Norm Lewis Asked for This Role in a Q&A, and Then Booked the Job on Broadway

Seth Rudetsky   Norm Lewis Asked for This Role in a Q&A, and Then Booked the Job on Broadway
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth shares inside scoop about Lewis, the unforgettable night he staged a Broadway concert as part of a synagogue ceremony, and more.
Norm Lewis Joseph Marzullo/WENN

I just flew back from Scottsdale, Arizona, where I had a great time doing a concert with Norm Lewis. I think everyone knows I love his voice so much, and I’m still so shocked he didn’t immediately pursue theatre right after high school. How can you have that voice and not realize what your calling is?

The reality is, it definitely has to do with where you grow up and who you know. If you don’t people who are actively pursuing theatre/music and making a living at it, you don’t realize you can do it, too. Norm didn’t know any show biz people growing up. He was raised in Florida and went to work at a newspaper after college, doing very well in advertising. However, he would sometimes sing in talent contests that were held in bars. The contests formatted like Star Search, which was a huge hit at the time.

At one of the contests he won, a judge told Norm he worked for a cruise line and offered him a job! Norm went to his boss and asked her what to do. She told him that he didn’t want to be an old man thinking “coulda, woulda, shoulda” and he should take the job. She told him that if it didn’t work out, he could have his job back. End of story: He never went back!

We were talking about him playing the Phantom (in Phantom), and Norm said it all happened because he was at a big theatre symposium in Washington, D.C. He was asked what role he wanted to play on Broadway and he responded that his dream role was the Phantom…and he purposefully directed his response to the area of the audience where he knew the music supervisor and the conductor happened to be sitting. His broad hinting worked because soon he had an audition and got the title role! I found this clip of him singing “Music Of The Night,” which is decidedly not from a Broadway performance. How do I know? Because he adds a sassy riff to “Let your soul take you where you long to BEEEE!” Let me just say, I played that show on Broadway off-an-on for 15 years and that riff is not in the score.

Speaking of riffs, Back in the late ’90s, Norm auditioned for William Finn and James Lapine’s A New Brain and was offered the role of the doctor. He wound up having a conflict and couldn’t do it. Then, a few weeks into the run, Ira Weitzman (from Lincoln Center) called and told him the actor playing Malcolm Getz’s boyfriend (not the character of the doctor) was having vocal problems and couldn’t do the album. Norm was offered the gig and a few days later, he was in the recording studio recording a role he just learned! He claims that if you listen closely to the CD, you can totally hear him turning the pages of the score! He wound up taking over the role, and I’m happy to say he always added a little riff for me when I was on for conductor/pianist. It would make me so happy!

While we were in Scottsdale, he found a live recording that actually featured the riff. It’s on the lyric “Maybe we’ll laugh and you will si-i-ing.” At 00:53. SOOOOO pretty! Watch/listen here!

That show featured one of my scariest onstage moments. I started working on A New Brain as the assistant music director when Jason Robert Brown was the music director/vocal arranger. I loved it so much! We began at the Public in January…I think 1995. Then we did a workshop at Lincoln Center, and I assisted Ted Sperling, who took over as M.D. from Jason.

When the show finally opened at Lincoln Center Theater in 1998, I was working as a comedy writer on The Rosie O’Donnell Show so I couldn’t do the rehearsals, but I became the sub for Ted, who was also the conductor/pianist. Near the end of the show, Ted would leave the piano, the assistant would take over so Ted could go onstage and play violin during the finale. Well, Ted is an AMAZING violinist and I am someone who studied violin and can play a little. However, I knew I’d be standing in the back of the stage and I figured I just wouldn’t play that loudly so who would notice me? I told Ted I could do it and learned the violin part.

Well, when you’re a sub, you don’t rehearse with the orchestra or cast. You practice by yourself and suddenly you’re doing a performance in front of a paying audience. There’s no dress rehearsal. My point is: The only info I was given was I had to enter the stage, stand in back of the cast, and play my violin during the finale. Again, I was happy it was the back of the stage because I’m a terrible violinist and wanted no focus on me. Cut to: My first performance.

The entire show goes great. It was really easy for me to play and conduct because I had known the show from its infancy. I finally leave the piano, get my violin, and walk onstage to start playing my violin part. I was nervous to play onstage, but I knew I’d be hidden. Well, I was indeed standing in back of the cast…but what I didn’t know was as soon as I started playing, the entire cast turned toward me, so the audience’s focus would, therefore, go directly onto me. It was as if they were saying, “Attention everyone! Let’s all take in the stunning violin playing of Itzhak Perlman.” Even while nervous, I probably could have played that violin phrase adequately, but with the pressure of the entire Lincoln Center Theater cast and audience looking at me, my playing featured horrific squeaking balanced by painful squawking—and the bold choice of not really being on pitch. If you think I’m downplaying my violin skills, listen to this:

In other news, I just found the most amazing video! In 2002, I put together a Broadway concert of Funny Girl for The Actors Fund. Peter Flynn directed and Devanand Janki choreographed. My concept was to do the show with people who would be amazing as Fanny but probably would never get cast because they’re not the right age or don’t look the type. Peter Gallagher played Nick Arnstein through the entire show with a slew of rotating Fanny Brice’s like Whoopi Goldberg, Sutton Foster, Jane Krakowski, Lillias White, Carolee Carmello, Andrea Martin, LaChanze etc.

You see, every year I would do a fundraiser for the Gay/Lesbian synagogue by doing a “Purim Spiel.” I didn’t know what that was until I did it. It’s basically a parody skit telling the story (“spiel”) of the holiday of Purim. I decided to tell the story my own way: using the music of Funny Girl! P.S. Happy Purim to all my fellow Jews out there.

Everyone was so amazing in that concert and it was only one night…and there was no cast recording! I thought The Actors Fund would be a great way to have a reunion and hear some of the those amazing singers again. And, for the ones who couldn’t make it, I added some incredible singers. For “Who Are You Now” I used the fabulous Andréa Burns, and we still talk about her reaction to hearing Shoshana Bean. We all met at the JCC to run through the numbers and after Andréa sang, she went to the dressing room to do her make-up. Shoshana started rehearsing “Cornet Man.” Andréa had never heard her before—Shoshana was around 25 at the time. Andréa imitates herself holding her eyeliner in the dressing room, hearing Shoshana’s first crazy high note/riff and having the eyeliner slip from her eye and make a line down her face.

I also added Leslie Kritzer, who had played Fanny Brice in the Paper Mill Playhouse production. I’m obsessed with her imitation of the night Liza Minnelli came. The first thing Liza said to her—with a big smile—was “I’ve never seen anyone work so hard!” Compliment? Insult?

LaChanze, Peter Gallagher, Ana Gasteyer, and Lillias White recreated their performances. And speaking of Lillias, I remember rehearsing for the Broadway event, and Lillias had just run “Don’t Rain On My Parade” and it was, as usual, incredible. Whoopi Goldberg was standing with me at the piano and she shook her head, saying, “I can’t believe I have to be onstage with her! I’m so intimidated!” An Actors Fund person was standing next to her and tried to be supportive with the whole “We all have something special to offer” way of thinking and said to Whoopi, “Intimidated? Why? I mean, she can’t do what you do!” Whoopi wasn’t buying it and responded, “Yes, she can! I seen her!” BRAVA!

The first person to sing in the concert was Billy Porter. I mentioned that I thought of doing the concert in the first place because of him. I always thought someone should write him a role like Fanny Brice where he got to show all of his incredible talents. Last night, James and I watched the video of him singing “I’m The Greatest Star” and we thought how foreshadow-y the song is; 17 years ago Billy was singing lyrics telling the world he was destined for greatness…and now he’s achieved it! He’s become an international star!! So incredible and so deserved!

Don’t forget, I’m heading to Rochester for two shows March 20 and 21!

Watch the Purim/Funny Girl video and peace out!

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