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.”
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.