Norm Lewis :: Broadway and TV Star's at Feinstein's

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Saturday December 2, 2017
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Norm Lewis wasn't a theater kid.

"We'd watch 'The Wizard of Oz' every year," he recalls of his childhood in western Florida. "But I didn't know much about Broadway musicals. I did love watching the TV variety shows: 'Sonny & Cher,' Carol Burnett, and Dean Martin, whom I wanted to be, he was so cool."

Bringing that cool dream to fruition, the Tony-nominated actor-singer brings his new cabaret show, "Norm Lewis Wishes You a Swingin' Christmas," to Feinstein's at the Nikko December 8 - 10.

Lewis shared more about his upbringing in a phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

"My dad was a deacon and my grandfather was a preacher. So I sang in church," explained Lewis. "We definitely grew up with the Christmas spirit. But becoming a professional singer was the furthest thing from my mind.

"When I was 17, I was assigned to take Home Ec as an elective in high school. And I knew that wasn't for me, so I went out for the school choir. That's where I really fell in love with music-classical, jazz, theater songs. But music was a hobby to me," said Lewis. "I went to college for a business degree."

In his early twenties, Lewis, now 54, was settling into a career in newspaper publishing.

"I had a job The Orlando Sentinel. I started out in the production department and eventually moved into marketing and advertising.

" 'Star Search' was popular on TV at that time, and a few bars around town had karaoke contests that would emulate it. Every week you sang and weren't eliminated, you moved on to the next round, for week after week. So I was doing that and eventually I was Grand Champion. I think I won $200 or $500 bucks."

And while a few hundred bucks may not be life-changing, there turned out to be a much bigger prize for Lewis.

"One of the judges worked for a cruise line," he recalls. "There was a four-month opening in a three-guy, three-girl vocal group on a ship, and he offered me the job.

"That was kind of a crash course for me," Lewis said. "It made me realize I could pursue performing as a career. I was planning to apply to Carnegie Mellon or Julliard, but one of the guys I was working with on the ship encouraged me to just go to New York and start auditioning. So that's what I did. I was 27 and I was out there auditioning for everything. I set a goal for myself of making it to Broadway by the time I was 30."

But Lewis' seemingly charmed life took a dark turn shortly after he began blitzing the Manhattan casting calls.

"My dad was stricken with brain cancer. I went home to Florida to help my mom take care of him for the next seven months until he died. And then I stayed for another nine months to help her take care of things."

After deferring his dream for a year and a half, Lewis returned to New York to see them come true: In 1993, at age 30, he was cast in The Who's Tommy on Broadway.

The ensemble, he explains, turned out to be an illustrious lot, including Alice Ripley (later of "Sideshow" and "Next to Normal"), Sherie Renee Scott (Aida, "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown") and a fellow Broadway debutante, Michael Cerveris (a two-time Tony winner for "Assassins" and "Fun Home").

Lewis and Scott shared a Broadway stage again 15 years later, originating the roles of King Triton and Ursula the Sea Witch in "The Little Mermaid." And Lewis' other parts have included Javert in "Les Miserables," Billy Flynn in "Chicago," and Porgy to Audra McDonald's Bess.

But the stage role that Lewis may always be best known for is the title character in "The Phantom of the Opera." Heralded as the first African-American actor to play the Phantom on Broadway (Robert Guillaume had previously played the role in Los Angeles), said Lewis, "You know, the whole African-American actor thing wasn't as important to me as the fact that it's just a great leading role, and I wanted a chance to play it."

Among the other plum parts he'd still like to get a crack at, Lewis singles out Harold Hill in "The Music Man" as a particular favorite.

While Lewis confesses to accompanying his personal housecleaning chores with a soundtrack of beat-heavy electronic dance music, he's brushed aside suggestions that he record an R&B or pop album.

"I've thought about it," he says, "But that's just not what my heart is into. I think of myself as an actor now as much as a singer, and I get real satisfaction from acting out a song, something with words you can follow through a beginning, a middle and an end."

Ironically, Lewis is now probably best known for his non-musical role as Edison Davis on the television series, "Scandal," which has led to further film and TV offers.

"Yeah," Lewis notes, "I've had people see me perform in musicals or concerts and say 'I didn't know you could sing!' But you know people also came to see Audra in 'Porgy and Bess' knowing her only as Naomi Bennet from Private Practice.

"If I had to make a choice and work only in one area, it would be live musical theater."

So sings the late bloomer.

'Norm Lewis Wishes You a Swingin' Christmas' at Feinstein's at the Nikko, December 8-10. $45-$85 ($20 food/drink min.). Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St.