From an Historic Photo to an Historic Night: How Norm Lewis Was Inspired to Present Black Stars Of The Great White Way

Producers #Norm Lewis and Chapman Roberts chat with Playbill.com about the June 23 Carnegie Hall concert featuring and celebrating Broadway's black leading men.

Norm Lewis
Norm Lewis (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

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June 23, a star-studded, all-male line-up of black Broadway performers from yesteryear, today and tomorrow are scheduled to partake in The Black Stars of The Great White Way Broadway Reunion: Live The Dream concert event at Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage.

The brainchild of Tony Award nominee Norm Lewis, currently starring in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, the concert will include appearances and performances by Tony Award winners Billy Porter ( Kinky Boots), Chuck Cooper ( The Life), Hinton Battle ( Sophisticated Ladies), Ben Harney ( Dreamgirls), alongside Clifton Davis ( Aladdin), Andre De Shields ( Ain't Misbehavin'), Brandon Victor Dixon ( Motown), Dule Hill ( After Midnight) and many others.

Song and dance numbers from popular black-themed Broadway musicals such as The Lion King, Dreamgirls, Five Guys Named Moe, Ain't Misbehavin' and Porgy and Bess will be performed during the black-tie event, which will also include special honors to Geoffrey Holder, Robert Guillaume, Berry Gordy, Louis Johnson, Stephen Byrd, Harold Wheeler, Noble Sissle, Luther Henderson and Donald McKayle.

Lewis, who is co-producing the event with playwright/producer David H. Greer and Broadway veteran Chapman Roberts, described the event as "serendipitous" since it's timed well with his historic Phantom debut earlier this month.

"No one has ever celebrated black men on Broadway," he added. "So we're going to do it big and do it at Carnegie Hall."

Chapman Roberts

According to Roberts, who joked that Lewis tricked him into it, the idea for the concert was borne from an October 2011 photo shoot he produced with noted theatre photographer Carmen Dejesus featuring hundreds of black Broadway stars posing on the red stairs in the center of Times Square. (The shoot was inspired by Art Kane's legendary 1958 photograph entitled 'A Great Day In Harlem' assembling great jazz luminaries of the era.)

"It was historic," remembered Roberts. "People who hadn't seen one another in 30 or 40 years were reunited. Maurice Hines, Sam Jackson, Vivian Reed, Lillias White, Melba Moore, Geoffrey Holder, Angela Bassett, Tonya Pinkins and so many others were there.

"I sent an email out to 10 people telling them about it and to spread the word," he added. "500 people showed up."

As the shoot was winding down, he said, Lewis approached him about the idea to bring a tribute of the ilk to life — on stage.

"This project came about from so many different ways, but mainly because I had a lot of young men come up to me and praising me and saying that I was the reason that they were singing and I gave them so much encouragement," Lewis added. "I didn't realize that I had touched people like that. I'm grateful that that's a part of my legacy. But I also looked up to Ben Vereen and Andre De Shields and Larry Marshall and I said 'Wow, we need to celebrate them.'"

Roberts, who started his Broadway career as a performer in the original production of Hair went on to become an in-demand musical supervisor and vocal arranger for shows such as Bubbling Brown Sugar, Eubie!, Blues in the Night and Five Guys Named Moe.

"The remarkable thing about that photograph is that it was two years ago and too many people who were in that photograph are now gone," Roberts reflected. "And we realize that is exactly what's going on. And we see that we are about to lose a generation of people that can not be replaced."

Brandon Victor Dixon

"The time for that generation of people is short and we must say something, we must call attention to what they accomplished and what they did because the work of these people is absolutely extraordinary. And when you capsulize it and when you isolate it from the big picture and just focus on the smaller picture, you find out how they changed the world, each of them by themselves."

According to Roberts, the event will also commemorate the 100th anniversary of jazz music being performed at Carnegie Hall in addition to the upcoming 40th anniversary of The Wiz.

Paying homage to the past isn't the only notable component of the fete. Young Broadway stars of the future will also take part in the show. "We have a special privilege of having a group of 21 young men under the age of 17 who all have done Broadway," he said. "So we have them and what we want to do is to let them know that we are there for them because this is a hard road to travel."

Brandon Victor Dixon, who currently plays honoree Berry Gordy in Broadway's Motown, said he's excited to take part in the event. "We rarely get to celebrate the artists that broke ground and opened doors for us so it's an honor to join with so many of my talented peers for this special and important night."

Roberts added: "If we get our way, it will be close to 200 people on the stage that night."

Noting that some of his female colleagues and friends have expressed unease about the exclusion of black women on Broadway, he has a solution underway. "A lot of ladies are upset because there are only men in this show. It's already in the plan that if this one is a success, we will be producing a show called 'Revenge of the Black Divas' at Carnegie Hall.'