Interview: Theatre Life with Norm Lewis

The performer on his current role in the US Tour of A Soldier's Play and more.

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Norm Lewis. Photo by Peter Hurley.

Today's subject Norm Lewis is probably best known for his rich baritone sound and superb acting in several Broadway musicals. His tour de force performance opposite Audra McDonald in Porgy and Bess is still one of the great modern-day performances.

Currently Norm is living his theatre life on tour performing the role of Captain Richard Davenport in the Tony Award winning Roundabout Theatre Company production of A Soldier's Play. The show runs through January eighth in the Eisenhower Theater at Kennedy Center.

Norm's career as an actor and singer is includes work both on Broadway and regionally. His performance of "You Should Be Loved" in Side Show was a pure "WOW!!" moment of musical theatre to be sure. Other Broadway credits include King Tryton in Disney's The Little Mermaid, The Wild Party, Chicago, Once on This Island and Sondheim on Sondheim. Norm most recently appeared on Broadway in Chicken and Biscuits.

A few of Norm's regional credits include Baby at Paper Mill Playhouse, Ragtime at North Carolina Theatre, and First You Dream and the title role in Sweeney Todd at Signature Theatre. The latter he also performed off-Broadway at Barrow Street Theatre. You might also remember his performance as Harold Hill in The Music Man as part of Kennedy Center's Broadway Center Stage a few years ago.

On the small screen you might have seen Norm in Pose on FX and Women of The Movement on ABC. You also might have seen him as Caiaphas on NBC's Jesus Christ Superstar Live.

Norm's solo cds This is The Life and The Norm Lewis Christmas Album are available on all streaming platforms and on Amazon for those that still like hard copies.

Norm Lewis is one of our finest performers working today to be sure. A production with Norm Lewis in the cast is always guaranteed to be high end. A Soldier's Play is no exception.

Fall in and grab some seats to A Soldier's Play at Kennedy Center before the rest of the country gets to see some theatrical brilliance from Norm Lewis and a fine company of actors under the direction of Kenny Leon.

Norm Lewis is living his theatre life to the fullest and for someone as talented as he is that is how it exactly should be.

Were you a theatre kid in high school?

Kind of? I was in choir.

Where did you receive your theatrical training and were there any professors that you would say were your biggest influence on you becoming a performer?

I actually studied Business at Lake City Community College. Dr. Paul Ferguson was my biggest influence. We met as I auditioned for the plays and musicals during my time there. He spoke to my parents and really ignited the flame that I could have a career onstage and screen.

What was your first professional performing job?

My first professional job was at a place called Theater on Park on Park Avenue in Winter Park, Florida run by Ralph Petilllo. The show was Purlie, the musical. Such great memories there!

Were you familiar with A Soldier's Play either onstage or from the movie A Soldier's Story before starting work on this current tour of the play?

I remember seeing the movie when it came out and it left a major impact on my life, so it's such a full circle moment to share this story. It is a reflection of my ancestors and reminds me, and all of us, how we still have to make space for Black voices to be heard.

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Norm Lewis in the US Tour of A Soldier's Play.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Can you please give us a brief overview of A Soldier's Play?

It's set in 1944, on a Louisiana Army base. A Black sergeant is murdered, amidst previous racial hate crimes and thus begins an investigation. I come in as a Black captain and a lawyer, which is very rare for the time, to lead the investigation and seek justice. However, I discover much more is happening among the unit than meets the eye. The rest, you will just need to join us at The Kennedy Center and find out.

How do you see your character of Captain Richard Davenport in the show?

He is a very eager lawyer given the task that he's been handed. Up until then, he's only been military police. He is someone who is overqualified for the job that he's been doing, so being presented this opportunity is a defining moment for him and his career.

When this show opened in 1981, its original presenter Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) was at the forefront of presenting plays by African- American Playwrights such as our recently departed Charles Fuller who wrote A Soldier's Play. Over the years companies like NEC have faded away. Why do you think that is and do you think companies like NEC should still have a place in today's theatre scene?

Companies like NEC faded away because there was a lack of resources for communities of color in the arts, so therefore, they were unable to survive. We are now in a time of change, (which, we still have a LONG way to go), where these companies and stories are wanting to be shared and preserved and theatergoers are finally waking up to their necessity in our performing arts history. They provide opportunities for artists of color that wouldn't be provided in other circles. There are many diverse theater companies throughout the world and it would be amazing for companies like NEC to be revived and create new projects.

You are part of a relatively new organization called Black Theatre United. Can you please tell us about it?

Please Google us. Just kidding! In all seriousness, this organization arose in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. We wanted to have a voice in our industry to take a firm stance that we needed to elevate diversity, equity, and inclusion, not only onstage, but in arts administration and its surrounding entities as whole. We need a seat at every table. You can find out more by clicking here.

Kennedy Center GUYS AND DOLLS, Kevin Chamberlin, And More Win Helen Hayes Awards
Norm Lewis in the 1999 Signature Theatre production
of Sweeney Todd.
Photo courtesy of Signature Theatre.

You performed the title role in Sweeney Todd here at Signature Theatre. If the opportunity presented itself, which of Stephen Sondheim's other musicals would you like a chance to perform in?

I would love to play George from Sunday In The Park With George. I've always loved Stephen's music, but in that particular show, there is a serenity that comes with it. At the end of the day, he's an individual who is just trying to get things right. It's a reflection of human nature. We are always searching for perfection within ourselves and ultimately our art. It's something that Stephen left us with: a little bit of perfection.

It is 40 plus years since A Soldier's Play premiered. Why do you think it is still relevant and important to tell this story after all this time?

To quote the book of Ecclesiastes, "There is nothing new under the sun." Take that as you will.

Special thanks to Kennedy Center's Director of Public Relations Brendan Padgett for his assistance in coordinating this interview.

Additional photos provided by Signature Theatre's Director of Marketing Jennifer Buzzell.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.


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