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15 Minutes With Norm Lewis

April 9th, 2016 Comments off
Norm Lewis (Photo courtesy of NJSO via The Broadway Blog.)

Norm Lewis (Photo courtesy of NJSO via The Broadway Blog.)

Broadway star Norm Lewis heads to New Jersey to perform with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, April 15-17. The program’s headliner has garnered critical and audience acclaim and made history as Broadway’s first African-American Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera. Frequent NJSO guest conductor and audience favorite Thomas Wilkins conducts.

The New York Times praised Lewis’ history-making turn in The Phantom of the Opera, writing that Lewis’ “sonorous baritone has been among the most reliably impressive voices on Broadway for many years now. In his big solo ‘The Music of the Night,’ Mr. Lewis’s supple phrasing and power combined to gorgeous effect. His Phantom is imposing in his willfulness, as his lustrous voice comes booming down from the heavens, and touching in his energetic but unrequited love for Christine.”

Norm Lewis (lev radin / Shutterstock.com)

Norm Lewis (lev radin / Shutterstock.com)

The Hollywood Reporter hailed the actor’s “multidimensional” performance in the Broadway production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess opposite Audra McDonald: “this is a man who literally grows in stature and strength before our eyes, as if nourished and emboldened by love. His ‘I Got Plenty of Nothing’ is an explosion of sheer joy that almost blows off the roof.”

In this NJSO POPS program, Lewis performs music from Phantom, Porgy and Bess, Les Misérables (he appeared as Javert in a West End production and in Les Misérables: The 25th Anniversary Concert, which aired on PBS) and other Broadway shows; he also performs songs from his debut album, This is The Life.

The Broadway Blog caught up with Lewis as he prepared for the three-concert weekend, titled Norm Lewis: Music of the Night with NJSO.

How did the NJSO performance come to fruition?

Cheyenne [Jackson] had an obligation and the symphony thought of my name and they gave me a call. I worked with maestro before and that was how I got connected.

What elements of concert performance do you enjoy that are different than appearing in a traditional book musical?

The last show I did on Broadway was Phantom—eight times a week is a commitment—you’re giving 100 percent (or as close to possible) every night, sometimes twice a day. The concert world is exciting because it’s just you. Each song has its character but you have to relate to the audience between those songs. I just want to make it fun… like you’re in my living room.

I’ll also be performing with Ramin Kamilroo in Peter Jöback’s I Love Musicals [also featuring Scarlett Strallen and Japanese star Seiko Niizuma] at the Nippon Budokan Arena in Tokyo on July 7.

You’re a bit of an enigma – breaking boundaries for actors of color: Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, The Little Mermaid, even A New Brain. Was there a “big break” that happened or would you consider your career trajectory more slow and steady?

I did not have the background that a lot of actors have. I didn’t go to Carnegie Mellon or the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Honestly, I was jealous and intimidated. I worked in advertising and studied. I hit the ground running and went to [audition]. I just showed up. And that’s why I got hired. Early on in my career I got hired to do A Chorus Line to play Richie, they heard me sing and hired me on the spot. But I’m not a great dancer and I asked them why they hired me. They said, “You’re the only black guy that showed up.” From that I was able to get certain jobs – just by auditioning.

Director Eric Schaffer saw me in the original Broadway production of Side Show. He offered me the lead in Sweeney Todd at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. I think that was a big break for me and people started to see me in a different light.

What do you think about the state of non-traditional casting right now on Broadway?

It’s such a great season for diversity. But when it comes to doing a show in a universal world—one that doesn’t talk about race— as long as you can portray that character, it’s a no brainer to hire an actor that fits the role.

The whole idea of non-traditional casting is not about affirmative action, it’s just about having the chance to audition. Students go to school, study and learn these roles but when they get out it might be a different story. But these doors have been cracked.

For me, being Phantom and all of the attention that came with it was much bigger than me. A lot of people came up to me— from India, Japan, South America— and said, “Now I feel I have a chance.”

Music of the Night: Norm Lewis with the NJSO
Friday, April 15, at Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank
Saturday, April 16, at NJPAC in Newark (Fourth Annual ‘Saturday Night Out’)
Sunday, April 17, at State Theatre in New Brunswick

Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo

Happy Birthday, Mr. Wizard

April 16th, 2013 Comments off
Stephen Schwartz’s 65th Birthday Celebration with the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall. (photo: Richard Termine)

While most teen boys probably want to sneak a six-pack and get drunk behind the bleachers for their 16th birthday, I reveled in a mix tape artfully crafted by two of my favorite show-choir girls. Their heartfelt (albeit somewhat flat and lacking vibrato) rendition of Stephen Schwartz’s “Day by Day” left me as inebriated on musical theater as if I had bathed in an overflowing tub of champagne — or in those days Bartles & Jaymes sparkling wine coolers.

It was my first introduction to Schwartz’s folk/rock chamber musical Godspell and I was hooked. I then discovered Pippin, followed by a spat of a piece called The Baker’s Wife, which everyone knows because of the mega-belting “Meadowlark” but I fell in love with “If I Have to Live Alone” because it was in my baritone range and suitably depressing for a teenager.

After a few commercial flops, Schwartz disappeared (and I moved on to Les Misérables). Not really. He went to Hollywood and cranked out lyrics for a bunch of Disney animated features only to return to Broadway in 2003 with Wicked, adapted from the fantastical novel by Gregory Maguire.

Stephen Schwartz (photo: Richard Termine)

With a career spanning more than 40 years (watch out for Houdini, slated for Broadway 2014), it seems only fitting that Schwartz recently celebrated his 65th birthday at Carnegie Hall with the New York Pops. Helmed by Music Director and Conductor Steven Reineke, the concert featured stars of stage and screen, including Jeremy Jordon, Julia Murney, Jennifer Laura Thompson and Norm Lewis, along with the Essential Voices USA choir.

The concert was the final hurrah in the Pops’ 30th anniversary season and its fifth sold-out event of the year. The program spanned Schwartz’s diverse career with selections from his musical theater compositions as well as lesser heard works from his opera Séance on a Wet Afternoon and a powerful choral piece titled “Testimony” that was originally written for the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

Julia Murney, who played Elphaba in Wicked on the national tour as well as on Broadway, shared a story of first auditioning for Stephen Schwartz back in 1996 for a review of the composer’s work. He was so taken with her voice that he asked her to sing “Meadowlark,” a notoriously difficult song. She did it on the spot (“after throwing up in my mouth a little bit”) and hadn’t sung the piece again since that audition.

Jennifer Laura Thompson (left) and Julia Murney. (photo: Richard Termine)

Revisiting the number, she shook the rafters of Carnegie Hall but was not to be outdone by Jennifer Laura Thompson, who tackled the equally difficult “West End Avenue” from The Magic Show. The men of the evening had their shining moments, too — particularly Jeremy Jordan, whose soaring tenor voice seemed to effortlessly glide over powerful ballads from Children of Eden, Godspell and Pippin.

Schwartz took to the stage to share some backstory on the creation of “The Wizard and I” from Wicked. Originally conceived as a song titled “Being Good,” he and writing partner Winnie Holzman revisited the song several times, taking into account original actress Idina Menzel’s strengths and crafting a song and situation that would fit more naturally with her voice. Murney delivered her rendition of the piece in an appropriately emerald green dress.

This was the final concert in this season’s series, but you can celebrate the New York Pops’ 30th birthday at their star-studded gala on April 29. The event honors artistic collaborations and the work of Frank Loesser, Jule Styne and Danny Kaye.

“I am thrilled,” says Dena Kaye, “and so very touched, that The New York Pops has chosen my father, Danny Kaye, to honor at their 30th Birthday at Carnegie Hall, as we continue a year-long tribute of the Danny Kaye Centennial. As my father was born and raised in New York, this is the perfect celebration for a man who has brought his laughter and joy to generations through his talent as an actor, singer, dancer, conductor, comedian and humanitarian.”

Next season’s performances have also been announced and include Chris Botti, Tony award-winner Montego Glover, Marin Mazzie, Jason Danieley and others. Season tickets start at $150.
Visit www.nypops.org for more information.

VIP Access: Megan Hilty, Broadway Backwards and more…

January 24th, 2013 Comments off

The theater season is kicking into high gear, not just on Broadway but also with special performances and benefits popping up all over town. File your taxes early and use that refund to snag seats to one (or all) of these unique events:

Megan Hilty (photo provided by Dan Dutcher PR)

Luck Be a Lady: Megan Hilty Sings Sinatra and More
March 8
Carnegie Hall

The New York Pops continues its 30th season with an evening of swinging favorites in “Luck Be a Lady: Megan Hilty Sings Sinatra and More.” Music Director and Conductor Steven Reineke – described by The New York Times as “young and vigorous, with a playful attitude” (and who doesn’t love that?) – will lead the orchestra as it tips its hat to the Rat Pack, Ella Fitzgerald, Marilyn Monroe and other stars from the golden age of entertainment. The performance features Broadway and TV starlet Megan Hilty and Ryan Silverman, one of Broadway’s favorite leading men. The program will include “Luck Be a Lady,” “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” music from “Smash” and more.

Tickets $18.50 – $112
Click here for tickets.

 

 

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