THE LEADING MEN: Following the Norm

The Leading Men   THE LEADING MEN: Following the Norm With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, here are three Leading Men who have "miles and miles and miles of heart": Norm Lewis (Chicago), Matt Zarley (ZarleySongs) and Jim Caruso (Cast Party).
Norm Lewis
Norm Lewis Photo by Ben Strothmann

HIS KIND OF TOWN, ‘CHICAGO’ IS
With his breathtaking baritone and spectacular smile, Norm Lewis is ready to "Razzle-Dazzle" ’em on Feb. 2 when he takes over the role of Billy Flynn in Chicago at the Ambassador. As he’s proven in Side Show, Miss Saigon, The Wild Party and the Actors' Fund concerts of Chess and Dreamgirls, the sunny 6-foot-2 actor always gives audiences "an act that’s unassailable." At the Signature Theater in Arlington, VA, he attacked the killer role of Sweeney Todd with such a vengeance that he received rave reviews and a Helen Hayes nomination.

Originally from Eatonville, FL, Lewis, 40, sang in church as a child, but didn’t discover musical theatre until high school. For $35 a week, he played the lead Munchkin and the only flying monkey in a local production of The Wiz, which featured future film star Wesley Snipes as the Scarecrow ("He’s an amazing dancer").

Question: Congrats on playing Billy Flynn! How’s it feel?
Norm Lewis: Great! I’ve always enjoyed the show and Walter Bobbie’s direction. I’ve seen James Naughton and my friend Brent Barrett play Billy, and they’re so good and smooth that they made it look easy. I’ve always wanted to do this role, but man, it’s tough. I’ve always [imagined] somebody cool doing this part, like Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra; growing up, those were my heroes.

Q: How’s your Roxie & Velma: Gretchen Mol and Brenda Braxton?
Lewis: Gretchen’s fantastic and sweet. And Brenda’s dynamite. She can sing her butt off, she can act, and she still has that amazing body. I worked with Brenda on the Dreamgirls concert. She was one of the director-choreographers.

Q: You were incredible as Curtis in that Dreamgirls concert, but how was it re-creating the role opposite Jennifer Holiday last July in Atlanta?
Lewis: I was fine throughout the show, but when we got to the fight scene, my mind flashed back to seeing her do "And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going" on the [1982] Tonys. I had a meltdown. Omigod! She’s singing to me. Q: Speaking of Henry Krieger musicals, you should’ve gotten a Tony nomination for Side Show. What do you recall about it?
Lewis: I loved working with Henry Krieger, Bill Russell and Bobby Longbottom. I was thrown into this world of greatness: Alice Ripley, Emily Skinner, Hugh Panaro, Jeff McCarthy. The music was wonderful, and I got to sing this beautiful song, "You Should Be Loved." It had a short run, but we had an amazing time.

Q: That same season, you were offered Coalhouse in Ragtime, but turned it down because Side Show might be revived, right?
Lewis: Yeah. And it made Garth Drabinsky [the head of Livent, which produced Ragtime] very upset. He called my agent and cursed him out for 20 minutes: ‘Who’s Norm Lewis think he is? Doesn’t he know I’m the most important man in musical theatre?’ But the last thing he said really pissed me off: ‘Doesn’t he know how much I’ve done for blacks?’ Not black actors. Blacks. He’d have to pay me a helluva lot to be called a "nigger" three times a night, eight times a week [in Ragtime]. Even as an actor, being called a "nigger" does wear on you.

Q: As an African-American actor, are things getting better?
Lewis: I’ve been blessed. I’ve been seen for Sweeney Todd, Bobby [in Company] and Billy Flynn, but I wish there were more opportunities for all actors of color. My dream is to play the Phantom on Broadway, just to set a precedent. Or Rodrick Dixon from Three Mo’ Tenors could do it. When I hear, "But Robert Guillaume did it [in L.A.]," that’s the problem. So only one black actor can do it? As long as it doesn’t deal with race, I’d like to see more actors of color in universal roles.

Q: Last year you did a reading of the Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens musical Dessa Rose, which is coming to Lincoln Center next season.
Lewis: Stephen and Lynn are so great and creative. It’s about a runaway slave and a woman who’s owned slaves. They become friends. La Chanze and Donna Murphy did the reading, and I play Nathan, who falls in love with Donna’s character.

Q: Didn’t you and La Chanze once date?
Lewis: Yes. We’re good friends now. We’re getting ready to do Baby at the Paper Mill Playhouse [March 31-May 9]. We’re playing Nick and Pam. I’m doing Chicago until March 21; then I think Richard Chamberlain comes in.

Q: What kind of music do you listen to for fun?
Lewis: I like musical theatre, but I don’t really listen to it. If you come to my house, you might hear rap, Beyonce, John Mayer, Metallica or opera.

Q: I love hearing your rich, resonant voice, especially on "Sailing" from William Finn’s A New Brain. Ever thought of doing a solo CD?
Lewis: I’ve talked to a couple of producers. I’m not an R&B singer. My heart really lies with Broadway and the standards, but I’d jazz them up a little. I’d actually like to be the male Audra McDonald, doing the kind of concert work she does.

Q: So Feb. 14 is coming up. What was your favorite Valentine’s Day?
Lewis: It was with my ex-girlfriend. I snuck into her apartment. I bought a lot of roses and took all the petals off. Then I laid them on the floor from the front door to her bathroom, where I had a bath waiting for her with candles and wine.

Gee, just like Billy Flynn, "all he cares about is love."

For more information, visit www.chicagothemusical.com.

PERFECTLY IN SYNCH WITH POP MUSIC
Ever since Matt Zarley was 12 and appeared with Tony the Tiger on a Frosted Flakes commercial, he always has lent his vibrant voice to other products and projects. At 17, he danced his way into Cats on the road, and at 19, he made his Broadway bow as Mark in A Chorus Line. Zarley also has toured with Vanessa Williams and Reba McEntire and cut "tons" of demos for 98 Degrees and ’N Sync. But the multitalented tenor has really started to call his own tune as a pop songwriter.

Broadway’s Jerry Dixon, Julia Murney and Billy Porter headlined ZarleySongs, a soldout concert of his collaborations with Steven Cahill, Chris Curtis, Andrew Makay, Steven Marzullo and Andy Zulla, on Jan. 19 at the West Bank Café. Many of the catchy tunes came from his 2002 "Debut" album, and the show was such a success that Zarley is bringing it back there on March 7. "It’s been so gratifying to hear other people singing my material. My producer [Zulla] has worked with Kelly Clarkson and Heather Headley, and now he wants to pitch my songs to Clay Aiken."

Zarley, whose influences include Diane Warren, David Foster and Babyface, writes songs that are pop and personal: "I wrote ‘Right Back Where I Started’ after I found someone lying to my face. I wrote ‘You’re Always There’ as a Christmas gift for my parents." A recent breakup led to his best and most beautiful song, "Had I Known." "When I’m going through heartbreak, I’m inspired to write. It’s like therapy."

The 5-foot-9 hunk, who was born in Peoria, IL, and turns 35 on Feb. 6, also appears on "Being Out Rocks," an all-star CD celebrating Coming Out Day, alongside gay and gay-friendly artists such as k.d. lang, Sarah McLachlan, Cyndi Lauper, Rufus Wainwright and Janis Ian. Plus, he’ll be singing at the Feb. 7 dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria for the Human Rights Campaign, which works for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equal rights; the speaker will be Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

When Zarley officially "came out," he did so in People Magazine, where he was named one of "The Top 50 Bachelors" of 2002. He and Danny Roberts of "The Real World: New Orleans" became the first openly gay guys to make the list. "Five years ago, I wouldn’t have done it. As a gay man in showbiz, a lot of times you settle for what you need to do to be successful. But this just seemed right. And omigod, they gave me a full page. The response was so great. It’s stupid to waste all that energy [hiding]."

Currently "dating a little," Zarley also enjoys spending time with Dylan, his Labrador retriever, and working on a second CD that’ll be more "organic" and adult pop. Whatever he does, he’s a go-getter. As his friend Billy Porter said at the West Bank concert: "Matt is one of those people who’s taught me to be a better artist and a better person because he’s a do-it-yourself bitch. He don’t wait for nobody, and I love that!"

For more information, visit www.mattzarley.com.

HE’S THE LIFE OF THE ‘PARTY’
For the past year of Mondays, Jim Caruso’s Cast Party! brought so many Broadway and cabaret celebrities to the King Kong Room that it was starrier than the Hayden Planetarium. With Caruso as its hilarious host and the brilliant Billy Stritch at the keyboard, it was the place to cruise, schmooze, sing and be seen. Among the many who have stepped up to the mike and wowed the crowd: Jason Alexander, Jim Brickman, Alan Cumming, Dave Koz, Liza Minnelli and Stephen Schwartz.

But on Jan. 12, the same night that Caruso received a Nightlife Award for his wondrous work, the owners of the King Kong Room abruptly told him the "Party’s" over. It was time to call it a day. They'd burst his pretty balloon and taken the room away. But fear not: Cast Party and its galaxy of stars is moving to the Ars Nova on Mondays, starting Feb. 8, from 10 PM to 2 AM at 511 W. 54th St., near 10th Avenue. It won’t be free anymore, and there’s an $8 music charge, but beer, wine and champagne will be only $5. Even so, it still promises to be the best showbiz bargain and bash in New York.

"We’ll have some exciting surprises and also celebrate Billy’s birthday (Feb. 12) and mine (Feb. 5)," says the four-time MAC Award winner who'll turn 46. Born in Pittsburgh, the witty writer-producer-director has done everything from playing the White House to performing with his mother in an act called Son of a Bitch in seafood restaurants in Dallas. So how did he learn to become the chosen party-giver for the showbiz clientele? "Frankly, Liza taught me. When I lived with her [as a friend] in L.A., we did this every Saturday at her house: invite celebrities over and sing until 4 AM. This is the exact same thing, except we had Kentucky Fried Chicken and no cover charge!"

For more information, visit www.jim-caruso.com.

FOR THE RECORD: THE MAGNIFICENT 7
Here are my favorite male-vocalist selections from the multitude of musical theatre and cabaret CDs of 2003 (listed in alphabetical order):

Tom Andersen, "I Fall to Pieces" from "Who Knows?" (Other Music)
Scott Dreier, "Lida Rose" from "Scott Dreier" (LML)
Michael Hunsaker, "I Can Hold You" from "Listen to My Heart" (Midder Music)
Hugh Panaro, "It Only Takes a Moment" from "Tap Your Troubles Away" (LML)
Stephen Pasquale, "The Streets of Dublin" from "A Man of No Importance" (Jay)
Johnny Rodgers, "Danglin’" from "The Maury Yeston Songbook" (PS Classics)
Anthony Warlow, "Always" from "Face the Music" (Skylark)
Special honors: Hugh Jackman in the "Oklahoma!" DVD (Image) Meantime, one of the 2004’s most eagerly awaited cast albums has got to be the Nonesuch recording of Stephen Sondheim’s Bounce. Produced by Tommy Krasker, it looks like it’ll be released in April. The original cast, starring Richard Kind, Howard McGillin and Gavin Creel, will be reunited for an Actors’ Fund benefit, on May 9, and my sources say it will be at the Majestic. Getting to catch that concert could be one of "the best things that ever happened to me" this year.

WHERE THE GUYS ARE
There’s so much to see in New York, and this month, youth is served. Peter Cincotti is just 20, but he’s already an old pro at leaving his audiences jazzed about his music. He plays Feb. 2 and 3 at 8 PM at Alice Tully Hall, 70 Lincoln Plaza (212-721-6500), and Feb. 5 at 7 and 9:30 PM at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (888-466-5722). … Speaking of jazz singer-pianists, hopes are high for a brand-new Day. Spencer Day, a 24-year-old "Star Search" finalist from San Francisco, makes his N.Y. debut Feb. 10-13 at 9 PM and Feb. 14 at 8:30 PM at Don’t Tell Mama, 343 W. 46th St. (212-757-0788). … At 27, Brandon Cutrell, the 2003 MAC Award winner for NY debut, is back with a new act singing tunes by Tim DiPasqua, Rodgers & Hart and Rufus Wainwright. Contrary to its title, "No Reservations," he deserves to get plenty of them. He’s playing Feb. 21 and 28 and March 6 and 13 at 7 PM at The Duplex, 61 Christopher St. (212-255-5438).

Finally, congrats to Michael Arden! Not only did he make his Broadway debut as a terrific Tom Sawyer in this season’s Big River, he presented a reading of his first musical, Easter Rising, on Jan. 25 at Makor. The Juilliard alum, who hails from Midland, TX, says, "It’s the story of a small family dealing with death and exploring the boundaries of love, and I had an incredible cast." Loaded with "Leading Men," it included Gavin Creel, Leo Ash Evens, Santino Fontana, Michael Hunsaker, Matthew Morrison, Evan Pappas and Max von Essen. Next, Arden, who’s only 21, will play Louis in the workshop of the new Elton John-Bernie Taupin musical The Vampire Lestat. Talk about a Rising star!

Got comments or questions? E-mail me at waymanwong@hotmail.com.

Until next month, let’s hear it for the "boys"!

Wayman Wong edits entertainment for the New York Daily News. He has been a movie and theater critic for the San Francisco Examiner, a writer for The Sondheim Review and a Drama-Logue Award-winning playwright.

Matt Zarley (left), Jim Caruso and Michael Arden
Matt Zarley (left), Jim Caruso and Michael Arden Photo by Ben Strothmann (middle and right images)