There was a time when Norm Lewis was just thrilled to make his Broadway debut in the ensemble, which he did in The Who’s Tommy in 1993, as getting on such a prestigious stage was something he never even contemplated when he was younger.
He always liked singing, appearing in his high school’s show choir, soloing for the first time on the Beach Boys’ “I Get Around”; but didn’t get his first taste of theatre until senior year when he did Purlie in Orlando, and eventually started performing show tunes on a cruise ship.
“I came into this business ass-backwards because I went to school for business and didn’t really think of doing this as a career. I fell into it because someone saw me sing and offered me a job and I kept meeting people who encouraged me,” Lewis says. “I finally moved to New York and all I wanted was to be part of the team, and I was just happy that I had a job where I could sing.”
While he hoped that bigger roles would come along, never in his wildest dreams did he expect to don the costumes of Javert in Les Misérables, Billy Flynn in Chicago or the title role in The Phantom of the Opera, especially, becoming the first African-American to play the role on Broadway.
“For me, Broadway is the pinnacle of live theatre and it is something that is so respected—even a lot of TV and movie stars who come here are excited about it, and it perhaps gives them some legitimacy,” Lewis says. “For me, there’s nothing like the reaction of doing something live.”
Despite a long, storied career full of even more impressive roles and shows—John in Miss Saigon on Broadway, the title role in Sweeney Todd Off-Broadway, Joe in Show Boat with the New York Philharmonic, and Porgy in Porgy & Bess on Broadway—there has been one part the actor has longed to play: swifter Harold Hill in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man.
“It’s one of those fun shows that is an American musical theatre classic, and I just think it is a good fit for me,” Lewis says. “It’s about a guy who is very gregarious, very charming, and a good salesman, and I feel like I have those qualities. Though, I’m not much of a shyster; I don’t like conning people. The story is great in the sense of the love story that builds and the arc and journey he goes through.”
Lewis saw the movie as a kid and not only enjoyed the musical numbers, but was fascinated by the performance of Shirley Jones as Marian Paroo.
“She was Mrs. Partridge [of The Partridge Family] to me back then, and she just had such a wonderful voice, and really something about the entire cast just drew me to this movie, and I’ve watched it several times and listened to the cast album many times, and I always wanted to explore it,” he says. “I’ve been asked many times what my go-to show, and for me it was always Harry Hill in The Music Man.”
That’s why when Jeffrey Finn, who runs the Kennedy Center’s theatrical programming in Washington, D.C., told Lewis about the Kennedy Center’s new Broadway Center Stage series, and asked him what he would be interested in doing, Lewis was quick to agree to go on a visit to River City for the short, one-week production directed by Marc Bruni February 6–11.
“I have never done the role before and even though I am influenced by Robert Preston, I am going to try and not do what he did, though I know he is the benchmark to try and hit,” Lewis says. “I’m going to put my little spin on it and see how it goes.”
Lewis has been listening to the show’s music since September, and buckled down in December after the release of his own Christmas album.
“Especially with ‘Ya Got Trouble’, that song is a beast, so I’ve been getting it at least going round in my head,” he says.
Lewis is no stranger to difficult songs, and calls out some of Sondheim’s music and their rhythms as sticking at the center of his past challenges, but feels ‘Ya Got Trouble’ is a whole other thing.
“Before Lin-Manuel Miranda brought rap to Broadway, The Music Man already had it there and I had no idea the challenge we were going to be facing with this song,” Lewis says. “We just started [in mid-January] with the whole company doing scene work and dialogue and choreography, and we’re matching actions and words and someone to play off of, so it’s full steam ahead from here on in, and I think we’re going to be ready.”
The show boasts a heavyweight cast with Jessie Mueller playing Marian Paroo, Rosie O’Donnell as Mrs. Paroo, Tony Award nominee John Cariani as Marcellus Washburn, Tony Award nominee Veanne Cox as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, and Tony Award nominee and Drama Desk winner David Pittu as Charlie Cowell.
“I’m so excited to be working with Rosie and Jessie, and the whole cast is fantastic,” Lewis says. “I’m meeting some people for the first time and I have admired many of them peripherally.”
Also in the cast is 23-year-old Damon J. Gillespie, who starred as quarterback-turned-thespian Robbie Thorne in NBC’s musical drama Rise last year, and who has graced the Broadway stage in both Newsies and Aladdin. The young, rising star, who plays Tommy Djilas in the production, has learned a lot from just being around the veteran Lewis.
“I’ve obviously been a fan of Norm for a while, and I am watching him in action and just soaking in so much by what he does,” Gillespie says. “We were doing a scene yesterday, and there was something so small: He had me move downstage, so I wouldn’t be turning my back to the audience. He just has this sense. I don’t even need to ask him anything, I can just watch.”
Lewis has been impressed with Gillespie and many of the younger cast members and feels encouraged to know the landscape of Broadway is in good hands for the future.
Once Lewis takes his final bows in the show, he heads back to New York for Manhattan Concert Productions’ one-night special engagement of The Scarlet Pimpernel in concert. Then, he’ll head to Japan for a series of concerts in May with Mueller, Tony winner Gavin Creel, and Alex Newell.
With Harold Hill now scratched off his bucket list, Lewis would love to tackle Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady or Daddy Warbucks in Annie in the years ahead. But he’s open to almost anything that will take him back to Broadway.
“I would love to do another Broadway show, and maybe this will influence some producers to bring The Music Man back to Broadway—that would be really cool,” he says. “There are a lot of new things coming down the pipe, and I would love to explore some of these new characters people are writing about as well.”
Lewis knows some younger theatregoers will probably check out the show because of actors like Gillespie and feels even though The Music Man was written back in 1950, its message rings apropos for today.
“In the Bible in King Solomon, there’s a passage that keeps getting repeated: ‘Nothing is new under the sun’ and this is so true. Listening to some of these words and understanding where this character is coming from and seeing how he manipulates this city in this community is very similar to what is happening in today’s world,” Lewis says. “I’m using the influence of what I’m seeing around me politically as reference for this character. It’s serendipitous truly.”