loved playing Coalhouse, too - we actually just did a big concert version of it again in New York a few months back. Stafford Arima directed it and we had Patina Miller as Sarah - Lea Salonga was in it, too, and we both still talk about how it was one of the greatest moments for us in our careers. Lea just loved singing "Back To Before" - you could just see her aura expand when she sang that and the audience just ate it up. I loved singing my material in the show so much, too. So, yeah - it was just a really great experience and I'll never forget it doing both of those Ahrens & Flaherty shows.
PC: Between RAGTIME and LES MIZ at the 02, have you and Lea ever discussed doing a duets concert at some point?
NL: Actually, I don't think we have - but, that would be fun! We always have so much fun together - we do pick on each other all the time, though... [Laughs.]
PC: Why is that?
NL: Well, I guess I can tell you: you see, we both sort of end up doing roles quite often where we are not always completely ethnically right for the role, but we somehow end up getting cast in the show anyway... [Laughs.]
PC: A credit to both of your vast talents!
NL: I guess! [Big Laugh.] But, yeah, it seems that happens a lot for both of us, especially with shows we really want to get cast in. Interestingly, though, we've never done MISS SAIGON together.
PC: Not yet, at least. What a missed opportunity! You were in the Broadway run in the 90s, too, right?
NL: Yeah, I was - '96 or '97 - but it never quite worked out we got to do the show together. Not yet.
PC: Was MISS SAIGON the first time you worked with Richard Jay-Alexander?
NL: Pretty much - you see, I first auditioned for him for LES MISERABLES, before MISS SAIGON; years and years ago. So, I guess he kept me in the back of his mind from the LES MIZ audition and when there was an opportunity to cast me in SAIGON he called me and asked me if I would do it and I said, "Absolutely!"
PC: You two just re-teamed on LES MIZ at the Muny.
NL: Yes, we did. And, as you know, Richard Jay is so incredible - he is so passionate about what he does and it was so exciting to do LES MIZ with him. But, yes, I just did LES MIZ at The Muny and he directed and he really wanted to do the show there and I've heard that he said, basically, "OK, this is the last time I am going to be doing this show - it will be my last hurrah with this show," so he said he wanted to pick someone who he trusts that he had worked with before as Valjean, which was Hugh Panaro, and, from my understanding, at the meetings about LES MIZ when they asked Hugh who he wanted for Javert, he said he wanted me. So, I guess I owe ten percent of my Muny salary to Hugh! [Laughs.]
PC: Are you two friends off-stage, as well?
NL: Oh, yeah, Hugh and I have remained friends - we did SIDE SHOW together all those years ago, remember, so we've stayed in touch. We're old men now, dude! [Laughs.]
PC: Not even close! On the topic of LES MISERABLES revivals, it was also your first time onstage with Lea Salonga, doing the Broadway revival, yes?
NL: Yes, in 2007 we did the Broadway revival of LES MIZ together and then we ended up doing the O2 concert together, too, a little while after that.
PC: You've had three significant Javert/LES MIZ experiences now between the Broadway revival, the 02 and the Muny - plus performing it in the UK. Are you being considered for the new revival, as far as you know?
NL: I have no idea! I have no idea if Cameron [Mackintosh] is considering me for that - I mean, as I just said, I'm the old guy now, man! [Laughs.]
PC: You're too humble! Would you do it if they ask you?
NL: Oh, yeah - are you kidding me?! Of course! What I'd really be open to is playing Valjean, though - that would be fun.
PC: Why Valjean now?
NL: [Sighs.] Oh, he's just such a complex character and there is just such great music in the show for him. God, I'd love it.
PC: You have the tenor notes for "Bring Him Home", then, I assume?
NL: Yeah - I think so. You know, though, what a lot of people don't realize about how Javert is written in LES MIZ - the role is surprisingly a lot higher than you think it is. And, also, Valjean is surprisingly lower than you think it is, too! Those guys - Claude-Michel [Schonberg] and Alain [Boublil] - write all over the page. So, yeah - it would be a real challenge for me, but I'd really love to try it.
PC: Better yet, maybe you and the actor cast as Javert could switch ala the recent UK FRANKENSTEIN or the Off-Broadway TRUE WEST!
NL: That's nuts! That would be a blast - and, a challenge!
PC: From the mega-musicals back to the more obscure projects - what can you tell me about your participation in BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY?
NL: Oh, yeah - God, you really do your research, Pat! [Laughs.]
PC: That score is a real undiscovered gem, in my opinion.
NL: Yeah, it's a really cool show. [Pause.] Let me see, I think I was basically Jesse L. Martin's understudy and I got to play his role in a workshop of it. I always joke around and say I was his understudy even though I was actually playing it and I wasn't his understudy. [Laughs.] It's a joke we have because I think he's so amazing.
PC: So you played Tad, the drug dealer?
NL: Yeah - the pusher-man! Wild, right?! I remember that when it actually had the full-on big production they went another way with the role, but I got to do the workshop. There was a concert version we did, too - at the Guggenheim. It was some benefit and I got to do it one night at that - it was a lot of fun.
PC: That score has some tremendous moments - and you had that great line, "monstrous events are scheduled for tonight!"
NL: Oh, God - you're right! You're right. I'm remembering it all now. There was that amazing woman who did the arrangements and played the Mother, too - Ann Marie Milazzo; she was so good! I wish she would do more - she likes to stay in the background and write more than anything, I think, but she is so amazing on stage. She did all the vocal arrangements, too, I think.
PC: Given this wide swath of material you have introduced and performed over the years, what do you usually sing in concert?
NL: Well, for the most part, I have been doing whatever the program has called for - for instance, I did this Gershwin concert in Chicago with Harolyn Blackwell and Marin Mazzie and Jason Daniely a few years ago; I've done a Mancini show, too.
PC: What Henry Mancini songs did you enjoy singing most? Your voice is so perfect for that brassy 60s sort of sound.
NL: Well, how it works is you basically job out for different companies and at the time I did the Henry Mancini concert I was working for this company called Broadway Pops International and the woman in charge of that has many different concert shows going on at any given time, so I was able to do a Gershwin show with her and the Mancini show after that. In the next few months - and, hopefully, premiering maybe next year - I am going to be putting together a concert of material that is more what I want to sing and the type of show that I want to give the audience. But, to answer your question, I can't remember all the songs we did at that Mancini show since it was a while ago, but I think I remember we did "Days Of Wine And Roses" and I liked doing that one a lot.
PC: As a survivor of THE LITTLE MERMAID, I have to know one thing: what do you really think of the skates?
NL: [Laughs.] Well, I actually didn't have to skate - I just got to walk around and be the king. I remember being in rehearsal and feeling like, "Gosh, I at least should understand this movement and how they are doing this," so I asked the director, Francesca [Zambello], "Let me at least try this and if you say it looks horrible then we won't do it again." So, we did it - and, there were moments that worked but we decided to have me just walk around, in the end. Then, though, when we had me make a grand entrance - you know, [King Triton Voice.] "Ursula, where is my daughter?!" or "I have to go save my daughter!" - I would swoosh off; gliding off on the skates. So, I think it worked for my character - I know some people were laughing at it or whatever at the time, though. I remember when I saw the girls doing it for the first time and all moving at the same time in the same direction like a school of fish I thought, "Wow! This is really, really cool!" So, I thought in moments like that the skates worked really well - and, for me, THE LITTLE MERMAID was a great experience in general, so I'm glad I got to do it.
PC: Your most recent major Broadway role is an operatic one - had you ever sung opera professionally before THE GERSHWINS' PORGY & BESS?
NL: Well, my story with opera was that I once considered the opera world - I thought I should study or something - but, I never actually opened the door. Early in my career, there were some opportunities to perform in them, though. You see, I grew up in a small town in Florida called Eatonville and there were opportunities there to perform around the city of Orlando, which was right nearby. So, I remember I got a chance to audition for PORGY & BESS and I got that part because I guess they basically needed a lot of black people onstage - it was a great show to do at that point in my career, I think, too. I loved being on that stage and singing that music and hearing these professional opera singers just blast the audience away. Then, the next opera I did was FAUST - and, even being in the chorus, I had such a great time! Plus, the show was in French, so I got to learn some of the language by doing that role. Then, after that, I didn't really think about opera again because I got more and more into musical theatre.
PC: So, how did you become involved with PORGY & BESS on Broadway?
NL: Well, when I first heard about it - long before there was any notion of bringing it to Broadway - I thought, "Oh, well, the only role in that show I could really do is Sportin' Life," because they usually get a musical theatre performer to do that role, even in the opera world. I never, ever thought about doing Porgy - honestly.
PC: It didn't even cross your mind?
NL: No, it didn't - not really. But, then, when I came in they asked me to sing for it - they asked me to sing Porgy. So, I was a little hesitant, but then I was like, "OK. Let's try it," and so they took me through the hoops and bells and whistles and stuff and I did some of it for them. Luckily, Diane [Paulus] and Suzan-Lori Parks and everybody really liked it and they said, "This is a fit - this is a perfect fit. This is what we want." And, so, they offered me the role.
PC: A dream come true - a dream you never quite had!
NL: Yeah, and I got to work with some actress in it, too. Hmm, you know that one... what's her name? [Big Laugh.] Au-something?!
PC: So coy!
NL: That Audra something - a real up-and-comer! [Laughs.] Seriously, though... [Pause. Sighs.] Audra McDonald?! There are no words.
PC: Audra spoke so highly of you when she did this column recently, as well, I'll add.
NL: Oh, I can't say enough about her. It was just one of those experiences, you know? I mean, I'd known her for years and I'd known she's the consummate professional in every way...
PC: She was your Deena Jones, after all!
NL: She was - and, she still is! Audra will always be my Deena Jones. But, with PORGY, I don't know... [Pause.] I've only felt this way a few times - when I did BABY with LaChanze at Paper Mill and when I did TWO GENTLEMEN with Renee - and, I felt it again with Audra; just feeling so comfortable up onstage that I could do anything. Anything!
PC: She helped you grow as a performer.
NL: We could do anything and still feel comfortable knowing where we were going with it - anything; within the confines of the story, of course. But, yes, to answer your question - yes, yes, yes. I mean, I was just awestruck watching her onstage every night - it was like a master class. There are no words. [Laughs.]
PC: Did you find that you grew exponentially in the roles as the run went on?
NL: Absolutely. Absolutely. It was nine months that we did it on Broadway and we had done it the summer before that for a few months at the A.R.T. and took about a month off in between.
PC: Given you've now performed virtually every major modern musical theatre composer, I am curious: have you ever performed an Andrew Lloyd Webber show?
NL: Actually, I have - the very first show I did when I came to New York was JOSEPH & THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT; twenty-five years ago now. We did it at Candlewood Playhouse, which I don't think is even around anymore. But, besides that, I haven't done another Andrew Lloyd Webber show for some reason.
PC: You should consider LOVE NEVER DIES someday - you'd be a killer Phantom in that or even the original PHANTOM.
NL: Yeah, I actually saw LOVE NEVER DIES over in London - starring my daughter, Sierra [Boggess; from THE LITTLE MERMAID]! That's an interesting suggestion, though - I hadn't thought of it, really. That could be fun.
PC: Another of your first New York roles was in the original cast of THE WHO'S TOMMY - another landmark production people still discuss to this very day.
NL: TOMMY was the first Broadway show for a lot of us - so many people who have won or been nominated for Tony Awards; it's a really sort of cool record that this one original cast has. But, anyway - we still hang out! It was twenty years ago now - oh, my God! I can't believe it's been that long.
PC: You had a reunion of sorts not too long ago, did you not?
NL: Oh, yeah, we had a fifteen-year reunion a few years ago and that was great, great fun to do - to get back together and sing that score. What a fun show that was to do originally, though - Pete Townshend was so cool; besides being this legendary rocker that he is, he was so cool to just sit down with and hear him tell stories. He would tell some amazing stories of this rock n roll life that he has led.
PC: Another early role you made a major mark in was SIDE SHOW. Shat do you think of a revised version of the show like has been announced to be coming up in a few months? How do you view the show now, all these years later?
NL: Well, the thing with SIDE SHOW is that I think it was ahead of its time. I think that, now, the revival - even though I don't know what they've changed in it - would probably work because of the buzz of the show and the reputation it has now. I mean, listen, the marketing of the show that we did originally was just not up to par at the time and I also think that the producers were of the mindset that, you know, "If the reviews are great, then that will keep the show running." Well, we opened the same season as THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, THE LION KING and RAGTIME, so, when you are going up against major powerhouses like that and you have to market yourself to go against powerhouses like that, it helps to have some name recognition and we just didn't - all three of those other shows were based on known properties, after all. So, with SIDE SHOW, nobody really knew what it was. It had great word of mouth from the community, but that just didn't translate to the tourists and the people who come to see shows in New York, I guess - it didn't translate at all.
PC: What an insightful analysis.
NL: Yeah, I hope the revival does well - I am so glad that they are reviving that show, though, because it has such a beautiful story and such great music and lyrics. I wish it well and I can't wait to go see it again.
PC: Do you remember the audience walk-outs during "Tunnel Of Love" or other moments during the show?
NL: I remember hearing about that, yeah, but I don't know if that actually happened very often - I wasn't in that scene myself, so I couldn't see the audience. I do remember hearing about it, though. Why do you think they did that - was it too risqué or something?
PC: A musical examination of whether or not twins feel each other's sexual arousal could be perceived as controversial to some.
NL: Yeah, you're right - that is what it is about, I think, too. That's interesting. I wasn't privy to it if it was happening, though - but, as I said, I remember hearing about it.
PC: "You Should Be Loved" is such a terrific vocal performance of yours. Do you remember recording the cast album? It was significantly truncated from the stage show's score, of course.
NL: Yeah, I do - and thank you for saying that, by the way. I remember Emily [Skinner] and I looking at each other during the recording session and being really, really challenged that day to deliver what we wanted to - it was sort of like, "So, are you still ok?" "Yeah, are you?" kind of thing. So, we did that number maybe two or three times in the recording booth - we basically did the whole album in one day; as you do. So, luckily, the engineers were good enough to make me sound pretty good, I guess! [Laughs.]
PC: Pretty good?! It's tremendous!
NL: Yeah, since we're talking about, I'll tell you that I remember my manager at the time, Bill, said to me about that song - and he was usually pretty critical about things - he said, "Norm, the emotion of that song is translated so well."
PC: Speaking of your recording work, is it true that DREAMGIRLS: IN CONCERT was recorded in the studio complete as well as recorded live at the Actor's Fund benefit and then the two were spliced together?
NL: Uh oh, Pat, should I be telling you these secrets?! [Laughs.]
PC: Why not?! It's been more than ten years now.
NL: Well, I guess I will... [Pause. Clears Throat.] What we did was that we recorded the entire show in the studio and we also recorded the entire show live, so if there were any mistakes in the live show they could refer back to the recording that we had already made in the studio. Does that make sense?
PC: The studio recording was basically a back-up.
NL: Exactly, exactly. But, besides that, I just showed up and did what they asked.
PC: So, the studio recording came first, then?
NL: Yes. We did it in the studio first. I have to say, too, that listening to the album - now, I haven't listened to it in years, but when I listened to it back then - it was the recording of the live show that you were hearing. I mean, maybe - maybe - there were a few little things that they would fill in or patch in from the studio version we did, but what you heard on the recording was the live show that we did. I remember that performance and so much about it because it was so, so special to me - I mean, it was right after 9/11 and I got to do one of the major roles of a major musical. So, I remember that most of the recording you hear on the CD - almost all of it - is what we did in the live performance.
PC: Did you grow up as a big DREAMGIRLS fan? You mentioned listening to a Jennifer Holliday audio earlier, so I assume so.
NL: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah - are you kidding?! I remember getting the album when I was in college right after it came out. Unfortunately, I never got to see Jennifer Holliday in the show actually doing it - I only saw the Tony Awards performance that the cast did - but I remembering listening to it over and over and over again. I mean, "And I Am Telling You" became not only a big radio hit but it also won a Grammy for Best R&B Song or something that year, so DREAMGIRLS was always in my world somehow. I remember the national tour came through Orlando and that's how I saw it for the first time. Then, years and years and years later, in 2002, I got to actually do DREAMGIRLS with Jennifer Holliday in Atlanta, Georgia at the Fox Theater. [Sighs.] It was a blast being down there and doing that show with her.
PC: Having performed so much across the country, what have been your favorite venues to perform at over the years?
NL: Well, of course, first of all, Carnegie Hall - that place just has such resonance; it's just amazing. I love performing at the Kennedy Center, too.
PC: You very recently performed that THE WIZARD & I Stephen Schwartz concert at both venues, as a matter of fact, did you not?
NL: Yes, I did - we did it at Carnegie Hall and then we brought it down to the Kennedy Center and did it there.
PC: CHILDREN OF EDEN is the only Schwartz show you have done, I believe, isn't that true?
NL: Yeah, I remember doing that concert - that was a lot of fun. We did that at the Riverside Church, actually, I think. That was a cool place to do that show.
PC: Would you like to revisit that show? Maybe play God someday? It's never been on Broadway.
NL: Ugh, I would love to - I would love to. I love singing that music so much - it's such a good score.
PC: Looking ahead, can you drop any hints as to whether or not you will be appearing again on SCANDAL this season? Perhaps more TV work in general?
NL: Yeah, I may be doing a little bit more TV - but I can't say for sure. As for SCANDAL, there's a possibility - there's a possibility. We will see. It all depends on where Shonda [Rhimes] wants to take the storyline this season...
PC: It could go anywhere given Shonda's history!
NL: It definitely could! It definitely could. [Laughs.]
PC: What is it like sharing the screen with Kerry Washington?
NL: [Pause. Sighs.] Oh, Kerry... she is one of the nicest people you will ever meet. She is one of the smartest people you will ever meet, too. Being that I was a recurring character on SCANDAL when I came on it, I was basically coming into her house - into her home. She was so gracious and so giving as an actor. I mean, we didn't really have a background story - you know, I was just her ex-fiance who came back into her life again and then proposed to her one more time. So, we wanted to know, "What is our history?" So, we talked about it and developed a subplot and we had a subtext to everything we did on the show. But, man, she does the work - she works so, so hard. She really sets the tone on that set and everyone feels so comfortable - the set of SCANDAL is such a great, family atmosphere. Even if you are a guest star or an extra, you feel like home on the set.
PC: Tony Goldwyn is so unbelievably smart and talented, as well.
NL: Oh, absolutely - absolutely. Just the sweetest man in the world, too - such a nice, nice guy. I love that he now considers me one of his friends, now that we've done the show together and got along so well. I love that.
PC: Has it been enjoyable to have such vociferous fans given the huge SCANDAL fan base?
NL: Yeah, it's been interesting. I've been traveling a lot recently this past year - going back and forth to LA and going to Europe and stuff - so people have come up to me quite a bit. Actually, I remember a few TSA workers saying to me, "Hey, you're on SCANDAL, right?!" But, the one that really got me: SCANDAL is now going worldwide to different countries, so I was walking down the street in New York City with some family members that had come to town and we were in Times Square. Then, this French couple from France - who could barely speak English - approached me and said in sort of broken English, [French Accent.] "Uh, excuse me - SCANDAL?" And I said, "Yeah!" And they said, "Oh, that is in our country, too!" And I just thought that that was so cool.
PC: You also have a big movie coming out soon: WINTER'S TALE.
NL: Yeah, I am really excited about that - I only have one scene, but the scene I am in is with Colin Farrell and Jennifer Connelly, so I am excited to see how it all turned ouT. Russell Crowe and Mark Wahlberg are in the movie, too, so it's really exciting to be a part of that.
PC: Who is your character in WINTER'S TALE?
NL: Well, they call me The Librarian - I am basically the keeper of these historical records that Colin Farrell's character is looking for; he goes back and forth in time. So, it's a sort of semi-sci-fi type movie.
PC: Covering both the 19th century and 21st century, right?
NL: Yes. It covers both of those time periods. I am in the 21st century time period part of it with my character.
PC: I'd be remiss not to ask about sharing the screen with Liza Minnelli in SEX & THE CITY 2 - was that a particular joy to do given that a legend like Liza was involved?
NL: Oh, yeah - oh, yeah! I mean, it's Liza! And, you know, so, she was there and she would entertain us in between takes and off-set, too. It was a lot of fun to do that, and, of course, I loved being in a scene onscreen with her. Legend is the right word.
PC: Would you like to pursue more film and TV in the future? You obviously work well within the mediums.
NL: I would. I definitely would. You know, my first love is live theatre - bar none. But, you know, as an actor you do feel the desire to try other mediums and I do enjoy dipping my toe in other waters - not only is it a whole different skill set to develop, but you get to work with some great people and learn some new things, too. And, to be honest, in some cases, you get to make some good money, too! [Laughs.]
PC: Whatever works!
NL: More money - which allows you to do more theatre!
PC: It definitely all works out beneficially in the end that way!
NL: Definitely. You know, there are some great pieces that come along that you might not even get paid for, but you just want to do them artistically, you know? This allows me to do that - especially when you have residuals coming in.
PC: You are doing a concert cruise coming up, as well, I believe - any special plans?
NL: Yes - Patti LuPone, Howard McGillin and I are going to be doing the Playbill Cruise. So, how it is going to work is I am going to my show, he is going to do his show and she is going to do her show - one night each.
PC: What is the set-list you are planning?
NL: A lot of Broadway - some songs from my album; "Before The Parade Passes By", "No One Is Alone", stuff like that. My greatest hits, mostly from my CD - and some little surprises too. Since it is a Broadway cruise, it's best to keep it on that level, I think.
PC: Without a doubt.
NL: After that, I am going to do some concerts all around the world right after THE TEMPEST in Central Park, too - I am really looking forward to those, as well.
PC: On that note, lastly, what about a new solo album? Any plans?
NL: I do, actually. We are planning on doing one within the next year, hopefully. I have some concerts coming up next year that are already booked, so hopefully we will be doing something based on the shows that I am going to be doing. It's really exciting.
PC: This was absolutely spectacular, Norm - I cannot thank you enough. All my best on your huge career high right now and I hope it continues for many years to come.
NL: Oh, that means so much, Pat, and thank you so much for your support over the years, too - it really means a lot to me. I really love what I do and it means a lot that you care so much about what I have to say. Bye bye.
Photo Credits: Walter McBride, Public Theater, ABC, etc.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro