Lovely to Look At, Delightful to Know…It's Norm Lewis!

By: Apr. 09, 2005
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Norm Lewis has a knack for stealing the spotlight when he's not the star of the show. Ask those who saw him as Jake, devoted friend of the Hilton twins, in Side Show—some of them still gush to him, seven-plus years after the play foundered on Broadway. Ask someone who was at last fall's Broadway Unplugged concert, where Lewis—a late addition to the lineup who wasn't listed in the program—stirred hearts in more ways than one with his performance of "Make Them Hear You" from Ragtime. Or ask someone coming out of Dessa Rose, currently playing at Lincoln Center Theater: Lewis was singled out for praise in several of the otherwise disappointing reviews of the new musical.

Or check the BroadwayWorld message board, where he's a popular, and much drooled-over, subject. Some recent postings: "I have a Norm Lewis playlist on my computer!!!" "WOW is a huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge understatement" "Norm is an angel in both voice and spirit." "I am in love with him!"

Obviously, theater fans and producers have taken notice of Lewis' talent. But he wasn't aware of it himself for quite some time—Lewis, who grew up in central Florida, didn't even consider a career in show business till he was in his mid 20s. He had joined the high school chorus just to avoid less-desirable electives. Didn't do any acting until college. Majored in economics. And was contentedly ensconced in an advertising sales job until a talent scout set him on a different path. Lewis told me the story, and more about his life and career, during a recent interview in the Dessa Rose greenroom. 

Dessa Rose is just one of the things keeping Lewis busy these days. He will perform in the April 11 "Rosie's Broadway Belters" concert, a fund-raiser for Rosie O'Donnell's arts education organization. A CD of another benefit concert he did, Hair for the Actors' Fund, is about to be released. And he's getting ready for his solo cabaret debut, "Just Chillin' – An Evening With Norm Lewis," at Joe's Pub on May 9.

For the second spring in a row, Lewis is sharing the stage with LaChanze, who plays the title role in Dessa Rose, a Civil War-era musical by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Ragtime). Last year he and LaChanze delighted audiences at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey as a married couple trying to get pregnant in Baby. But in Dessa Rose his romantic interest is Ruth (Rachel York), an abandoned wife who gives refuge on her husband's plantation to runaway slaves, including Lewis' Nathan.

On Broadway, Lewis has taken over parts that won Tonys for their originators—Billy Flynn in Chicago, John in Miss Saigon—and created roles in some short-lived musicals, like The Wild Party and Amour. He has played some famous leading men regionally—Sweeney Todd at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va.; Bobby in Company at Helen Hayes Theatre in Nyack, N.Y.; El Gallo in The Fantasticks at California's Sacramento Music Circus; Ragtime's Coalhouse Walker in Raleigh, N.C. 

You got sort of a late start in musical theater. How come?
Growing up, I sang in the choir in church, and that was it. I didn't even know I could sing. In my church, when you joined you basically got into the choir, whether you could sing or not. My best friend heard me sing one day at home. I was singing "The Greatest Love of All," and he said, "Dude, you've got a nice voice." I'm like, "Yeah, right." And then in high school they put me in an elective which I didn't want, home economics, so I said, "My friend told me I could sing a few years ago. Let me go to the choir." And that's when I found my love of music, and I found my voice, and started doing solos and stuff.

Still, you had a whole different career before the theater.
I was working for the Orlando Sentinel, in classified sales. I was moving my way up. It was a great place to build a career. I was going to get married and have my 2.3 kids and my BMW. But I ended up working on a cruise ship and meeting some people from New York, and they said you should go to New York and study and try to get a job. I had no training at all. I [had been] doing a lot of talent shows, those mini Star Searches, that were down in Florida, at certain bars. I entered a lot of those—won some, lost some. At one that was affiliated with Star Search, there was a judge who happened to be a producer for a cruise ship. He came up to me and asked if I would be interested in working on his cruise ship, doing a show with some other performers. I had to think about it a couple of days. I went to my supervisor, and she told me: "Norm, you're young. You don't want to be 85 years old saying 'coulda, woulda, shoulda.' Go for it. If it doesn't work out you can always come back or you can get something else."

What happened after your four months on Premier cruises?
I went to New York, the spring of 1988, and then my father was diagnosed with cancer after I was here for a month. I went back home to be with him. He died seven months later. I stayed another nine months to help dissolve his company. I came back in September of 1989 and have been here ever since. My first show was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat out at Candlewood Playhouse in Connecticut. I got one of the non-Equity jobs, but I got to sing a solo in the show, which was great. I stayed non-Equity for a year. I was working nonstop [in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, starring Nipsey Russell, in Atlantic City; in My Fair Lady at Candlewood; and in Pippin at Pennsylvania's Shawnee Playhouse]. I ended up getting a TYA job—a company that does children's theater. I got a lead in a show called Four Score and Seven Years Ago—that's how I got my Equity card. My Broadway debut was in Tommy in 1993. After that I did Miss Saigon up in Toronto for six months, and then I did it on Broadway for two years. I think Side Show was my breakthrough role. That's the one that people still say to me, "We really loved you in that role." Or if they didn't see it, they love the album—thank God there was an album.

You're also an Internet entrepreneur. What's the website?
It's called I started it last fall and have been pretty successful with it. Because of my business background, I'd been looking for something I could do at home that was pretty easy and still maintain my career as an actor. I wanted something to supplement the income. [The site sells reasonably priced gift and decorative items, jewelry, toys and household accessories.]

You've been involved with Dessa Rose since the first reading three years ago. Why do you consider it special?
This story shows a side of slavery that not a lot of people know about it, where slaves did a lot of scheming to try to become free. You hear about slave stories and you don't really get to see the other side, a defiant slave or a slave who really fought for his freedom. So this story needs to be told, and this story needs to be told to kids.

What do you make of the relationship between Nathan and Ruth?
The book [on which Dessa Rose is based] goes into much more detail, and Lynn and Steve were trying to put as much as they could on stage. We're trying to convey that we were fond of each other. She was lonely, and I was a friend. At the beginning of our relationship I think I was trying to feel her out and see if I could work a scheme, but we became friends and then there was that moment of passion. We found we had a great fondness for each other. I would even go as far as saying that we found love. She just happened to be a compassionate woman who didn't really believe in slavery—she didn't know much about it because she didn't have to deal with it as much. When she had to deal with it, she didn't like what she saw and wanted to help us out.

You and LaChanze had such great chemistry in Baby. Where'd that come from?
We've been friends for years. It was one of the first times ever being on stage that we could look at each other and do anything—within the context of the show. It was never the same show for us, and that's what was so wonderful about it. Sometimes people are regimented, they want to make sure that everything's the same every night. LaChanze and I just didn't care. We were like, as long as we're saying the right words and the right intent behind it, it was just fun to work with her. 

What are the best memories of your career so far?
My mom seeing me on Broadway was a major thing for me. That was Tommy—she came to opening night. The next year, she was gone. Both my parents have passed on, but they're my angels. They have guided me throughout my career.
Getting to work with Jennifer Holliday. We did Dreamgirls together down in Atlanta. Just to play Curtis with the woman who was Effie—she's the staple.
To work opposite LaChanze, my longtime friend, to play a role where we're husband and wife. That was a great experience. Also to do the Actors Fund benefit of Dreamgirls with Lilias White, Audra McDonald and Heather Headley. To work with Mandy Patinkin and Eartha Kitt. We did The Wild Party together. Eartha Kitt—wow! Just an amazing woman. And so giving and loving.

Who would you like to model your career after? There's so many different aspects of other people's careers I'd love to have. I want the persistence of Morgan Freeman, I want the acceptance of Denzel Washington… I idolize Sidney Poitier for breaking down those barriers, and people like Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis Jr. because they had to go through a lot and they came through with dignity and pride. I've had it a little easier, and in some cases a whole lot better because I've been offered roles—like Sweeney Todd—that were not traditional.

Are there still barriers to be broken down?
I would love to play the Phantom on Broadway. Not because I love the show, but to set a precedent. To this day there's never been a black man to play Phantom on Broadway. [Robert Guillaume did it in L.A.] How many years have they been on Broadway? I auditioned once, years and years ago, and I don't know what that call was about—I don't know if it was a "required" call or whatever. I know that I can sing it. I know other people of color that can sing it. I don't know, it could be a business decision. Maybe people can't see someone black playing the role. I think it has a lot to do with economics... Whatever the case may be, I think it's a sad statement that there hasn't been one. And [for the same reason] I would love to play the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. There are qualified and capable actors of color that could do the role, and the shows are universal enough that it [the story] doesn't have to do with race.

Can casting ever be totally colorblind?
I think so. If the role doesn't deal with the race issue, it could be the best man for the job. But there needs to be an opportunity to be seen. Don't hire me because I'm black—hire me because of my talent—but give me a chance to go in there. 

What's been your favorite role?
I love all of them. There's variety in each one. The one I think that I'm most shocked that I played was Sweeney Todd. My agent called and said, "They want to see you for Sweeney Todd." I was thinking just the show—I was thinking maybe Anthony, though I'm a little older. They were going to try a different spin on Anthony. But my agent said, "No, they want to see you for Sweeney." It was fantastic. Donna Migliaccio played Mrs. Lovett; she's one of the locals down there. I just looked in her eyes and I knew I was safe, because she's played the role before. She was just so great to me and gracious.

How does it differ for you playing a role written for a white actor versus playing a black character?
You just try to bring whatever you can from your own experience and what your own emotions can bring. With Sweeney, obviously I haven't lost a child or lost a wife. I had to read the story and get a feel for what it was going to be and bring in some emotions that would fit that. Bobby [in Company], I could kind of relate, because I was pretty much Bobby's age when I played it and I wasn't married and people were trying to set him up. Coalhouse, it does come from a deep-seated place because I'm African-American and knowing the history of what was going on. I could bring that to it, and the dignity that Coalhouse was trying to represent within that time period.

What singers do you admire?
The people we used to listen to as I was growing up were Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, who are by far my favorites. As I got older I started getting more into Tom Jones, Luther Vandross. In college I wore out Luther Vandross' album with "A House Is Not a Home" on it. Prince I was influenced by. I got into the contemporary Christian world; I listened to Sandi Patty and a man named Larnelle Harris. I've been influenced since I've been here by people who have become my friends: Billy PorterGod, I wish I could sing like that—Michael McElroy, Jason Danieley, Kristin Chenoweth, Alice Ripley... I could listen to their albums all day, because I know that there's some feeling behind it. Janis Joplin, James Brown, people like that—you knew that they were singing from some place and not just trying to show off.
I also love country. I worked at Opryland one year as a performer. I got to go to the Grand Ole Opry, and I really listened to the music. Country music to me is kind of like Broadway, because it tells a story. A lot of the pop songs now are "I love you, baby," and that's all they say. "I hate you," "I love you." But a country tune will go into why do I love you, and it will tell you the night that we met and go on from there.

[After telling him about some of the comments on the BWW message board] I've always wanted to ask someone this: What's it like to be a sex symbol?
I'll call Brad Pitt and tell you! I didn't even know about that... That's kind of neat. It makes me have to work out harder. I'll have to go to the gym now every day. It's flattering, it's flattering. I just hope that I put out quality work that people want to come and see.

Photos of Norm, from top: At our interview in Lincoln Center; with Rachel York in Dessa Rose; with LaChanze in Baby; with Montego Glover in Ragtime. [Photo credits: Adrienne Onofri; Joan Marcus; Jerry Dalia; Ray Barbour]